Arlington's Hottest Musicians
Meet the biggest names in local music, from rising stars and Grammy nominees to legends of blues, bluegrass and reggae.
It’s a Sunday night at Iota Club & Café in Clarendon, and Don Zientara has just taken the stage with his guitar under strings of tiny, white lights.
“I’m used to being on the other side of the glass,” says the sound engineer and founder of Arlington’s Inner Ear Recording Studios, giving his tuning peg a final turn. “We’ll see how things go.”
Things go just fine as he performs originals and a few covers for a close-knit crowd in what is something of a nexus for the Arlington music scene: Zientara, a local legend who has recorded and produced albums by hundreds of artists—from Fugazi and Bad Brains to Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl—performing at a club that has featured live music in the heart of Arlington for more than 20 years.
When Zientara launched Inner Ear in the early ’80s, Arlington was a sleepier suburb, dotted with independent record labels and counterculture musicians who didn’t seem to sleep much at all.
“Back then it was punk. Now it’s called DIY,” says local artist-photographer Cynthia Connolly, who made concert posters as one of the first employees of Dischord Records, the punk label founded by Minor Threat (and later Fugazi) front man Ian MacKaye and several bandmates, and headquartered in a burgundy bungalow in Lyon Park.
Connolly—who most recently served as Artisphere’s visual arts curator until the venue was scheduled to close in June—still remembers the empty lot in Clarendon that played host to indie music festivals before it became Whole Foods. She ticks off the names of cottage-industry record labels (Dischord, Teenbeat, Slowdime, Simple Machines, Arlingtone) along with the coordinates of group houses where garage bands once held brain-rattling house concerts.
“I rode my bike everywhere,” she says. “You’d just go out and see a show and then ride home.” (For more on Arlington’s punk house history, check out kansashouseproject.com.)
Today’s Arlington is a far different place—more diverse, more urbanized and more polished. It’s also more expensive, and the housing costs are hard for struggling artists to manage, Connolly says. But amid the office buildings in Rosslyn and the brick colonials of Madison Manor, music is still being made here.
If you were to take a bus tour of the local hot spots, Inner Ear Studios would still be on it. On a recent evening, Zientara was back on his side of the glass in his studio space on Four Mile Run, recording Lisa Said, a Rosslyn-based artist who performs what her friends call “dusty Americana.”
Nearby on Columbia Pike, The Salsa Room is ever humming with Latin jazz and conga beats. And it’s not only Latinos who frequent the place, says co-owner Franco Villarreal. Ten years ago, three-quarters of its patrons were Spanish-speaking, he says. “Now, that number is 25 percent.” The rest are a mix of Asians, Europeans and Americans obsessed with salsa and bachata, a type of music and dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.
Elsewhere during any given week you’re apt to find lunchtime acoustic jams in Rosslyn; open-mic nights at Busboys and Poets in Shirlington; live music at the Ballston and Mosaic District farmers markets; and shows at the independent record store CD Cellar (which has locations in Clarendon and Falls Church City)—not to mention a host of bars, clubs and restaurants (see page 53) that stage everything from Celtic quartets to garage bands made up of local dads with white-collar day jobs.
There are festivals, including the annual Rosslyn Jazz Festival in September, the Columbia Pike Blues Festival in June and the Tinner Hill Blues Festival (also June), which draws some 3,000 attendees to Falls Church annually, according to Nikki Graves Henderson, executive director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.
Less formal are the occasional impromptu parking-lot dance gatherings, which may or may not have been county permitted. “It’s a big thing with the refugee and immigrant communities,” observes Mary Briggs, who retired a few years ago as Arlington County’s director of cultural development programs and now lives in Pennsylvania.
Though they are fewer and farther between, you may still encounter the occasional house party—like the ones staged by David Holiday of Stone Room Concerts. Holiday started out organizing small concerts in his home, but has since expanded his venture into a nonprofit that also brings live music to area churches and to Bikenetic in Falls Church.
“The joke is that I married my wife for her basement,” says Holiday who, in recent months, has organized such diverse performances as Tuvan throat singers, folk musician BettySoo and a D.C. saxophone quartet.
