At 85, a D.C. jazzman is still boppin’
Blue notes may no longer pour out of the clubs onto U Street, but on Sunday nights, you can find them spilling, inexplicably, from an old Irish inn steps from the C&O Canal.
This is where, on a recent misty evening, Ted Efantis has come to blow.
Efantis, a tenor saxophonist, is one of Washington’s well-known living jazzmen, mostly because he has been a fixture in its clubs and at its jam sessions for the better part of 70 years. With his penchant for suit jackets and his still impossibly thick mane of ash-white hair (slicked back just enough to reveal the hearing aids he wears), Efantis is a walking throwback to another Washington era — the heyday of jazz.
“Ted’s part of a generation of musicians that really made Washington a jazz center for the generation coming up in the ’40s and ’50s,” says Rusty Hassan, who has hosted jazz radio programs in Washington since the 1960s. “They come out of a real rich tradition.”
This is why, on this night, drummer Brooks Tegler, another local stalwart who has held this regular gig at the Irish Inn for years, will make room for Efantis’s drop-in appearance and oblige the snaking, joyful noise that for a half-hour will rise above every note and shuffling drumbeat that his trio will muster.
A poster announcing an appearance by Efantis at the old Brickskeller in Washington. By 16, Efantis was playing with jazz groups all around town. (Courtesy of Ted Efantis)
What Efantis lacks in size — he’s lost an inch of his already compact 5-foot-6-inch frame over the years, he will confess — he seems to supplement with personality. At 85, with horn in hand, Efantis is young again. An unabashed flirt. A hepcat.
This is Ted’s charm, says Scott Bullock, a jazz fan who has become one of Efantis’s closest friends and champions. “He’s one of these guys, when he comes into a place, you know the place is going to start swinging.”
Efantis is not one of Washington’s most legendary players (that title goes to the likes of Duke Ellington and singer Shirley Horn). Nor is he the most enduring: There’s a bug that seems to bite plenty of jazzmen that won’t let them resign themselves to day jobs and coaching Little League games.
Rather, Efantis and others like him are the embodiment of a truth: that jazz never stopped kicking in this town, that its memory is still boppin’ around in the heads of a handful of elder statesmen.
That’s reason enough to celebrate him, explains Bullock, who on Thursday night will belatedly mark Efantis’s 85th birthday — it was on Christmas Eve — with a come-as-you-are jam session at Bohemian Caverns on U Street NW. It’s the same club where, more than 60 years ago, in 1951, Efantis observed his 21st birthday the way only a jazz musician would: with a gig. (His parents and sister managed to crash the show, however, for birthday cake and photos.)
In the years since, Efantis, a native Washingtonian, has seen jazz and the city transform around him.
Efantis caught the jazz bug at 15, when he received his first saxophone; by 16, he says, he was playing in jazz groups, trading know-how with young hipsters from rival high schools. His first gig at Bohemian Caverns, also known for a time as Crystal Caverns, was in 1951, by which point the young man with the dark hair and Greek features had his own dapper quintet.
Efantis, center, and members of his Ted Efantis Quintet at the Bohemian Caverns in 1951. (Courtesy of Ted Efantis)
Back then, he recalls, jazz players learned by listening to the masters. “If you wanted to learn jazz, you [had to] have some heroes,” he recalls. “And then you find out where you’re coming from, what your sound wants to be. ”
He wanted to be a star, and by the mid-1950s, he’d left Washington to pursue his dream. He went to Los Angeles for a time with a singer girlfriend, Jane Fielding, a beauty with whom he would record the album “Embers Glow.” Fielding, he says, asked for an engagement ring. He bought her a hi-fi stereo. And that was that.
“I always felt that what I needed was a good jazz singer who was a Catholic,” Efantis says with a laugh. “Well, I met one, but we weren’t in love.”
It was when he went on a trip to his father’s native Greece some years later that he met Angela, a Greek girl who wasn’t much into music. Nevertheless, a month before he was due to leave, he married her.
This is where his story begins to differ from those of so many jazz musicians who spent their lives on the road. When he returned with his wife, they set about having a family; they had their first child in 1961, and then had four more.
Meanwhile, jazz had been replaced on the airwaves by a hip-shaking, sneering pretty boy from Tennessee and then a mop-top foursome from Liverpool. At weddings, where a quartet might find an honest day’s work, setting the mood became a DJ’s duty. “Oh boy, jazz took a back seat,” Efantis recalls. For the first time, he says, “There was not enough work to depend on the music. I was a musician and singer, and suddenly I didn’t have a gig.”
So he sold aluminum siding door-to-door. He was a manager at a hardware store. Then, with his brood still growing, he applied for a job selling advertising for The Washington Post. He got it and stayed for two decades, the excellent retirement plan — he retired in 1987 — being the biggest selling point for the family-minded musician.
The story of the slow death of D.C. jazz has been told and retold, usually as some combination of cautionary tale and call to arms. But players within the local jazz scene will tell you: Rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
At the Irish Inn, that message blares as plainly as Efantis’s sax.
Even as the clubs and the gigs have dried up around him, Efantis — and scores of others — will still find a place to blow. “I’ve been a professional musician since I was 16 years old,” he says. “I never intended to stop playing, and I don’t intend now.”
When his time is up, he mops his brow and flits off to greet friends who have come out to see him. He enjoys this limelight, enough, perhaps, to get in a little more tonight.
“I’m thinking of swinging over to Columbia Station,” he says, referring to the Adams Morgan tavern where he’s known to turn up late at night to play a few songs with his pals.
And why not? The night is still young.