The rock walls of the Old Dirty Basement under J&J’s Pizza in Denton shuddered on Saturday night as the Dallas-based band Triangulum warmed up with some spacey tunes. “I’ve always wanted to play here,” says band member Cody McPhail. “It’s legendary.”
This would be the first and last time he’d have a chance to play under the creaking floorboards of Denton’s famous pizza house. Although J&J’s is doing just fine and owners Jaime and Jessie Ham will continue to sling pizzas, the Old Dirty Basement saw its final show over the weekend.
“It is with great sadness and (more than a little) frustration, that the beloved basement venue is closing its doors,” Jessie Ham wrote on J&J’s Facebook page on August 6. “Despite months of heated negotiations with the building’s owner, Jaime Ham (J&J’s owner) has lost access to the basement portion of J&J’s Pizza.”
Before announcing the closure, Jaime had been in talks with the landlord about renovating the basement, but J&J’s landlord decided to turn the basement into another business instead. “What was meant to serve as the last show before the newly renovated basement opened, will now be the final show to take place in that hallowed underground space,” Jessie’s announcement stated.
The venue has been a low-key sanctuary for local and touring bands for more than 15 years. Losing it is a blow to Denton music, which lost two other major music venues earlier this year, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios and Hailey’s Club.
The Old Dirty Basement, in particular, was known for its rough edges and anything-goes vibe. It's name is a play off of the late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Russell Tyrone Jones’ stage name, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. For many touring bands it was the last stop on the way out of Texas and for many local bands it was the first place they got a chance to play in front of a live audience.
“The basement has always been for the community,” says Jessie, who was the venue's primary booker. “My main thing was letting the kids play, the under 18- and under 21-year-olds. It didn’t really matter if they were young.”
J&J’s never charged a cover fee, although some of the bands did. The venue didn’t pay the bands, but provided free pizza and as much Schlitz beer as the band members wanted. Musicians came from all over to pay their respects on the basement’s final weekend. Beth Van Allen worked at J&J’s off and on for eight years, and she came by to relive some basement memories.
“All these people, they’re like my second family,” says Van Allen, who once played in a band called Tha Bracelets. “Pretty much anyone who worked here for any amount of time played here all the time. It’s the funnest place to play because you don’t have to deal with anything. Also, never-ending Schlitz.”
John Wesley Coleman, who grew up in Irving, drove up from Austin to headline the weekend and reminisce. He introduced Triangulum to a room full of musicians and young people. The basement was dark, save for a string of lights down the middle and a couple of dim lights at the back of the room. Many in the audience closed their eyes while the band played, nodding their heads and tapping their toes to the beat.
Coleman sat in the corner with his shades on, having “wicked sweet dreams,” as he told the audience between acts. Denton’s own singer-songwriters Amanda Newton and Chris Flemmons also shook the basement walls one last time.
Coleman worked at J&J’s for a minute, but mostly he played there, starting in the early 2000s. Later in the night he told some of his favorite memories, like the time when the sound system broke so he sat on counter at the upstairs bar and jammed while an audience gathered in the restaurant.
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“I sat right here with a microphone,” he says, slapping his palms down on the countertop.
“Oh yeah, I remember you did that,” Van Allen says, laughing. “I did something similar once. The sound went out and I sat on the bar downstairs. That’s what we mean; you could pretty much do whatever you want here.”
That’s the part Jaime and Jessie Ham are the most upset about losing.
“I just loved that people had a place to play,” Jessie says. “Now that that’s gone, I just hope that those kids find another place.”