Of all the venues to witness blues and jazz for an evening in DC, Westminster Presbyterian Church may be the most unique. Twice a week, blues and jazz veterans wail on their instruments for a packed house over three hours. The stage room is modern, the lights are low and the crowd listens, but never stays put. People dance in the aisles, in the back of the room and near the stage.
It may be a unique venue for a jazz performance, but Westminster has made a long-standing tradition of both community outreach and of live jazz and blues nights for the DC community—and not just for parishioners.
From the Westminster Presbyterian website: “Jazz is the great American art form–America’s classical music. It has been the soundtrack to our 20th century struggles for freedom, justice and wholeness as a nation and as distinct communities.… Jazz is creative.… It values individuality within the context of intentional harmony.… Responding to the expressions of our brothers and sisters, our own pronouncements have power, significance and a sense of urgency. Jazz and Jazz Night [are] a metaphor for a community’s struggle for meaning, unity and purposeful expression of love.”
Westminster was chartered in Southwest DC back in 1853, when slaves and laborers were working on the Capitol’s dome. Southwest DC was called Tiber Island then, and it was made up of the working class and of immigrants—what was considered the “fringe of the city.” From the start, the church served “those on the margins.” The congregation helped freed slaves, housed homeless families, started a ministry for people with HIV/AIDS early during the epidemic and brought jazz to the sanctuary when it was still considered profane in my churches.
Over the years the church was rebuilt a few times, moving from 7th Street to the current site on 4th and I Streets SW. The current, modern building was built in the mid 1960s as a result of the federal government’s first wave of urban renewal, which broke up the congregation and sent many African American members to the suburbs. After many decades of hardship, the congregation shrinking to just over a dozen and growing to the hundreds, Westminster grew its brand through events like Friday Jazz Night.
These days, both jazz and blues nights (Friday and Monday, respectively) draw music-lovers from all over DC. Tickets are five dollars and the band breaks for an à la carte dinner of mostly southern dishes, like roasted chicken, whiting fish, pork chops, salad, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and black eyed peas, from SW Catering Company.
Doors open at 5:00pm and food is available from 5:30pm-8:30pm. Parking is available in the church lot or on the street.