Music in Northern Virginia “is very eclectic,” observes Jim Byers, director of marketing for Arlington Cultural Affairs, citing a talent base that includes Mongolian classical pianists, Latin percussionists and legends of bluegrass, blues, punk rock and reggae. “The history is still there,” Byers says. “I don’t believe those shadows ever go away.”
At the same time, new artists are still finding their places in the local landscape, notes Brian Lowit, who grew up in Falls Church and came back after college to be closer to the D.C.-Arlington music scene. He now serves as the label manager for Dischord Records and runs his own indie-punk label, Lovitt Records.
“It’s not the same as it was 10 years ago,” he says. “But nothing ever is.”
Calista Garcia’s lips often move during her morning walk to school at H-B Woodlawn. “Sometimes a jogger will go by and that’s when I realize I’ve just sung something really loudly,” says the young singer-songwriter.
A rising ninth-grader, Garcia hasn’t lived every song lyric she’s ever composed. For instance: “I haven’t had my heart broken,” she says. But there’s so much emotion in the genre she likes to call “romantic dribble”—so much potential for exploring characters and metaphors—that she can’t help mining it when she writes folk and rock songs.“I like to study human emotion,” explains the 14-year-old.
Garcia, who plays piano, guitar, harmonica, a little bass and a little mandolin, has been writing her own songs since she was 10. In that time, her music has grown in complexity and sophistication, just as she has.This year, she wrote the musical score and lyrics for her school’s production of Lizzy Strata, an adaptation of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.
“Her lyrics are wry and witty,” says H-B theater and film teacher Tom Mallan, who arrived one morning to find a batch of songs waiting for him and was struck by how much they sounded like professional pop songs. Garcia had written them over the weekend, enveloped by the show’s themes of protest and change.“She’s a creative machine,” he says.
Outside of school, Garcia performs with The Diamond Dolls, an all-girl band that started at McLean’s Bach to Rock music school and includes bass player Eliza Stuart from McLean and keyboardist Jenna Curry from South Riding (at press time, the search was on for a new drummer). Garcia, an Arlington resident, sings and plays lead guitar. The band hopes to release its first album this summer.
“[Calista] has a lot of talent and a lot of fire and a lot of passion,” says Mark Schenker, a Bach to Rock teacher (he’s also the bass player in the rock band Kix) who helped bring The Diamond Dolls together and works with Garcia on her songwriting.
“Ultimately, there’s no telling what direction she’ll go.”
Ivan Navas is best known in the salsa world as an acclaimed conga player, but drums were not his first instrument. When he was 13, the first-generation Salvadoran American joined the marching band at Alice Deal Middle School in D.C. to get out of French class. The band director only had a tenor sax available and Navas didn’t care what he played—so long as he could skip class.
Photo by Alejandro Navas
In retrospect, Navas says, he was seeking a greater escape from family troubles. “I grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father,” says the artist, 40, who lives in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood and holds a day job as a branch manager for SunTrust Bank in Ballston. “I needed an outlet from the turmoil of the house.”
Later, while attending Bell Multicultural High School in the District, he was taken under the wing of noted Latin-American percussionist Alfredo Mojica Sr., who was teaching at the school. At the time, Navas was listening mostly to hip-hop and R&B. Latin music didn’t have any appeal to him. “It sounded like a lot of clicks and clanks,” he says. “I didn’t get it.”
But it wasn’t long before, under Mojica’s patient tutelage, Navas learned to love and excel at Latin jazz. Expanding his horizons, he tried the congas, quickly learning how to evoke rhythms and melodies from the trio of standing drums. “Playing percussion gave me another voice,” he says, “because I was able to release my emotions in a physical way.”
At 16, Navas met salsa legend Tito Puente and Grammy Award-winning jazz flautist Nestor Torres at a music workshop. Jim Byers, who arranged the workshop and now works as the marketing director of Arlington Cultural Affairs (Byers also hosts the weekly “Latin Flavor Classic Edition” radio show on WPFW 89.3 FM), remembers meeting Navas that day. “He had this wonderful energy and maturity,” Byers says. “I thought he was one of the teachers.”
The next day, Torres asked Navas to sit in with an all-star lineup at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. It was an epiphany. “I realized music was a passport to the world,” says Navas, who went on to study percussion at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in New York City.
Since then, Navas has played at the Kennedy Center, Constitution Hall, Wolf Trap, the Pentagon and the White House, sharing the stage with some of the most well-known salsa stars of the modern era, including Cuban-American crooner Celia Cruz and Grammy Award-winning singer Luis Enrique.
