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D.C.'s Twin Jazz Club Closes After More Than Three Decades

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Twin sisters from Ethiopia opened a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that turned into a jazz club, attracting national acts. More than 30 years later, Twins Jazz is closing down, another small business victim of the pandemic. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Twins Jazz was never even supposed to have music.

KELLY TESFAYE: We didn't plan to open a jazz club in the beginning. We just want to open a restaurant.

LIMBONG: Kelly Tesfaye and her sister Maze just wanted to open an Ethiopian restaurant to bring a little bit of home to Washington, D.C. They found a dinky spot they could fix up that apparently used to host jazz shows. And when they turned on the lights, musicians came by looking to play, including the late trumpeter Bobby Sanchez.

K TESFAYE: And we have no idea what jazz was. We ask him, what is jazz?

LIMBONG: Sanchez showed them, taking care setting up the stage and sound and instruments and helped the sisters start what would become a 33-year-long run on the D.C. jazz scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL THOMAS QUINTET'S "MIKE'S BLUES")

LIMBONG: At a place like Twins, named for the twin sisters, young musicians could get their stage legs. Established artists like trumpeter Michael Thomas, who you're hearing now, could record albums. People from all across the Northeast came to Twins for its intimate vibe, which admittedly was sometimes a challenge.

MICHAEL BOWIE: I got my exercise. Let's put it that way.

LIMBONG: Michael Bowie plays upright bass. And though he had to lug his gear up a couple of tight flights of stairs and finagle his way through the crowd to get to the stage...

BOWIE: Knocking people upside the head when they're trying to eat their soup (laughter).

LIMBONG: ...The energy the space provided was unforgettable.

BOWIE: When you've got a small place like that and you've got everybody on the edge of their seats, there's nothing like that.

LIMBONG: The plan at the beginning of this year was for the Tesfaye twins to retire and hand off the business to their children. But as the pandemic stretched on, those plans became untenable. Kelly Tesfaye's daughter, Layla Nielsen, helped the twins file for any aid they could get from both local and federal governments.

LAYLA NEILSEN: We did it all. It just did not add up.

LIMBONG: And even as D.C. establishments loosened restrictions to open at 50% capacity, the twins are older and are particularly at risk for coronavirus. Nielsen blames the federal government for not managing the pandemic.

NEILSEN: Being that from the very top, there wasn't any true consideration for all the different layers this pandemic is going to affect, it all falls on the little guy.

LIMBONG: There's been some movement to help small clubs like Twins. The National Independent Venue Association has been lobbying Congress to support the Save Our Stages Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide grant funding for small venues. It's been gaining support, but for some places, it's already too late. And losing a place like Twins Jazz has already caused ripple effects across the already fragile jazz ecosystem, says bassist Michael Bowie.

BOWIE: There's very few places left that want to even take risks like that, like the twins did, you know, for decades, you know, because it doesn't make a lot of money.

LIMBONG: Of course, the twins didn't do it for the money but for a love of jazz that developed over time. Maze Tesfaye says she didn't understand the music at first. Then a jazz musician gave her some advice. Listen to one instrument at a time.

MAZE TESFAYE: Then you will get hooked to it. That was the real key for me to love it. After that, we just - we love the music, and we love the people.

LIMBONG: But as musicians keep losing places to play one by one, the opportunities to foster that love disappear. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL THOMAS QUINTET'S "MIKE'S BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.