Jumpin' Js Java has arguably the area's most adept blend of commerce and community. Located at 24th and Jefferson, a few insulating blocks off the Church Hill tourist trail, the café's Sunday jazz brunch is a model of neighborly sophistication.
The musical side is handled with offhand glamour by singer Carol Covell. "For some people we're background, for others we're the main event," she says. "It's all about what they bring to the room and what I have to give." She makes a point of talking to every customer, noting all birthdays and special events. She usually shows up on alternate weeks, when music is provided by the Acoustic Jazz Trio (George Pendleton, Jim Mohr and Davalo Muller).
The success of the Sunday sessions has resulted in owner Je Depew's inauguration of a new Thursday-night jam session, open to all players, held outside between 6 and 8 p.m. "It's a work in progress," says DePew, "but that's what jazz is all about."
Café Gutenberg, at 17th and Main in Shockoe Bottom, has established an identity as the smarter little brother of the mega-bookstore coffee shops. Appealing equally to regular readers of Le Monde and tattooed Mensa members, the shop holds frequent, varied musical performances ranging from dark Americana folk to world music jams to bluegrass. (Check the online calendar at www.cafegutenberg.com lest you blunder unwittingly into a Socratic debate or a poetry slam.)
17.5 Ethos Café, a half block down the street, caters to an alternative clientele. According to co-owner Jen Rawlings, in addition to regular Thursday night performances from singer/songwriter Kristin and twice-monthly meetings of the experimental sound collective 804noise, the shop will soon have its own house band tentatively named Barefoot Speakeasy led by clarinetist Timothy Grayson.
Charles Thompson of Blue Mountain Café and Coffee Bar (across from McDonalds in Carytown) uses bluegrass to bring in foot traffic. "Every Friday we feature Josh Bearman of Short Bus and Pete Frostic of Old School Freight Train," Thompson says. "Now that the summer is here, we're beginning to see a regular crowd. Based on that success, he is planning to expand the music to a summer series bringing together a collage of local musicians who just want someplace to play.
Last and least predictable are the sessions led by local NPR jazz host Peter Solomon on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream, a converted garage at the corner of Forest Hill and Semmes. The performances are improvisational in every respect. "We just show up and see what's going on," says Solomon. "We're just playing for coffee."
His understatement may be deceiving. Solomon's band, which shrinks or swells depending on the day, is augmented by some of the area's best musicians who sit in for a song or two. (Drummer Johnny Hott recently slammed out a show-stopping solo on a newspaper.) S
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