Where the artists are: Brightwood
Where does one begin a conversation about specific artist districts in Washington, D.C.? Alphabetical consolidation? Themed by size? Divided by context or content? I opt for a more manifesting, gradual approach, whereby we begin with a small, unassuming iteration of artists districts and move into larger, more cultivated districts. Thus, we begin in a small red brick house located along 16th Street NW in Brightwood, a small neighborhood in Takoma Park. There, the house stands, unmarked and replicated by the identical red brick houses lining this particular stretch of 16th Street.
Here Maureen Andary, a musician of many talents, resides, practices, plans, creates, composes, markets, and coexists alongside three other D.C. musicians. There is not much to set the house a part from any other multiple-occupancy dwelling, but a few rooms provide just the right cues of reminder: this is an artist house. Magic happens here.
First, the well-furnished living room has been semi-transformed into a gear room. Speakers, encased guitars, and music equipment are strewn across the entrance.
Second, promotional concert posters grace the living room wall. While I have known many an average person display concert posters in their communal living spaces, these particular posters hold a different meaning. They are promotional posters for Maureen’s band, The Sweater Set, as well as the multiple House Concerts that the Brightwood Musicians’ group house holds year round.
Finally, there is the basement—the musicians’ headquarters. One half of the basement is the studio and rehearsal space, where one of the housemates acts as sound engineer and where their respective bands, projects, and friends can come practice. (Apparently this part of the basement is also up for rent for any local musicians looking for a good rehearsal space in the District.) The other half of the basement is where the House Concerts take place. Almost 50 chairs are set up in front of a small performance area marked by numerous strands of Christmas lights and a single spotlight.
It is here that Maureen programs stellar out-of-town talent in her Potluck House Concert Series. Most of the booked talent are emerging artists as, “they’re the ones doing more of the experimental, fusion type stuff. Because I have found that the house concert scene tends to be an older person scene. So I’m trying to make it a little young.”
Apart from her Potluck series, Maureen is a guitar teacher, as well as a ukulele, flute, accordion, and kazoo aficionado. More than that, she is also a business woman. So while she plans her lessons and practices her acts in her bedroom, she always returns to the dining room area (or a local coffee shop) to attend to the business and promotion side of her living. “It’s not just about the art,” she says. “And I think if it was just about the art, I don’t think I would be teaching guitar and producing CDs, playing as many shows, or planning a tour.”
Maureen began the group housing in August of 2008, so it is a fairly new entity, and many of the musicians have only lived there for a few months. Her roommates include Jason, a fulltime sound engineer who also plays bass in a band; Adrian, a fulltime employee for Verizon who still manages to constantly go out and play music; and Brad, an A/V guy with a degree in sound tech and engineering, who is just now writing his first songs and playing his first shows.
The group dynamic of this unassuming, generally-unknown musicians’ house is quite melded, with the potential to snowball and accelerate into a solid entity. However, it is not necessarily a requirement for residents to have careers as musicians (especially since the house did not begin as a musical entity). Yet the members seem to thrive on the happenstance of its occurrence. The creative atmosphere is solely self-motivated and individually managed, but in just the few interactions I witnessed, I recognized a camaraderie and energy built upon the fact that each resident understands the business and appreciates the dialogue the house initiates.
While direct, scheduled ‘jam’ time rarely happens here, collaboration is still vibrant. Maureen explains: “If you really did look at what was here, it’s all music related. And I think that encourages music at all times. We constantly have guitars out. I love that I am around other musicians. We talk about the business of music all the time. One of my roommates is a fellow guitar teacher, and we talked for two hours the other night about teaching methods and how it influences us and how teaching fits into our creative lives. It was a really great conversation, and to me that is invaluable to have other people creating in the space and to relate to on that.”
Thus begins the conversation: what sort of impact does such a small enclave of musicians have on the creative vibrancy and fabric of Washington, D.C.? How is cultivated? Where is it successful? Why should we care about its continuation and its existence?
There is the obvious, that this space is an asset to the music community in D.C. That the conversations that happen around the coffee table extend into the businesses and outlets of the city: what works musically, which venues in D.C. are the best places to present, where good open mics occur, what successful career goals look like in the music business, or who the best fit is for an upcoming recording project. “We all have music in common, and we all have things that we admire about each other, and I really appreciate living with other artists for that reason,” Andary states.
This Brightwood example is a common example—there are probably multiple artist housing initiatives such as this all around town. But they are easily disregarded, when in reality, they are small businesses and constructs in their own right. It takes a communal, self-managing energy to keep such a space maintained and cultivated. It is easy to have a substantial amount of momentum in the beginning, only to eventually lack the structure to keep it going. For instance, the first year of in the Brightwood house was full of community music offerings: more parties, more jam sessions, more concerts. This past year, however, all of the musicians are out performing, too busy to make such commitments. Maybe this speaks to the success of the individuals in the house, but maybe it also speaks to the future potential of the house as a true underground landmark, cultivating incredible D.C. music talent.
Fortunately, there are people like Maureen Andary, an arts manager in her own right, to ensure the life of such a place. Unfortunately, there are such things as temporary leases to disintegrate such optimism. The Brightwood house may not last forever, but I'm thankful that I've known it while it is still around.
The next Potluck House Concert features Shotgun on September 21. Learn more about it and reserve a spot at the concert HERE!
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