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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.

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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.