Some believe a church is not the place for classical jazz performances, but the Rev. Brian Hamilton is not one of them.
Hamilton has co-pastored Westminster Presbyterian Church in southwest Washington, D.C. with his wife, the Rev. Ruth Hamilton, since 1996. When they arrived, he had been involved with jazz vespers and wanted an ongoing jazz ministry for “community organizing and cultural development.”
In March 1998, he contacted Richard “Dick” Smith and Earl Banks, both well-known in jazz circles, and a series of concerts was born. An initial six concerts with a $5 entry fee began in January 1999. At first, they had a difficult time drawing an audience.
“Thirty-two people attended the first and second Fridays,” Hamilton recalled in a recent interview. “Word of mouth and WPFW Radio brought 100 people to the third.”
Jazz Night in Southwest, as the weekly concerts are now called, now draw a filled-to-capacity audience most Friday nights from 6-9 p.m. Lovers of straight-ahead jazz gather to hear the region’s best jazz composers and musicians, most of them African American. On Jan. 17, fans of Jazz Night were on hand to celebrate the event’s 15th anniversary with a program themed “Jammin’ with our Heritage Makers.”
Patrons and organizers sing the praises of the concerts and the venue.
“Westminster is the perfect venue…because this music touches the soul,” said Smith, the host who can sometimes be coaxed into singing.
Hamilton credits Smith “for being a great inspiration to him with his commitment to preserving straight-ahead jazz,” a much-loved form of music. In 1987, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a House resolution which designated the music “a rare and valuable national American treasure” and urged its preservation and promulgation.
If the regulars at Jazz Night are any indication, straight-ahead jazz is popular in the D.C. area. Musicians scheduled to play show up. There have been only two cancellations in 15 years. The predominantly Black regulars, many of them older, rarely miss a show.
“The regulars have an organic connection to jazz, deeper than other places where I’ve lived,” Hamilton said. “They grew up nurtured on straight-ahead jazz in venues such as the original Howard Theater.”
Regulars said the shows offer good fun at a reasonable price. Admission is $5 for adults; children 16 and under are admitted free and welcome. Young musicians are encouraged to attend to keep classic jazz alive.
“For $5.00, you cannot beat this level of entertainment,” said Lonna Hooks.
On some Fridays, there is also tap dancing, poetry and special guest vocalists. Between sets and at the end of the shows, performers sell their music, pose for photos, and eat and interact with the audience. Fish dinners are served in the fellowship hall, where the live performance can be viewed.
Bassist Wes Biles compares Jazz Night to “repast after Sunday service.” Many of the musicians claim it is one of the best gigs around because of what drummer and trumpeter D’Andre Howard called “mutual respect” between musicians and the audience.
Ted Martin, a former chef and a regular attendee, praised the food and atmosphere. As a former special events coordinator for Jazz Times Magazine, he said it is apropos that the church draws a large crowd for the shows.
“Jazz is God’s music and [it] belongs in church,” he said.