The Scene: Washington, D.C.’s Jazz Sanctuary

A weekly series at the Westminster Presbyterian Church offers world-class performances for a steal

Jazz Night at Westminster
Dick Smith (left) and Warren Wolf (on drums) face the Westminster crowd on a recent Jazz Night (photo: Lawrence Randall)

At the corner of 4th and I Streets in southwest Washington, D.C. is the welcoming, leafy-green walkway to the Westminster Presbyterian Church. This is Friday, Jazz Night at Westminster, and as usual the scene promises world-class jazz from 6 to 9 p.m. for the princely sum of $5. Downstairs the pots are also on—fried whiting, salmon cakes, baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, assorted veggies and sides—as revelers belly up to the counter. Spirits are always high as the mature, multicultural, but predominantly black audience, leavened with more than a few seniors, settles in for three of the swingingest weekly three hours D.C. has to offer.

Upstairs, the affable Dick Smith, former Washington NFLer and erstwhile blues singer, steps up to introduce the evening’s set. The full house of more than 350 people is beyond ready as Smith introduces tonight’s leader, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and his luminous crew of DMV regulars: pianist Mark G. Meadows, bassist Zack Pride, drummer Quincy Phillips, and vocalist Imani Grace Cooper. Blues and swing bathed in deep improvisation are the order of the day, reflecting a sensibility that’s been consistent for the last two decades, ever since Smith and Rev. Brian Hamilton were brought together by parishioner and jazz lover Dr. Louise Taylor.

Hamilton had come to Westminster with his wife/co-pastor Ruth 23 years ago from Philadelphia, where he had experience mounting jazz vespers services. Smith, along with fellow footballer Earl Banks, had helped spearhead Lettumplay, a grassroots community training ground for young D.C. musicians; alums include drummer Winard Harper and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Smith and Banks were seeking new jazz presenting opportunities when they were introduced to the relatively new pastors.

When the Hamiltons first got to Westminster, “we talked about doing a jazz program of sorts. I had been involved in promoting jazz in church environments, but never like this,” the reverend explained in his office just off the dining hall. “With this we tried to just get out of the way and let the spirit take over and work with people as spirit will.”

At Wolf’s performance, the spirit has indeed taken over, as the audience in the sanctuary moves and reacts to the band’s impassioned throwdown. “Friday is an important time,” Hamilton said. “I believe our culture has shifted to where Friday night is like the new Sabbath, where people can kind of exhale. For us jazz is straight ahead, with all of the elements of the swing tradition, with the experimentation of bebop and hard bop, and always with the blues.

“As a faith community concerned about inclusion, diversity, and social justice, our African American members wanted to know when we were going to get around to engaging in the conversation about the African American experience and reality,” he added, “and jazz is one of those perfect places to have that conversation because it’s just infused with that heritage.”

WESTMINSTER FACTS

  • Westminster Presbyterian Church is located at 400 I St. SW, Washington, DC 20024; phone (202) 484-7700
  • The $5 entry fee is good for three hours of music (dinner is extra)
  • Jazz Night has been running every Friday for two decades; recent installments have included tributes to Shirley Horn and Jelly Roll Morton
  • Go to westminsterdc.org/jazz.html for schedule

Willard Jenkins

Willard Jenkins has covered jazz artists, performances, and the jazz infrastructure since his early-’70s undergrad days writing for The Black Watch student newspaper at Kent State University. Additionally, he has been a jazz broadcaster since 1973— currently programming at WPFW in Washington, D.C.—and a jazz concerts and festivals presenter since 1978. He currently serves as artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival and artistic director of jazz programming at Tribeca Performing Arts Center (NYC). A founding member of the Jazz Journalists Association, he is also a recipient of its Lifetime Achievement award.