To understand something about jazz in Washington, D.C., requires more than just taking a walking tour of U Street and listening to Duke Ellington—although that would be a decent place to start. It requires, among other things, understanding legacies of slavery, segregation and desegregation, the history of the riots that followed the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, waves of gentrification and displacement, and the role that the federal government has long played in creating stable daytime employment for working musicians who spend their evenings and weekends sharing their artistic talents.
For over two decades, I have been learning about jazz in D.C. not at a late-night club but at a Presbyterian church in the conflicted, history-rich, yet somewhat overlooked Southwest neighborhood, where the cover charge to hear music is $10 (only $5 up until mid-2021), the smells and tastes of cigarettes and alcohol are replaced by those of fried fish, sweet potato pie, and iced tea, and the music ends at the civilized hour of 9 p.m.
This January, Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Jazz Night in DC concert series celebrated its twenty-fourth anniversary. Outside of a sixteen-month hiatus from early 2020 to mid-2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the pause button on live performances around the globe, Jazz Night has, since 1999, offered three hours of classic jazz on Friday nights featuring, almost exclusively, artists based in the D.C. and Baltimore metro regions. (A companion program, Blue Monday Blues, is also in its second decade.)
I estimate that I’ve attended at least ten such anniversary celebrations, mostly as a patron and occasionally as an ethnographer and video documentarian during my grad school days. This year was my first time being called upon to join in the now established rituals that have become a part of celebrating the concert’s anniversary.
I studied theatre as an undergraduate, and I’ve done a small bit of professional acting, but I don’t generally like being on stage in front of an audience. My preferred mode of attendance at Jazz Night is way in the back, out of the way, by the audio mixing console, where I can observe the work of the program’s sound engineer Clarence and talk, during the set breaks, about Howard University athletics and professional sports with Ike, Clarence’s septuagenarian stage technician.
On this night, however, Westminster’s pastor, the Reverend Brian Hamilton, spotted me and asked me and a few others to join him on stage and read part of the ceremonial text that’s become part of the anniversary ritual. We were joined on stage by other readers, pianist Vince Evans (a veteran player with many, many Jazz Night appearances under his belt), and the series’ long-time host and MC, the gregarious, quick-witted former NFL running back Dick Smith.
Volunteers circulated through the crowd, passing out glasses of sparkling cider, while Reverend Hamilton offered a sermon, of sorts, on the history of the event from its beginnings on a cold January night in 1999, with only thirty people in the audience, to an event that, prior to March 2020, regularly drew over 200 people. Libations were poured and glasses raised in toasts while I and the other readers offered passages commemorating the spirit of the event and the musicians who have contributed to it.
The ceremony ended, as it has at every anniversary I’ve attended, with Smith leading the crowd in singing the unofficial Jazz Night theme song:
We love our Friday jazz
We love our Friday jazz
We love our Friday jazz
We love our Friday jazz
Fried fish on Fridays
Fish and Friday jazz
Beyond “Black Broadway”: Learning About Jazz in D.C. Communities
The broad outlines of D.C.’s relationship with jazz—Duke Ellington, U Street, “Black Broadway”—were things I became familiar with during my first months living in the city. But it wasn’t until I began attending Jazz Night regularly that I learned more about the far less documented history of the D.C.-based musicians who played alongside the jazz giants when they visited and filled the local clubs with their own music.
The basic popular history of jazz in D.C. has been well sketched out both in writing and the physical landscape of the city. It’s hometown to artists such as Ellington, Shirley Horn, Jimmy Cobb, and Billy Taylor. It boasts some of the most extensive collections of jazz-related material in the country, including archives at the Smithsonian, Howard University, and the University of the District of Columbia. Walk through the neighborhoods of U Street and Shaw today, and you’ll find signs of D.C.’s jazz legacy.
During the segregation era of the early and mid-twentieth century, these two neighborhoods were known to many as “Black Broadway,” an urban cultural center that was home to a large portion of the city’s African American population. From the 1920s into the late 1960s, venues such as Crystal Caverns, Club Bali, Howard Theatre, and Lincoln Theatre regularly featured the giants of the jazz world: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. With the end of segregation, and the violent unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Washington began to change dramatically. The district’s jazz scene was not immune to these changes. Many clubs shut their doors. The number of touring acts visiting the city declined. Many clubs relocated to other regions of the city and the expanding suburban developments in southern Maryland.
