Will Ben’s Next Door Serve Jelly Roll?

Will Ben's Next Door Serve Jelly Roll?
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton performed on U Street 20 years too early to get a chili dog at Ben’s

Washington, DC’s late-night culinary institution, Ben’s Chili Bowl,  celebrated its 50th anniversary this week. The Ali family, owners of Ben’s, will be opening a second establishment next door, at 1211 U Street, NW, called (as of this writing) Ben’s Next Door, where patrons will be able to buy beer and salads as well as cheese fries, half smokes, chili dogs, and burgers. NotionsCapital respectfully suggests putting “jelly roll” pastry on the menu, in honor of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.

U Street NW was Washington’s “Black Broadway” long before Ben Ali served his first chili dog. The Lincoln Theater and Lincoln Colonnade night club were at 1215; the theater, now a “theatre,” survives. The Chili Bowl itself (1213 U Street NW) was previously a nickelodeon theater and pool hall, and 1211 next door was a nightclub, variously called the Blue Moon, the Music Box, and the Jungle Inn. From 1936 until 1938 the night club, soon to be Ben’s Next door, was the musical home of jazz pianist, composer, vocalist, performer, and all-around character “Jelly Roll” Morton.

Mr. Morton was a partner as well as performer and bouncer at the 1211 U Street club. His presence in Washington allowed young Alan Lomax, affiliated with the Library of Congress, the opportunity to record Mr. Morton’s music and reminiscences. Alan Lomax recorded Ferdinand Morton in the Coolidge Auditorium, temple of chamber music, whose regular patrons, unlike those of the Jungle Inn, would have been aghast at the bawdy lyrics of Mr. Morton’s songs and stories.

The “hot” jazz of Jelly Roll Morton is now a specialized taste, and regional aficionados are to be found in the Potomac River Jazz Club and listening to Rob Bamberger’s Saturday night broadcasts on WAMU-FM. Ben’s (founded 1958) is from the era of early R and B and Rock and Roll.  Ben’s Next Door will merge the classic Ben’s menu with more contemporary items; perhaps the soundtrack there will merge the old and new R&B, too.

But if the music of Ferdinand Morton is out of place at Ben’s Next Door, perhaps the Ali family can serve the dessert that echoes the metaphorical nom de jazz of the legendary Ferdinand Morton: jelly roll. Mr. Morton’s nickname meant something else in the slang of the times but, to paraphrase jazz critic Sigmund Freud, sometimes a jelly roll is just a jelly roll and a chili dog is just a chili dog.

 Will Ben's Next Door Serve Jelly Roll?

Top image by Mike Licht (chili dog, diet Coke).
Bottom image: Doctor Jazz

9 Responses to “Will Ben’s Next Door Serve Jelly Roll?”

  1. Prince Of Petworth » Blog Archive » What’s The Jelly Roll Morton and Ben’s Chili Bowl Connection? Says:

    […] A reader writes with a link to NotionsCapital: […]

  2. Chris Chambers Says:

    I respectfully demurr. Ben’s family is just pimping themselves to the gentrification monster and the developers. U Street shouldn’t become a mini-Time Square.

  3. Randall G. Says:

    Cool ideal..and then Hot Jazz tie in…I was wondering if the Jelly Roll would show up there. Then it would be a pastry place.

  4. Mike Licht Says:

    Chris Chambers: The Alis may be riding the gentrification monster, but they didn’t put hanging plants and a martini bar in the original weenie joint, they opened the failed Songhai Restaurant as “Ben’s Next Door.” In Times Square or DC’s pathetic Chinatown, a space like that would become a Fuddrucker’s.

    The gentrification monster has developed a sly tactic. After it displaces families, it pays for bronze plaques and commemorative signs that glorify the history of the people it displaced. That is good for property values but doesn’t help the people who are gone.

    The Alis are still cookin’ on U Street.

  5. Mike Licht Says:

    UPDATEMetrocurean serves up this tasty tidbit: 1211 U Street NW was also the site of the Casbah.

  6. Seth Kibel (The Alexandria Kleztet) Says:

    A splendid idea to honor the legacy of Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe!

    Legend has it that he coined his own nickname while working the black vaudeville circuit. The comedian who was on stage immediately before him introduced himself as “Sweet Papa Cream Puff, right out of the baker shop.” So Morton introduced himself as “Papa Jelly Roll, with stove pipes in my hips and all the women in town dyin’ to turn my damper down.”

  7. Mike Licht Says:

    Only Seth Kibel would know the birth name of “Jelly Roll” Morton!

  8. A Hint of Spice to Come — Ben’s Next Door « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] hopes the search for the perfect jellroll has not added to the delay. The Alis want to carry the confection to commemorate the fact that […]

  9. Ben’s Chili Buzz: A First Look Inside ‘Next Door’ with Photos « Capital Spice Says:

    […] a nod to the building’s history – and in direct response to Mike Licht’s query over at NotionsCapital – they’re working with the folks who bake the cakes sold at Ben’s to see if they can […]

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