Hidden Hangouts: Sotto

A place looking to bring back the golden age of jazz in Washington 


Fourth Estate/Peter Njoroge

I love jazz. I’m unashamed to say it. I like it more than hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, pop music, complex orchestral scores written by famous composers, food, The NYT Book Review Podcast, movies and people too. You name it, I like jazz more. 

But I don’t like Kenny G, I don’t like elevator music and I don’t like “La La Land.” Those things aren’t really a part of the lineage of what is at the heart of one of America’s only indigenous art forms. 

For me, jazz is about improvisation, spontaneity and social engagement, meaning that there is no substitution for going to see real working musicians apply their craft. Yes, just listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane while you do your homework isn’t enough. You have to hear it live.

In our area, finding a hip place to hear great jazz musicians can be tough. But at Sotto, a jazz club and restaurant on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., one can spend an evening listening to some of the tri-state’s best musicians play progressive music without breaking the bank in a really cool place.

One of the best things about Sotto is that the club is almost hidden in the middle of all the restaurants, bars and retail stores that make the 14th street strip a popular area for locals and tourists. Once you locate the brilliantly illuminated sign above the narrow entrance, you descend down a flight of stairs into what feels like a different era. 

The space is cozy and intimate and the dim lighting helps to maintain the cool atmosphere. All the way in the back of the club is the lit bandstand where the performers set up for their set. The music at Sotto is always high quality and on any given night, you can hear a wide range of music from mostly local and traveling musicians.

In addition to the great tunes, there is a wide range of food for patrons to enjoy while they listen to music and spend time with their friends. You can share a pizza with a group of people, eat a fancy Italian dinner with your significant other or grab a few snacks from the antipasti menu to munch on during the set. 

There is a performance nearly every night at Sotto, and sometimes musicians will perform two separate sets on the same evening. The prices are always more than fair and Fridays and Saturdays are always free and performers tend to play much later into the night on those days. Also, for this month, Sotto has $10 tickets every Thursday for their house band: The Joe Brotherton Quartet. Joe Brotherton is an incredible trumpet player and seeing his band is worth much more than the price of admission.

Just about everything in the club points back towards the giants of jazz history and the clubs they played at. The beverages, the ambiance, the bandstand and the service. With that in mind, don’t be surprised when you see a giant picture of legendary New Orleans saxophonist Sydney Bechet in the bathroom.

Another great thing about Sotto is that you are free to engage with the music as much or as little as you would like. While it’s very easy to tune into the music, the club isn’t a concert hall and people are free to eat and chat with each other however they’d like. 

Listening to music at Sotto is just about the closest thing that we have to the best clubs in New York or San Francisco and remind us that Washington, D.C. used to be one of the great American cities of jazz.