Gary Oelze, founder and operator of The Birchmere in northern Virginia, has died at 80 years of age.
Initially a restaurant in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington, Gary added music in the evenings when he became the manager in 1966, fresh out of the military. Bluegrass was quite popular in the DC area at that time, and the club made much of his early reputation with bluegrass.
Oelze was a musician as well, and played guitar in the first band that ever performed at The Birchmere.
The club moved twice over its tenure, from Shirlington to a spot on Mt. Vernon Avenue when the original location was set to be torn down, and then to another a couple of blocks away on Mt Vernon in 1997, where it is now situated, to allow for more attendees at shows.
While The Birchmere was never an exclusively bluegrass venue, it was always a major part of their offerings, and became a regular home to The Seldom Scene, from their early days on to the present. Their regular Thursday night shows ran for 20 years, bringing in a mix of locals and tourists week after week.
From the start, Gary insisted that the performers be treated with dignity and respect, and both he and the staff would respectfully ask patrons to please keep conversation to a minimum while artists were on stage. It became an extremely popular listening room for discriminating music lovers in the capitol region, as he insisted that whoever was booked at the club was of the highest caliber.
In the earliest days, Gary did it all: ran the sound, announced the acts, booked the bands, and held court behind the bar.
He wrote a book in 2021 with Stephen Moore, All Roads Lead To The Birchmere – America’s Legendary Music Hall, that tells the full story of the evolution of this institution. Gary was also interviewed last year for the Bluegrass Stories podcast, which can be heard online.
Gary always gave a lot of the credit for the wide variety of entertainment to Michael Jaworek, who helped with booking.
In the intervening 56 years, most every bluegrass, folk, acoustic, or alt-folk artist of note has played The Birchmere. In more recent years, nearly every type of music has been heard there, including country, rock, and jazz. Everyone who ever played there recognized Gary Oelze as an advocate for the musicians.
No information has been released about his cause of death, nor about funeral arrangements.
R.I.P., Gary Oelze.