Home profile: The house that music built

Home profile: The house that music built
The Japanese maple tree in front of the Ambroses' house was painted using the same yellow hue as the front door that gives their concert series its name. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Nestled at the end of a cul de sac, on a quiet street branching off of Taney Avenue in the West End is one of Alexandria’s most unique concert venues. It also happens to be Vaughn and Robyn Ambrose’s home.

What started as a one-off concert in May 2018 after another house show fell through has become a growing community centerpiece known as the Yellow Door Concert Series, named after the Ambroses’ bright yellow entryways. Vaughn, a saxophonist, and Robyn, a classical bassist, have transformed their home into an intimate jazz club that is as much about sparking conversations as it is about listening to music.

“We started the house concerts to bring our community together, to give [people] the opportunity to experience something in their own neighborhood that is unprecedented for the most part,” Robyn said. “That community and the ability to wrap our arms around those people in our home has been so fulfilling that we’ve outgrown our house. We can’t bring all the people in here anymore.”

Vaughn (center left) performs alongside other musicians during a Yellow Door Concert Series show. (Courtesy photo)

The Yellow Door Concert Series has grown steadily since 2018, moving from the Ambroses’ home and yard and eventually, once it began attracting upward of 60 people per show, to a nearby church. The success of these concerts is built not only on Vaughn and Robyn’s relationships with talented musicians but the opportunity for connection between neighbors and musicians that they provide.

Finding harmony

Vaughn and Robyn’s story has evolved naturally and heartwarmingly. Music is what united them as a couple and a family, but now, through the concerts, it is what allowed them to unite their community, especially during the pandemic when people were desperate to reconnect.

Vaughn purchased and moved into the house with his ex-wife in 2004 in order to get closer to the community he worked in at the time. Vaughn, while still a gigging musician, is a music teacher. He started working in Alexandria City Public Schools at Francis Hammond Middle School in 1999 but has since moved to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. Living in the community he worked in and served was another opportunity to further connect with his students, Vaughn said.

“Because of the relationships I’d developed with the families, I wanted to be in this neighborhood. Everybody was so cool, so supportive. It just really felt like home,” Vaughn said.

It was only after moving in that Vaughn realized music was built into the history of the home. The house was originally owned by the timpanist for the National Symphony Orchestra, and the person who Vaughn and his ex-wife bought the house from played in a rock band, in addition to working as an undercover cop in Washington D.C.

“From what we gather, every family that has lived in this house was tied to music in some way, shape or form,” Vaughn said.

At the time Vaughn and his ex-wife moved into the house, it was, like many of the houses in the neighborhood, a rancher with one floor. As the family grew, expanding the house became a necessity and, in 2008, Vaughn and his ex-wife added a second floor to the home.

While the structural bones of the home remain largely unchanged since then, Vaughn and Robyn have imbued the house with a completely different energy.

Robyn and Vaughn studied music together at East Carolina University and grew extremely close during those years. Although they went their separate ways after graduating and married their respective partners, Robyn admitted she had been in love with Vaughn ever since meeting him in college.

After divorcing her ex-husband, Robyn reached out to Vaughn, who had recently separated from his wife, after not having seen one another in 15 years. After chatting over Skype, the two reconnected and began a relationship. Robyn and her daughter, Ava, moved from Canada to Vaughn’s Alexandria home in 2013.

The Ambroses painted their front and side doors yellow to give them a visual “pop,” not knowing how vital the color would become for their home and neighborhood. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“For me, the experience was different because I knew that Vaughn had lived here with his former wife. So, moving in here was, ‘How do we make it ours?’” Robyn said. “That’s the key because I know for Vaughn, [the house] feels different. It looks different, but it feels different because that’s what love does.”

Robyn and Vaughn initially bonded over music during college, and that music helped to bring them closer together as they worked to figure out how to take a house full of the ghosts of a previous relationship and turn it into a home that could provide new memories.

“The thing that makes it a home for us is that music brought us together. If it weren’t music, we wouldn’t be sitting across from one another,” Vaughn said.

Joyful noise

Silence is a rarity in the Ambroses’ home. All four of Vaughn and Robyn’s kids play music – they have formed a family band that occasionally performs in the Yellow Door Concert Series – and it is not uncommon for someone to be banging out a melody on the piano or jamming out on the saxophone at any hour of the day.

“Our house is generally full of music. We listen to it in the morning, we listen to it with dinner – it’s odd that it’s quiet right now,” Robyn said.