Photo by Amanda Van Sandt
Amy Wilcox’s first big break wasn’t on the radio. It was on television, when the doe-eyed, blond showstopper landed a starring role in A&E’s 2014 reality series Crazy Hearts: Nashville, which followed a cadre of aspiring musicians as they sought to find fame in Music City.
The no-holds-barred docu-soap quickly thrust Wilcox, 28, into the spotlight as two songs from the show—the brokenhearted ballad “Best of Intentions” and the sassy honky-tonk hoedown “Hell on Heels”—earned strong exposure on country radio.
Soon Wilcox was gracing national magazine covers and headlining a gig at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.
And to think that it all started here in Arlington.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wilcox moved to Arlington’s Bellevue Forest neighborhood at age 4, growing up in a family that loved music and was fond of singing hymns, both at church (Cherrydale Baptist Church, and later, Mount Olivet United Methodist Church), and at home.
As a student at Yorktown High School, she fell hard for what she calls the “country divas”: the Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire and Jo Dee Messina. She started playing guitar during her junior year, although it was her soccer skills that took her to Nashville in 2005, when she landed a sports scholarship to Vanderbilt University.
Wilcox sang with a jazz ensemble and an a cappella group in college, but says music wasn’t a priority. That changed shortly before graduation when she suffered a knee injury playing soccer that would leave her bedridden and back in her childhood home for nearly five months.
While recuperating, she picked up her guitar and rediscovered her passion for music. Still on crutches, she convinced her mother, Angie, to drive her back to Nashville for the American Idol auditions. She made it to the third round.
After graduating and spending time in Atlanta, Wilcox moved back to Nashville, where she was ultimately discovered by the production company casting Crazy Hearts: Nashville. She’s remained there ever since the show ended early last year, determined to find stardom while penning songs, both on her own and with co-writers.
Sharing the creative process with another artist can be an emotionally fraught experience, she confides. “There’s an ongoing joke here that every writing session is like an awkward first date,” says Wilcox, who is currently recording material for a new EP, which she hopes to release this summer. “Some go really well, some crash and burn, some are just middle of the road.”
How did you end up in Northern Virginia?
Julian “Junior” Marvin, who has traveled all over the world, says he gets that question often. This morning he’s at the Village Sweet bakery in Westover, eating an orange scone after picking up his mail from a P.O. Box across the street. Though his job is nomadic, Marvin, 58, has called Virginia home for the past 14 years, ever since he and his wife, Emebet, who is from Ethiopia, moved to the area to be near its large Ethiopian community.
Even if you don’t know his name, chances are you’ve heard Marvin’s work. Those are his guitar licks on Exodus, the collection of songs by Bob Marley & the Wailers (including “Jamming,” and “Waiting in Vain”) named “Album of the Century” by Time magazine in 1999. As the band’s lead guitarist, Marvin toured and recorded with Marley for nearly five years until Marley’s death from cancer in 1981.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Marvin spent his formative years with his family in London, where he was exposed to jazz, Elvis, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, in addition to the music of his birthplace. His musical education began with the piano and a very strict great-aunt, who taught Marvin and his six siblings. “She had one of those long canes, you know, with the hook on the end? Every time we hit a wrong note: Bang.”
But as a teen, Marvin met Jimi Hendrix through friends in the English rock band Traffic. “I said, ‘Okay. That’s it. No more piano. I’m going to play guitar.’ ”
He took a morning paper route to earn the money and formed a band, practicing in a friend’s barbershop. Over the next few years, he joined other bands and dreamed of being part of the British invasion to America. He began recording—rock, blues and a little funk—and doing session work.
Then, one Valentine’s Day, he got a call from Stevie Wonder, who was seeking a new touring guitarist. That same day, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell told him to grab his guitar; there was someone he needed to meet. “We went to this big, seven-story house, and there was this guy with his back to me, and these big dreadlocks, and this big aura around his head,” Marvin recounts. “And I thought: It’s got to be Bob Marley. We played three songs together…each song was about 45 minutes long. After we finished playing, he said, ‘Welcome to the Wailers.’ ”
Marvin has been steeped in reggae ever since and continues to tour with his band, Junior Marvin's Wailers. He lived in Arlington for several years with blues musician Bobby Thompson after separating from his wife, but this spring moved to Alexandria where his daughter, Nilee, attends middle school. As a musician, “you can be anywhere as long as there’s an airport or a train station,” he says. “I’d rather bring up a kid in Virginia; they don’t grow up so fast here.” Most days, he says, they drive to school with One Direction crooning from the car stereo.
