James Jay Schmidt, a popular bartender for more than 25 years at several D.C. nightclubs, including Tracks and Nation, died of natural causes in September in his Dupont Circle area apartment. He was 67.
Schmidt, who was gay, was among the most well-known and liked bartenders at Tracks from the time the club opened at 1111 First Street, S.E., in 1984 until it closed its doors in 1999, according to his longtime friend and fellow Tracks bartender Patrick Little.
“As a bartender Jay always greeted his customers with a smile and a handshake,” Little wrote in a Facebook page associated with a planned Tracks reunion party in April. “He was a very old school bartender and always remembered your drink.”
Little said scores of customers got to know Schmidt each week as he worked at the bar closest to the entrance of the sprawling club that operated in a renovated warehouse. As it transitioned from a mostly gay club to a mixed clientele on different nights, with a Gothic and “industrial” music crowd, Schmidt’s relaxed and friendly demeanor made him popular with all of the club’s varied customers, Little said.
“In a sea of 2,000 people – the bar is totally busy – and on a Saturday night you walk up to Jay’s bar and there is your tequila sunrise, the same thing you ordered six months ago the last time you came in,” said Little.
“And he remembered you, shook your hand, looked you in the face. He said, hey, how are you doing and really cared. That’s the kind of man he was.”
Marty Chernoff, the owner and founder of Tracks, called Schmidt “an absolutely wonderful person” and dedicated employee.
“It’s so sad,” he said of Schmidt’s passing. “He was loved by so many people.”
Little and Schmidt’s sister, Trudie Wetherall, said Schmidt had a number of interests outside his bartending work. Classical music, pipe organs and books about history and music were among his passions, the two said.
He was born in Abington, Pa., and raised in nearby Pottstown, Pa., according to Wetherall. She said he graduated from The Hill Prep School in Pottstown and graduated in 1967 from Duke University.
Wetherall said Schmidt took an interest in his family’s Scottish ancestry, including the family’s belief that he was a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Pennsylvania whose parents came to colonial America from Scotland.
“He sometimes wore a Scottish kilt and did Scottish country dancing,” said Wetherall. “He was very proud of his Scottish heritage.”
In keeping with his love for organs and organ music, shortly after graduating from college, Schmidt landed a job with the Moller Organ Company, which was nationally known for building and maintaining church pipe organs throughout the country. Wetherall said he moved to New York City to work at one of the company’s facilities that built and tuned pipe organs for some of the city’s most famous churches.
“He ascended in that business working in sales and ultimately as a hands-on tuner at a few pipe organs in large churches in Manhattan,” Little said.
Little said he met Schmidt after Schmidt moved to D.C. and began working as a bartender at Tracks at the time Tracks first opened in 1984. When Tracks closed its doors in 1999 to make way for a new office building, Schmidt continued his bartending at the nearby nightclub Nation, which featured the popular gay dance party known as Velvet Nation.
When Nation closed in 2006, Schmidt tended bar at D.C.’s Club Five until 2008 and “was last seen behind the bar at an alternative dance party called Revolution until 2011,” according to Little.
Little said he and others organizing the Tracks reunion party plan to hold a memorial gathering in Schmidt’s honor during the weekend of April 26-28, when several events related to the reunion take place. He said details of the memorial would be released soon.
Wetherall said she is planning a family memorial for Schmidt sometime in the spring at a location near her home in Monkton, Md., and would announce details of that gathering in the near future.