Jazz Night Reopens at D.C.’s Westminster

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Carr Keys performs with vocalist Christie Dashiell.

(Photo: Leroy Armstead)

“Ladies and gentlemen, good evening!”

Five unremarkable words in most circumstances, they earned a jubilant standing ovation from a packed house on this night in Southwest Washington, D.C. It was Friday, July 16 — and after nearly a year-and-a-half of silence, Jazz Night in D.C. was back.

The packed house in question wasn’t a theater or club. Instead, jazz lovers filled the 300-seat sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church, a smallish congregation that has served D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront neighborhood for almost 170 years. The greeter was Dick Smith, a vocalist and onetime member of the Washington Football team who has for 22 of those years served as Jazz Night’s executive director and curator.

As he spoke, Carr Keys, a D.C.-based hard-bop quintet, sat back with their instruments and listened, ready to start the first tune at Smith’s signal. Then tenor saxophonist Paul Carr counted off and the band (alto saxophonist Marshall Keys, pianist Allyn Johnson, bassist Michael Bowie and drummer Quincy Phillips) sprinted into a soulful take on Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine.” The audience soon became a wave of head bobs and body sways.

Since its launch in January 1999, the weekly Friday night music program — which also includes a fish-fry buffet in the church’s basement — has become not just a mainstay of the capital’s jazz scene, but the center of a community in its own right. That community — much of it elderly and African American — has throughout the COVID lockdowns been starving for live, straightahead jazz.

As importantly, however, they were starving for each other. Before and after the band performed, the sanctuary was alive with hugs, handshakes, laughter and raucous conversation.

“The energy in the room was just great,” said Carr, a few days after Jazz Night’s reopening. “It was out of this world.”

“People were just so happy to be together; they were so fired up!” Smith agreed. “They had found out that social distancing was not gonna work for them! We need some intimacy, man.”

It was in that spirit that Smith and Westminster pastor Brian Hamilton created Jazz Night in 1999. A once tight-knit African American enclave in Southwest had been devastated by urban renewal projects in the quadrant; Hamilton and Smith saw that gentrification was threatening what remained. They wanted to preserve the Black cultural traditions that had held the community together, and jazz — in the traditional, straightahead, blues and hard swing sense — encapsulated those traditions.

“Jazz, the way we’re trying to do it, represents a period of time and a quality of life that we’re losing. And we’ve got to take it seriously,” Hamilton said.

While it also attracted jazz fans from across the District, Jazz Night at Westminster remained at its core a hyperlocal institution. Most of its regulars lived within walking distance, many of them older and less affluent. And when the pandemic forced Westminster to hit pause on the jazz, those regulars longed for its return.

“We were getting calls every day, asking when we were gonna start again,” said Hamilton. “Invariably, these calls were from 90-year-old folk who really had no business asking that question at all. But it shows how important this thing is to them, how much a part of their life it has become.”

While D.C. officially reopened on June 11, Westminster waited. They wanted to make sure that everyone who worked Jazz Night, from the musicians to the ushers to the caterers, was vaccinated and comfortable in a crowd. Ditto for the audience — the communal spirit would not work with only 20 people in the house. “The musicians are great,” Smith said, “But it’s the audience that really makes the thing happen.”

Full as the audience was at the reopening, Hamilton and Smith noted the absence of many regulars. Some still weren’t ready to end social distancing; others hadn’t survived the 16-month absence. After the band’s second set, Hamilton held up a large bowl of holy water and asked spectators to say the names of those they’d lost. “There were a lot of names,” he said.

Even so, the dominant mood of the evening was of celebration. Carr Keys had been chosen because its co-leaders were both stalwarts of the D.C. jazz scene — representatives of its continuity — and their saxophones electrified the crowd. So did Christie Dashiell, a beloved area vocalist who sat in with the band for a few songs, her first post-COVID D.C. performance.

“It just filled me up in a way that I’ve missed so much,” she said. “It really felt like I was coming back to sing in front of family.”

It was a widespread sentiment, one best summarized by Hamilton’s two-word address to the audience after the first set: “Welcome home.” DB



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