The Potomac River Jazz Club at 50 – The Syncopated Times


At first it was about “fun and games”. At least that’s what trombonist Al Webber would have reliably said when he spoke to Tom Nieman, a bandstand friend, about bringing people together to enjoy jazz.

It was the fall of 1970, a historically turbulent period “showcasing” the dividing Vietnam War, the hippies, the breakup of the Beatles. It was the Decade of the Self. People were talking about ‘going to the concert’ and ‘having fun’. They collected pet stones (full disclosure, this writer had some and they may still be in a hidden corner). Unfortunately, Louis passed away in 1971, was deeply mourned, but the music never stopped.

Traditional jazz was in the era of revival with legions of enthusiastic fans dancing in hotels, restaurants, festivals and evenings in the gardens.

Spurred on by super jazz fans Fred and Anna Wahler, Webber and pianist Niemann concocted a social group they dubbed The Potomac River Jazz Club where fans could come together to enjoy and support local bands. The co-conspirators were Kazooist John “Fat Cat McRee” (impresario of the Manassas Jazz Fest), trombonist Hal Farmer and washboarder / broadcaster George Mercer, each spitting out fifty dollars for stationery and the like. They included the Ragtime Band of Alexandria, ably named after the town in northern Virginia across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. Bratwursthaus in nearby Springfield, Va., Was the first venue for the group. Soon they moved to Arlington, Virginia where they thought they could attract a bigger crowd. And, most importantly, he was promoted by nighttime jazz DJ WMAL-AM Felix Grant. Original members Gary and Dolores Wilkinson called it “fun and exciting times,” reminiscent of the concerts and festivals they signed up for. The Wahlers regularly opened up their basements to bands, their favorite being Jim Ritter’s Buck Creek guys who quickly became a fixture on the festival circuit.

As the membership of the social club grew, they realized that it needed to be formalized, so they and six other pillars incorporated into the District of Columbia the following year and also became a 501 (C) 3 cultural organization. They had a newsletter, a logo and collected dues to cover expenses.

Fast forward 50 years and PRJC continues. Not with a peak of 1,800 members, but still with a loyal body of fans. Only a harsh and occasional winter has kept the club from maintaining a two-per-month event schedule for half a century.

To celebrate, the club is having a Golden Birthday Party on Sunday September 12 at the Rosensteel Knights of Columbus Hall in Silver Spring, MD. It will feature four groups (some “old” among the players) playing from 11 am to 6 pm, awards shows, silent auctions and awards to guest jazz personalities. (Details are on the website)

While its members no longer dance on tables like they once did (really!), PRJC continues to hope for a melodious future, other choruses to come from the great melodies that have revolutionized American music.

Joel Albert is a photographer, musician and super jazz fan. He regularly photographs and films events organized by the Potomac River Jazz Club. Find his videos on YouTube.

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