Jamal Gray (Photo by Ja'mon Jackson)
Jamal Gray (Photo by Ja'mon Jackson)

It’s Sunday afternoon, and the rooftop deck and bar are packed with an eclectic crowd of adults, diverse in age, gender, and fashion sensibilities. When the band Nag Champa, fronted by Jamal Gray, begins to play they are all at least momentarily united and attentive.

It’s clear that some appear startled by the mix of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and R&B produced by the eight-piece band of young black men on stage, while others that are more aware dance or bob their heads as they lounge on the furniture inside and out.

Gray isn’t just a member of Nag Champa, he is also the director of The Uptown Art House, formerly a Cleveland Park-based artist workshop, warehouse, and event space. It operated for over 18 months in 2017 and 2018 as temporary storage for The People’s Climate March, where Gray said he started as the music coordinator, while also assisting with media relations.

“It was my first time working on a big project like that, especially a march with people from all different states. It was a national group of artists and organizers that came together in Cleveland Park, of all places,” said Gray. “I worked on both the organizing team and the art team and the physical space we used to create this expansive artwork for the march itself, which ended up bringing around 200,000 people to the National Mall here in Washington, D.C.”

Gray worked for over a decade as a curator and performer in various art-related collectives beginning with his production of Hip Hop shows on U street and at The Everlasting Life Cafe under ‘The Carryout’ moniker. He produced more experimental artistic expressions with his groups ‘Sleepwalking Cult’ and ‘Computer Club’ at performing art venues such as The Dunes, Union Arts and Capital Fringe.

After the march, The People’s Climate March team met with Gray and other local organizers to take suggestions on what to do with the remaining part of the lease on 6,500 square feet of unrenovated store-front space they rented. The New York-based organizers agreed to house a DIY art space and suggested naming it The Uptown Art House.

Initially, Gray expressed reservations. “Well, this ain’t really the uptown that I know being from Northwest, D.C. This is Cleveland Park, but you know the Uptown Theater is down the street, and the place was called The Uptown Tap House, so it was literally just a flip,” he said.

With the space secured, things started moving quickly. Left behind in The Art House from the march were thousands of dollars worth of paint, canvases, pens, paper and other art-making supplies that would have been discarded or donated.

Gray put out what was basically an open create call for interested artists to participate in the project. “in May we took over the keys, and my first day there I was like, what the f— are we going to do?” he recalled.

One of the first to respond was a writer and now The Uptown Art House public relations specialist Maxwell Young. They had previously met at various events and connected via Young’s coverage on his art and culture website Intheroughstyle.com. Other first responders included a slew of visual artists who immediately began painting murals on the walls, and shortly after that musicians and dancers followed.

Quickly a scene Gray and Young compare to Andy Warhol’s The Factory emerged. “Like, Jamal is the glue to so many people and The Art House became the glue to so many communities,” Young said.

The DC DIY art scene took notice and with the help of grants, partnerships, and periodic paying events, the one month sublet turned into a month by month rental agreement that lasted 18 months. The group also began to take shape. “The team began to solidify itself just by the people that were dedicated enough to come through and be concerned with the maintenance of the space,” Gray said.

Young has watched the group swell to 20 members sharing a common focus on visual and performing arts and business management.

However, the property owner always made it clear, directly or indirectly by periodically dropping by accompanied with potential long-term lessees, that The Uptown Art House’s stay in Cleveland Park was only temporary. As a result, they began developing partnerships with the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage, and ultimately signing a partnership with the Eaton hotel in downtown D.C. on 12th & K Streets, N.W.

“From early on I knew the space was limited, and our time there was limited, as well,” said Gray. “What this really is about is the connections we are building.”

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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