Chester Chandler’s life story reads like a blues song. He was born in Memphis, the second youngest in a family of 14. “A loaf of bread would go through our house quickly,” jokes the musician, now 60, who lives in Ballston and goes by the stage name Memphis Gold.
When he was just 4, Chandler picked up a guitar and started strumming. By the time he was 8, he was out busking blues tunes on Memphis’ famous Beale Street strip. “It’s really hard to get people to gather around you, listen to you and then give you money,” he says. “That’s why they call it paying your dues.”
After graduating from high school in 1973, he put his music on hold, spent time in the Navy and then worked for the U.S. Postal Service in a job he “hated.” In 1991, he set his sights on D.C., where he had been briefly stationed while in the service, and came to town with a one-way bus ticket and $100 in his pocket. The first year he was homeless and panhandled, he says, before he began doing yard work to earn money.
One day he passed the now-closed Sam’s Pawnbrokers on 14th Street NW in the District and saw a black-and-white Fender Stratocaster in the window. He walked in to inquire about the price of the guitar. It was $600. “I don’t have 6 cents in my pocket,” Chandler replied. Determined to have it, he spent five months working overtime, doing yard work, until he could purchase it.
By 1993, Chandler was re-equipped with his instrument of choice and formed a small blues band he dubbed Little KD King, double-timing as its guitarist and singer. He landed gigs at D.C.’s Vegas Lounge and the now-shuttered Tornado Alley in Silver Spring, and was the first live act ever to perform at Whitlow’s on Wilson in Clarendon. His sets were made up of cover songs, including B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” but he had bigger plans.
“The only way to make a name for yourself is to write your own music,” he says.
He began walking around with a cassette player (these days he uses his iPhone) so he could record ideas whenever inspiration struck. Usually, the lyrics came first, followed by the bass line. Songs poured out of him, inspired by the Delta blues traditions of Howlin’ Wolf and R.L. Burnside.
After self-releasing his eponymous debut album in 2002, Chandler signed on with Stackhouse Recording to record the follow-up Prodigal Son two years later. Fortuitously, his wife, Barbara, knew the talent booker for U.S.O. tours—a connection that sent Chandler to nearly 40 countries, where he entertained the troops alongside big-name talents such as James Brown, George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic All Stars, the Temptations and Robert Cray.
In early 2008, Chandler had a muscle spasm while trimming trees at work and fell more than 30 feet, breaking his back in three places. His doctors told him he might never perform again.
Unfazed, he wrote two albums’ worth of material, going on to release Gator Gon’ Bitechu! in 2009 and Pickin’ in High Cotton in 2011, both of which earned some of the best reviews of his career.
Currently, he is recording a new album, tentatively titled The Blues Is My DNA, which he hopes to have out this summer. “I’m going back to my roots on this one,” he says. “It’s sanctified Beale Street urban gutbucket blues.”
Jacob Hemphill, Bobby Lee and Ryan Berty were 14 and attending Yorktown High School in 1996 when they discovered Bob Marley. They were enthralled. From there, the three teens began growing dreadlocks and devouring every reggae record they could get their hands on. “He was singing about changing the world,” says Hemphill, who split his time between his father’s house in Westover and his mother’s near Tuckahoe Park. “Jamaican culture became our thing. It was all-consuming for us.”
Eventually, they formed a band and settled on the name Soldiers of Jah Army—a reference to the Rastafarian name for God. The name was later shortened to SOJA, while the band expanded to eight members. Soon, garage concerts gave way to gigs at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Whitlow’s on Wilson in Arlington and points farther south in Virginia and North Carolina.
In 1999, SOJA had the good fortune to meet Jim Fox, the engineer-producer behind D.C.’s Lion and Fox Recording Studios, who had overseen sessions by reggae superstars such as Inner Circle, Steel Pulse and Eek-A-Mouse. The band couldn’t afford his standard fee, but Fox liked their sound—which blends roots-reggae with elements of hip-hop and alt-rock—and agreed to record what would become 2000’s self-titled debut EP. It turned out to be a good fit. Almost two decades later, Fox is still their engineer.
