eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Online video project keeps memory of Iota alive

With his left heel tapping a Navajo rug, and his right hand strumming a Gibson, Dan Magnolia is performing for a future audience of hundreds. But today, it’s just for a smartphone camera in a small D.C. apartment.

Magnolia, a singer-songwriter and open mic host, is part of The Iota Chair, an oral history project on Facebook with musicians who frequented Iota Club & Cafe, an Arlington music venue that closed last year amid redevelopment negotiations that would have raised the rent and forced a temporary move.

The project is the brainchild of Rachel Levitin, a D.C. musician with a journalism background, who purchased a chair from the storied site at its post-closing yard sale. Initially, she planned to merely place the chair in the corner of her apartment as a conversation piece. But at her housewarming party a couple weeks later, she realized her new digs could also double as a performance space—with the chair as a set piece.

For many NoVA musicians, Iota was legendary, a spot for budding performers to grab five minutes of the spotlight and network, and an early step for major artists such as Norah Jones, John Mayer and the band Dawes. The loss of such a treasured space—open for nearly a quarter century—was quite a blow to the local music community.

“A lot of people went there during tougher times in their life, during a stormy weather kind of period,” Levitin says, a running theme she has observed in interviews thus far.

“Their life wasn’t a mess, it wasn’t terrible, but they were going through something.” A few years after losing her father, also a musician, Levitin found friendship and catharsis on Iota’s stage.

As the project roster approaches 20 performers, Levitin is considering next steps. A book of compiled interviews is a possibility but Levitin says she’s even more enthusiastic about a live anniversary show, presented as a sort of “late-night talk show” of interviews interspersed with performances.

Both Magnolia and Levitin were on site during Iota’s final night.

“It was packed, and all the performances—no matter what songs they were playing—it had this sort of weight, this sort of gravity to it,” Magnolia says.

Long after the doors closed, musicians continued jamming on the street out front.


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