Premieres on MPT: Monday, February 25th at 9pm
For nearly half a century, The Bayou lived as no Washington, D.C., music hall before or since. Cast in the shadow of a freeway overpass and square to the gritty Georgetown waterfront, the brick-and-stone marvel showcased the titans of rock ' n roll and Dixieland jazz, launched such unknowns as U2, bade a poignant goodbye to beloved chanteuse Eva Cassidy and engendered a mischievous, rollicking air that transcended the decades.
Now, four filmmakers have completed a full-length documentary that chronicles the pulse-stirring riffs, the offstage anecdotes, the gaudy high jinks and the inimitable musical allure of The Bayou (1953-1998).
Without narration, The Bayou: DC's Killer Joint seamlessly threads interviews, music and graphics to stitch the club's colorful history. Two years after a 1951 gangland slaying shuttered a club at the same address, three local businessmen had a chance meeting at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Virginia and agreed to buy the property. Mike Munley, a trombone-playing huckster, leant fledgling partners Vince and Tony Tramonte $5,000 apiece and birthed The Bayou in 1953 as a scarcely polished Dixieland jazz club and restaurant.
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Instantly profitable, The Bayou lured jazz icons Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman. But the club's back rooms rang discordant notes, and, within a year, Munley sued the Tramontes to dissolve the partnership. With that, the brothers became sole proprietors and contracted impish cornetist Wild Bill Whelan and his Dixie Six to serve as house band.
Whelan pared flamboyant horn work with outrageous antics, drawing prominent jazz figures nationwide to sit in and untold celebrities to taste the salty fare. John and Ted Kennedy saw shows there, LBJ, and matinee idol Gary Cooper "before he had his facelift," Tony Tramonte imparts.
Dressed in a pirate-ship motif, The Bayou sported cages large enough for shimmying go-go dancers, and eventually spellbinding vixen Julie Gibson. The Tramontes hired the exotic dancer to stem a loss of patronage, for a while successfully. But the British rock wave had become a cultural tsunami that transformed pop music, and suddenly The Bayou was awash in the new sound.
Joe Rinaldi, a jazz clarinetist and club manager, accompanied the Tramontes to an Ocean City nightclub, heard the Telstars playing this electrified music called rock 'n roll and booked the foursome to a two-week gig. The band stayed three years and certified the owners' desperate plunge into unknown waters.
In 1970, Carl Anderson and the Second Eagle Band performed a composite of Jesus Christ Superstar, with heavenly results: The exposure landed Anderson the role of Judas both in the stage play and movie.
Three years later, a scarcely known band named Kiss sent a seismic jolt through the Bayou, critic Richard Harrington saying his ears buzzed for a week thereafter. Foreigner, in 1978, was even greener for its club debut. Theretofore a fledgling studio group, band members needed footprint decals showing the way from dressing room to stage.
The teenage tramp band the Runaways, led by Joan Jett, barely made it on stage at all. Scheduled for two shows, they arrived so late that club manager Allen Klein crammed 700 people into the 500-limit club for a single performance. An appearance by British up-and-comers Dire Straits produced a different challenge: Led by virtuosic guitarist Mark Knopfler, the band played so well and so long that the club teetered on violating its 2 a.m. liquor curfew. Thinking fast, manager Klein told the 500 patrons that the band could play beyond 2 provided all drinks were removed. Within moments, motorcycle gang members – long a Bayou scourge – were clearing drinks as requested.
Across the years, The Bayou kept the beat with these anything-goes antics. Lighting technician Tim Pace showed his wizardry by creating the Nuclear Diode Band, a group of gyrating, strumming, stage-moving robots he'd built from NASA-surplus parts. His R2D2 creation was so close to the Star Wars character that Peter Frampton asked pace whether the tron could deliver his guitar before a show at Madison Square Garden. Star Wars creator George Lucas caught wind of it and slapped Pace with a cease-and-desist order regarding R2D2's future appearances. Pace complied, then built a replica of the Star Trek shuttlecraft.
Why were Mickey Mantle and Robert Plant thrown out of the club? What exactly went on beneath The Bayou stage (even during performances)? How does one properly garnish a rat sandwich? Tune in and see.
In 1980, the Tramontes sold the club to rival Cellar Door, headed by Jack Boyle and Dave Williams, for $500,000. For years, it flourished: During the second set of a Robbin Thompson show, Bruce Springsteen unexpectedly took the stage and turned The Bayou crowd atwitter. And in December 1980, an altogether unknown rock band from Ireland opened for local punkers The Slickee Boys. "We got to hang out with them backstage," Slickees singer Mark Noone says, "and I couldn't understand a word those guys were saying." It was his first exposure to Bono and U2.
Billy Joel recorded live Bayou cuts for his LP Songs in the Attic, and the club continued to jump-start relative unknowns toward relative fame: Hootie and the Blowfish, Blues Traveler, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band. But those breakthroughs failed to sustain the club's earning power by the mid-1990s, leading Boyle and Williams to ponder alternatives.
Meantime, the club hosted a benefit concert for Eva Cassidy, a local guitar-playing singer who'd danced with commercial acclaim just as darkness loomed. In 1996, wracked with cancer and using a walker, she made her final performance at The Bayou, singing Red Top with go-go godfather Chuck Brown and soloing on It's a Wonderful World. The moving footage from that Bayou tribute has never aired - until now.
In 1998, Cellar Door sold the club to SFX Entertainment. The Bayou held its final show Dec. 31, 1998, and bowed to a wrecking ball the following June. More than a decade later, it echoes still.
written by the producers of The Bayou: DC's Killer Joint, Metro Teleproductions, Inc.