WASHINGTON – If Jam ‘n' JD weren't a street musician,he'd be an ad guy.
A master of demography,the formidable flutist flourishes on tremolos,trills,jazzy melodies and syncopated signatures,but he'll perform marches,lullabies,hip-hop grooves or otherwise,as long as it means getting some green from anyone who passes the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History,his frequent playing perch of 20 years.
“Some of these people think I'm some kind of hustler,” he says. “But I'm just trying to sell myself like everyone else. This is my means of survival. I put my son through school with this flute.”
Stroller-strapped tots smile as “Twinkle,Twinkle Little Star” fills their ears. A Beatles fan wearing a Beatles tie pays a buck to hear a Beatles tune. The Air Force fight song elicits a pleased glance from even the most straitlaced airman. A group of urban high schoolers dances (“Yo,I like that song!”) while JD flutes a dead-on rendition of Outkast's “So Fresh,So Clean.”
“I got tips from all over the world,” he says. “I got a song for everybody.”
JD – given name Jentry McCombs,born in the District in 1957 – has a mutable persona,too. Depending on the song he's playing or the direction of his hat bill,he could be Chuck D,Kenny G or Master P at a given moment.
When necessary,he keeps it PG. But like any ad guy,JD believes that sex sells,so he often subjects women he deems worthy – which is most women – to sultry serenades.
“You know what I thrive on? When I see a beautiful woman,” he says. Some women he selects – younger,older,black,white,Hispanic – respond to his displays with bashful smiles. Some respond with indignant brush-offs or furious retorts.
There's a fine line between sweet and sleazy. Sometimes JD crosses it,but he'd never know,even after his “baby”-ridden cat calls cause discomfort or mortification.
“I'm not into that kind of music,” says one woman in brisk retreat,clearly feeling harassed. “My husband works here.”
JD,in defense,says,“I just wanted her to buy a copy of my CD.”
Another woman,a svelte brunette sporting tall boots and trendy apparel,withholds from JD any morsel of interest,even after he yells to her and her camera-toting friend,“Hey,I should take a picture of both of y'all together.”
Curiously,he tends not to get money from any of them,suggesting a desire for an alternative payoff. He insists that women love the attention.
But he acknowledges that not everyone does. There are the passers-by who pretend their peripheral vision is defunct and their necks are immovable. Eyes steady,they ignore the boisterous man playing Van Morrison's “Moondance” to the rhythm of a gait that mimics theirs. There are the parents who shoo their intrigued children along,wary of the large man trying to teach them how to march to “Yankee Doodle.”
“There's a myth that if you're a street performer,you're homeless or a drug addict,” says Kevin Lee,a comedian who sometimes juggles bulky objects down the block. “I had one kid come up to me and say,‘You don't look homeless.'”
Then there are the police.
The Code of Federal Regulations prohibits “commercial vending and soliciting of all kinds” on federal property,which includes the Smithsonian. Though JD performs there daily,he says,he's not actually allowed to perform there at all.
After he finishes lamenting a recent instance of repression (“I had a cop tell me he was going to take my flute and melt it into sheet metal.”) and explains the risk of keeping a tip jar in the open,two U.S. Park Police officers – probably alerted to his presence by the sound of his flute – ominously approach as JD hustles,futilely,to hide his tips.
“That's two days in a row,” says the first,a short,stern woman. “You talked to me yesterday; we were on horses. Next time,we take the flute. Remember my face.”
“You see us again,you're locked up,got it?” says the other,a mustached man. “Six months at least in prison. I'm going to hold the flute for evidence.”
They told JD they'd taken a drum from his crony Fred down the street already.
The officers refused to give their names,quickly leaving the scene.
“I don't want to be a part of your story,” the first says. “It's illegal. Look it up.”
Similar situations happen elsewhere in D.C. Musicians – who can play on non-federal property,but aren't allowed within 15 feet of Metro property – provide ambience for bustling professionals and tourists,but sometimes they,too,cross the line.
Clarice Karter,59,a violinist who plays at several stations,was ticketed recently for playing at Pentagon City,across the river in Northern Virginia. Though she's never been arrested,she knows performers who have. Zacheus Maggett Jr.,52,of Baltimore,who plays saxophone at Farragut North,was arrested a year ago.
Lee says both the rules and the people are too uptight here. In New York,performers and the subway are inseparable,like rhythm and music. In Venice Beach,where Lee used to live,the best showmen could make $1,000 a day. “They're driving Benzes,” he says. “You'd be juggling and all of a sudden you'd have a crowd around you.”
JD says he can make up to $100 an hour on a good day near the Smithsonian,but he has to play for longer on slow days,which are many.
Lee,who eluded the police this day by being in his car when they made their rounds,agrees with JD's complaints.
“I'm a model citizen,” JD protests.
Well,he plays a mean flute,anyway.