D.C. Church a Haven for Jazz Disciples

For nearly 20 years, the Rev. Brian Hamilton has led a somewhat unorthodox service at his church in southwest D.C.: an evening of improvisational music known as “Friday Night Jazz.”

Though this special night may not be well-known throughout the city, D.C.’s “jazz heads,” or folks who support the traditional jazz music, are very familiar with the event.

The weekly affair occurs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church at the corner of the 400 block of I Street. According to a 2009 Washington Post article, that same neighborhood was once predominately black, until federal urban renewal activities forced out many black residents and businesses as new structures were erected in the late 1960s.

Hamilton, who is assisted by wife and fellow minister Ruth, said he intentionally hires only D.C.-area bands and musicians.

“You’ll never hear bands that are touring nationally who may want to make a stop here, while on the road,” he said. “No, you must be from the local area. After all, sometimes this is the only gig they may get during the month. Why let the out-of-towners take over the gig? No way.”

Hamilton said his church, which sponsors a similar event for blues music on Mondays, is very active and continues to serve in a traditional manner each Sunday morning, though he admits the service style is somewhat avant-garde compared with some Presbyterian congregations.

First-time visitors Rebecca Wood and A.J. Wright take in a live set during the weekly "Friday Night Jazz" event at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in southwest D.C. on Oct. 27. (Timothy Cox/The Washington Informer)
First-time visitors Rebecca Wood and A.J. Wright take in a live set during the weekly “Friday Night Jazz” event at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in southwest D.C. on Oct. 27. (Timothy Cox/The Washington Informer)

To complement the live music, the church also sells fried chicken and fish dinners with soul food sides.

On Oct. 27, a quintet led by pianist Bill Washburn played two sets dedicated to the late Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswartera, a British-born writer known as the “Jazz Baroness” who was a patron of such luminaries as Theolonious Monk and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.

Though the event is primarily patronized by an older generation, two young white professionals made it their business to visit the Oct. 27 show.

A.J. Wright, 21, a pianist and budding bandleader from Reston, Va., said he heard about the event through friends, and invited Rebecca Wood, an Orem, Utah, native, out for the evening.

Wood, an intern for a D.C.-based Mormon international painter, said she appreciates jazz music and enjoys oil painting to the sounds of big-band jazz.

“I appreciate how the band works as at team, but they give each musician a chance to ‘talk’ on their own,” said Wood, a Brigham Young University sophomore who temporarily resides in Ashburn, Va. “That’s what’s so lovely about jazz.”

Wright, who attends NOVA Community College, said he also enjoys jazz, but is in the process of forming a more contemporary-pop unit near his Northern Virginia home.

One regular a bit more reflective of the event’s usual audience is Toby Burke, 66, a black man from Birmingham, Ala., who has been coming to the Westminster since 2003.

The retired government worker said he enjoys the style of jazz being presented, as well as host Dick Smith’s influence on the room.

“I’m an avid straight-ahead jazz fan, and this is the place in D.C. where you can hear it on a regular basis,” Burke said.

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