21@ 21 Gessford Court – It’s All in the Beat
Local Capitol Hill jazz band unites musicians with neighbors at monthly ‘21st at 21’ gatherings
21 Gessford Court is more than the address of David Weiner’s art-filled home, nestled away in a colorful alleyway courtyard off 11th St. SE. It’s also the name of a lively local jazz band, as well as the venue for that band’s performances, held on the 21st of every month.
And, as word of this monthly musical jam session continues to spread, 21 Gessford Court is becoming the destination for more and more musicians – both amateur and professional – as well as their followers and neighbors from around Capitol Hill.
Take the most recent Saturday, Sept. 21, gathering as an example. Approximately 50-60 people showed up, most with bottles of wine and potluck dinner contributions in hand (Weiner or a volunteer chef make an entrée – chili, lasagna, roast chicken – to give the meal a start). For a $10 cover charge, they rocked the night away while mingling with a rotating mix of musicians and singers who took turns jamming together on the open, two-story performance floor with guests listening from the balcony above.
“The monthly 21st at 21 events and Sunday evening practice sessions give local musicians a chance to engage in their passion in a relaxed, informal setting. And neighbors and friends love getting together to talk, eat and listen to the music,” said Weiner, adding that “the 21st gatherings have continued on without missing a beat” even when he has been away for extended periods on work-related projects.
The band 21 Gessford Court officially got its start four years ago under the auspices of the nearby Corner Store, a nonprofit arts center that regularly showcases the work of actors, playwrights, musicians, filmmakers, artists, poets and chefs (see www.cornerstorearts.org). Weiner serves on its board. But the band’s origins trace back much farther than that, to the late 1990’s when a group of neighbors who met walking their dogs in Lincoln Park and their musician friends on the Hill began gathering regularly around the living-room grand piano of original band member Gordon Tenney.
Among Gordon’s earliest recruits were his old college buddy, Hill East resident Mark Johnson, a singer-songwriter and style guitarist; his next-door neighbor and former partner Audrey Taucher, a percussionist; and his former Hill yoga instructor Kamakshi Hart, a singer.
Weiner and neighbor Brad Cooper soon joined in on drums and bass, respectively, and the group rotated their near-weekly jam sessions to include Cooper’s house and Weiner’s 21 Gessford Court residence, where they would typically spend their Sunday evenings sipping wine, playing jazz standards and soaking in the hot tub afterwards.
The band quickly developed a local following and they soon found themselves getting booked for actual paying engagements, including weddings, gallery openings, parties, and, most notably, gigs at the former Park Café on Lincoln Park, where they performed July 4 weekend 2002 under the sponsorship of the restaurant’s owner Alcione Vinet, and engaged in a lively jam session that formed the basis of their “21 Gessford Court: Live at the Park Café CD.”
But the initial momentum of the original band was cut short, first by the departure of Taucher, then Tenney, for a year-long round-the-world trek, and relocations to Florida and California by Cooper and Hart, respectively. Weiner was spending much of his time working in Africa, and the band, at least in its first iteration, went mostly dormant for several years.
21 @ 21 Re-emerges
Weiner never had any intention of his home becoming a regular performance venue, although he had always wanted to “create a salon-like setting, where such gatherings could take place.” Following a home expansion and remodeling, he was intrigued by the idea of providing a walk-in venue to any neighbors or friends who wanted to join him in on Sunday evening jam sessions.
Fast forward to 2013: The three original members – Weiner, Tenney and Johnson -- still remain and have since been joined by other musicians in the neighborhood, several of whom have become regulars while others rotate in and out, depending on their schedules.
Among those who regularly jam with the band these days are Ann Eilers (vocalist) bass Cecil Conley (bass), Jeff Clair (guitar), Carl Lacey (percussion), Charles Whalen (trumpet), Jan Zastrow (vocalist) and Weiner’s lifelong friend Roberto Hoffman (self-described “jack-of-all-musical-trades” who regularly fills in wherever needed on bass and keyboard).
Most of the current players also have formally studied music and several play or have played professionally.
For example, one frequent guest player has been well-known pianist, composer and arranger Peggy Stern, who recently moved to Austin, Texas, but who will be back in DC performing at the Corner Store on Oct. 18. Stern, who has performed professionally worldwide, and most recently in Washington at Blues Alley, first learned of the 21 Gessford Court jam sessions while walking her dog in Lincoln Park.
Another player who discovered the band literally accidentally is Wayne Estrada, an accomplished jazz and lead trumpet and flugelhorn player, who stopped to chat with saxophonist Karlton Sloane after hearing live music as he was walking by. And it wasn’t long before Wayne and his wife, Jeannie, a former professional singer in Hollywood, like several others in the neighborhood, were regulars who attended just for the sheer joy of engaging in their passion.
At times even entire bands, such as the neighborhood’s Native Makers, featuring New York Times Deputy Bureau Chief Carl Hulse on the drums, and Johnson’s and Tenney’s longtime pal Pat Burns, on bass, among other players, have joined in.
“We do this as a lark; it’s all for fun, with a very open, fluid group dynamic,” said Weiner. “I’m not a very good musician,” he added, self-deprecatingly, “but I get a chance to play with some really good, first-rate musicians.” And, best of all, “Is that we get to partake in a great community gathering that echoes the ‘Just do it!’ spirit of Corner Store creator Kris Swanson, who helps make it all possible.”