The contributions of local musicians who formed the historic backbone of the city’s jazz scene are far less documented. Many of these musicians worked government jobs during the day, relying on the stability of such employment to support their families as well as their evening enterprises. The late Herbert Drake, an early Jazz Night regular, once told me about the early days of his career as a drummer, playing gigs until 2 a.m. after which he would arrive early to his job as a maintenance and custodial engineer at a downtown office building. He would grab a few hours of sleep in the employee locker room before showering and donning his work uniform for the start of his shift.
Roger “Buck” Hill played numerous times at Jazz Night before his death in 2017. Now memorialized in a seventy-foot-tall mural at the corner of Fourteenth and U streets in Northwest D.C., Hill, a phenomenal reeds player (mostly tenor saxophone and clarinet), rarely toured outside the city. Instead, he held down a steady job with the U.S. Postal Service for over four decades, put his kids through college, and was regularly called upon to sit in with many of the big-name jazz players who visited from out of town, including Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Cannonball Adderley.
Hill’s story is not unique, as I have learned over time at Westminster. During the early years of the event, Jazz Night patrons had the opportunity not only to see bass players like Keter Betts and Butch Warren perform, but also share food and conversation with them between sets. Betts lived in D.C. for most of his life and spent large portions of his career with Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Warren, a native Washingtonian, toured with Thelonious Monk and recorded with Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, and Stanley Turrentine, among others. Rick Henderson, also a native Washingtonian and a one-time member of Ellington’s orchestra and leader of the Howard Theatre’s house band, was another frequent performer.
Hill, Betts, Warren, Henderson, and Drake are just the tip of the iceberg. The list of musicians who have shared and continue to share their artistry and talent with Jazz Night audiences is far too extensive to do justice to here. So, instead, I’ll name a few names and let you do your own digging. Arnold Sterling. Dr. Bill Clark. Nap “Don’t Forget the Blues” Turner. Jerry Gordon. Ellsworth Gibson. Margie Clark. George Botts. Mary Jefferson. Maurice Lyles. Connie Simmons. Calvin Jones. Wade Beach. Kent Miller. Michael Bowie. Paul Carr. James King. Steve Novosel. Wes Biles. Joe Jackson. Chris Grasso. Ronnie Wells. Lavenia Nesmith. Sharón Clark. Janelle Gill. Davey Yarborough. Esther Williams. Marshall Keys. DeAndre Howard. Nasar Abaday. Michael Thomas. Vince Evans. Antonio Parker.
Jazz in a Church? Building a Sanctuary for Music and Fellowship
You might be familiar with the concept of a “Jazz Vespers,” a religious service where the music is incorporated into an existing framework for worship. Jazz Night isn’t a vespers. There are no sermons or overt references to the 100th Psalm. But it is a place where “joyful noise” is understood as central to building community.
Over the past twenty-plus years, Westminster has undergone a slow transformation that has made it a less overtly sacred space. Rows of plastic chairs have replaced the wooden pews. The concrete floor has been covered with ceramic tiles that inscribe, in the center of the room, a walking meditation maze. The walls are, more often than not, lined with a rotating series of art works for sale. The choir loft has been removed to create room for storing audio equipment. What has emerged is much less a church sanctuary used exclusively on Sundays and much more a ritual space, touched by elements of Protestant Christianity but not hemmed in by them, that can be adapted to serve several different needs.
In its musical incarnation on Friday nights, the space is, from an audio engineering perspective, a bit lacking. Lots of flat surfaces and high ceilings send sound bouncing hither and yon. Conversations of patrons have the potential to overwhelm the onstage action.
As the 6 p.m. start time draws near, musicians greet each other and arrange limited set lists. Sometimes, whole groups who have a great deal of experience with each other are featured. At other times, the musicians have played together rarely, if ever. These moments offer a chance for patrons to approach performers and trade greetings and introductions. Many of the regular patrons have developed informal relationships with performers. There is no fourth wall, so to speak, between the audience and the performers. Performers and patrons share the same entrances and restrooms. There are no dressing rooms and no real backstage.