A series of critically acclaimed albums followed, and in 2012, the band signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records to release its fourth full-length album, Strength to Survive, which rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s Reggae Album charts. The similarly chart-topping follow-up album, Amid the Noise and Haste, earned the group a 2015 Grammy nomination for “Best Reggae Album.” It includes guest spots by singer-songwriter Michael Franti and D.C. go-go singer Alfred The MC— as well as Damian Marley, the youngest son of Bob Marley.
“That was a dream come true,” Hemphill says of the collaboration with Marley. “The first time I met him, I did not play it cool. I was like, ‘Dude, you’re my hero.’ ”
This spring, the band set up a rehearsal studio in Hemphill’s Falls Church garage and began laying down ideas for its next album. “We wrote our first two records in garages, so we’re getting back to our roots,” says the front man. Keep an ear out for it in 2016.
Speedy Tolliver has slowed down a bit.
In the early 2000s, the local bluegrass legend was still performing several times a week in and around Arlington, but these days he’s content to pass the time socializing in Bluemont, his neighborhood for more than five decades. At 97, Tolliver performs in public only on occasion, though he insists he hasn’t lost his musical chops.
Born in 1918 in Green Cove, Virginia, a blue-collar hamlet at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that harbors a rich folk music tradition, Tolliver (whose given name is Odell Roy) never received formal training. His father played the harmonica and banjo, and he was exposed to hordes of amateur players who were well-versed in bluegrass, country and old-time music. Tolliver cut his teeth on the banjo, using his adept listening skills and a talent for mimicry to re-create songs and melodies by ear.
“I was a natural talent,” the nonagenarian explains in a Southern drawl.
By his late teens, the budding musician—who had earned the nickname “Speedy” not for the velocity with which he plucked strings, but as a tongue-in-cheek reference to his habit of sauntering about—was acquitting himself well in banjo competitions at the renowned White Top Folk Festival in Grayson County, Virginia. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the festival one year and made a point of shaking his hand.
But as the Great Depression set in, scratching out a living in Green Cove became more difficult, prompting Tolliver to consider his options. He flirted with the idea of going to California and made it as far as Cincinnati before heading back home. In 1939, he migrated north, along with thousands of other Virginians searching for work and a better life, landing in the Washington, D.C., area.
The influx of rural transplants in the early 1940s turned the nation’s capital into a haven of bluegrass music, and it didn’t take Tolliver long to make a name for himself. He formed the Lee Highway Boys with his friend John Stringer, transitioning to the fiddle and quickly demonstrating the same level of adroitness as he had on the banjo. The Lee Highway Boys performed at establishments like Hunter’s Lodge in Fairfax County—a rowdy roadhouse that stood on the site of what is now Costco Plaza—as well as at private parties and other social gatherings where folksy traditions like square dancing abounded.
Tolliver's ability to incorporate bluegrass stylizations and facets of old-time music—a mountain folk tradition that predates bluegrass—into single melodies or songs became a calling card, though, by the 1950s, he had put his music on hold, taken a job at a U.S. Navy munitions factory in Indian Head, Maryland, and started a family with his wife, Gala. Together they raised four children in Arlington. (Gala died in 2012 at the age of 93.)
Tolliver resumed playing in the 1960s when time allowed, and continued to garner accolades. He played with renowned country musician Roy Clark, and performed on the White House lawn for officials in the Carter administration. One gig took him to a Maryland nudist colony—the mention of which still brings a touch of crimson to his face, showing the Green Cove native retains a sense of small-town propriety.
While these accomplishments speak volumes, the defining aspect of Tolliver’s legacy is not his singular style, or his many brushes with celebrity, or even the fact that the now-defunct Speedy Tolliver Fiddler and Banjo Fest, which was held annually at Arlington’s Lubber Run Amphitheater for more than a decade, bore his name.
It’s a continued willingness to share his trade secrets with anyone who is willing to pick up an instrument. “Speedy is totally selfless and doesn’t consider himself aloof in any way,” says longtime friend and musical partner John Kaparakis. He just loves the music.