The decor of the Ambroses’ house is also designed entirely around music. Jazz legends and titans of American popular culture surround the Ambrose family in the form of vibrant paintings and photographs that highlight the history of America’s Black musicians. These paintings not only reference some of their favorite musicians but serve as a tribute to the men and women who helped break down the barriers that would have prevented Vaughn and Robyn, a mixed race couple, from getting married in the first place.

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
Colorful paintings of artists like Billie Holiday and Charlie “Bird” Parker are placed throughout the Ambroses’ home.

“All our art is influenced by music or individuals who are important to us or individuals who are important to American culture and the story of diversity,” Vaughn said. “So, we have Emmett Till, we have Mohammed Ali, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker. All these people, without them fighting through these barriers, then our relationship wouldn’t be able to exist. These were the torchbearers who fought for equity, so we’re surrounded by all those things.”

Above the mantle in the sun-filled but relatively unfurnished front room is a large, framed photograph of the famous Great Day in Harlem. In 1958, photographer Art Kane brought together 57 of the most famous jazz musicians, from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonious Monk, for a photo opportunity in Harlem.

Vaughn and Robyn have also collected various musical instruments and artifacts to fill their home with a sense of play. The piano in the front room is a gift from the family of one of Vaughn’s former students. A pamphlet in the living room is an original print from jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker’s “Charlie Parker with Strings” project. On the stairway leading off the entryway to the second floor is a pair of wooden seats pulled from the guts of an old theater.

“We just have found things together and pieced together and created this kind of eclectic space but this space that feels like authentically us,” Robyn said.

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
The spiral staircase in the Ambroses’ living room leads to Vaughn’s music studio and the master bedroom.

Robyn’s Canadian roots are also laced throughout the home in the form of metal maple leaves and a small wooden coffee table her great grandfather made that still retains its original glass.

Outside of the vibe of the house, Vaughn and Robyn have transformed and changed some of the spaces in their house to work better for a family of six musicians. The second floor includes bedrooms for three of their children – their eldest son, James, lives in the basement – and the master bedroom.

Vaughn and Robyn, who works for W.W., formerly Weight Watchers and plays in the NIH Philharmonia, both have their own music studios as well. Robyn’s is on the first floor and functions as a work-from-home office, while Vaughn’s is on the second floor includes an entire wall covered in CDs.

“That’s a whole lot of education there. I could probably tell you every track on every CD and who’s on what CD,” Vaughn said.

The second floor studio is located adjacent to a wooden spiral staircase that leads to the living room, offering Vaughn’s students convenient access to his studio/ lesson space.

“As a kid, I always wanted a spiral staircase. Everybody watched ‘Different Strokes’ and they had one,” Vaughn said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Safe haven

The Yellow Door Concert Series has become the centerpiece of the Ambroses’ home and has completely changed how they think about their home in the context of their neighborhood and community.

The concerts, which feature the Ambroses as well as a rotating slate of musicians that Robyn and Vaughn have come to know through the local music scene, took part in the front room up until recently. The concerts are largely based around jazz music, but recent shows have expanded into tango, classical and Brazilian music.

The concerts even continued during the pandemic, albeit in a different form. When indoor concerts were not a possibility, Vaughn would take his saxophone and sit in the driveway, playing for his neighbors who sat on their lawns and in chairs sipping on wine and enjoying socially distanced company. The family also organized a few virtual concerts over Zoom using the recording equipment from Vaughn and Robyn’s studios.

Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
Vaughn’s music studio and lesson space is full of music history.

Since starting the concert series, Vaughn and Robyn have formed a youth ensemble and established an LLC to operate the concert series and book shows for the ensemble orchestra and other artists.

In a way, their house has become a safe haven for the community. The long-dead Japanese maple tree on their lawn, which Vaughn and Robyn painted the same shade of yellow as their doors, is not only an eye-catching piece of art but a “beacon” for free thinkers and music lovers in the West End and beyond.

“Yeah, we’re the house with the yellow tree, and it’s giving people this beacon, this safe space to go,” Robyn said. “We’ve hosted conversations in our community about what it’s like to be a person of color and a family of mixed race in our community. We had 50 people out in the cul de sac having open and honest conversations about what that feels like because most of our neighbors don’t know.”

Education, conversations and connection are the pillars on which the Ambroses have built their house, but the walls are built with music.

“It’s something that now people want to be a part of. Because music is the thing that brought us together, this house has allowed us to bring that beyond just the realm of our family, which is really, really cool,” Robyn said.