Patrons do not sit in stoic isolation from each other, but rather meander from seat to seat and conversation to conversation. During musical sets, the call and response between themselves and the performers is quite often high spirited. Patrons may sit on stage with the musicians in full view of other audience members and, in some cases, within arm’s reach of the piano player.
The church basement has a large multipurpose room that serves as the dining room on Friday nights. Patrons line up to purchase plates of fish or baked chicken along with various vegetables or desserts. Opposite the food line, on the other side of the room, an audio/video feed of the sanctuary upstairs is projected so that patrons can dine and enjoy the music at the same time. The table layout in the dining area is compact. If you eat here, you’re going to be bumping elbows with either strangers or vague acquaintances. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met in this fashion. Time it right, and you may find yourself eating with some of the evening’s performers.
Most importantly, perhaps, the walls of the dining room are decorated with large photos of everyday life in the Southwest neighborhood taken during the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s. Many of these photos were taken by Joseph Owen Curtis, a talented, amateur photographer who lived in the neighborhood for much of his life. The context and history of these photos provide a link between the music of Jazz Night and the cultural transformations of the district over the past six to seven decades.
Change and Transformation in Southwest D.C.
Despite being the smallest quadrant of the city, physically, Southwest has a rich history that has been, and largely still is, overlooked by many contemporary residents and area commuters as they zip along South Capitol Street or the 695 Expressway—the area’s contemporary eastern and northern borders, respectively.
During the early days of the city’s development in the late eighteenth century, Southwest was known as “the Island” because it was cut off from the rest of the city by four waterways: the Potomac River to the west, the Anacostia River to the south, James Creek to the east, and Tiber Creek (later the Washington Canal) to the north. James Creek has long since been incorporated into the neighborhood’s hidden stormwater and sewer infrastructure, and what remains of Tiber Creek is buried underneath present-day Constitution Avenue. The tension between the promise of the waters of Southwest and the isolation they created is a thread that has continually reinserted itself into the narrative of the place over the past two centuries.
Because of its early physical separation from the rest of the city and its geographical situation on low-lying land near two waterfronts, Southwest was seen as a less desirable place to live by many middle- and upper-class residents. Consequently, from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, it was home to a large number of formerly enslaved persons and recent European immigrants. By the 1920s, it had become a predominantly African American neighborhood and home to one of the city’s largest alley communities. Consisting of dwellings—some fairly well built, others not so much—that fronted onto the alleys that separated some of the district’s major thoroughfares, these communities represented one of the first efforts to provide affordable housing for the city’s low-income and working-class populations, particularly after the Civil War. Many of these dwellings lacked indoor plumbing and other sanitary amenities. Although alley communities were present throughout the city, the dwellings in Southwest were particularly galling to progressive urban reformers, because it was possible to photograph the communities with the Capitol Building in the background.
Owing in no small part to the prevalence of alley communities, Congress passed, in 1945, the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act. This legislation made it possible for Southwest to be subjected to a sweeping urban renewal project in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In an experiment that was one of the first of its kind in the nation, large tracts of housing, both street-front homes and alley dwellings, along with significant portions of the commercial district, were deemed unfit to stand and completely razed. A considerable segment of the population (an estimated 23,000 people) was displaced and relocated to other parts of the city.
Filling in the void were condominiums, high-rise apartment buildings, walkways, plazas, green spaces, and other architectural elements. A major expansion of South Capitol Street and the construction of the elevated 695 Expressway were also completed during this period, helping to maintain the geographic isolation of “the Island”—only this time with concrete, steel, and multi-lane thoroughfares.
Westminster, a presence in the neighborhood since the 1850s, was also impacted by the changes. The church’s (and Jazz Night’s) current home at Fourth and I Street SW was built in the mid-1960s after the original building was demolished. But the impacts weren’t just physical. The displacement of residents transformed and disrupted many communities of worship in the neighborhood. Congregations were scattered to other parts of the district and its suburbs. Westminster’s, like those of many other churches, became, in large part, a commuter congregation.
Beyond the impact to religious institutions, I’ve met numerous patrons and performers who remembered, fondly, the social and cultural life of the “old Southwest.” Some had grown up there and been forced to leave during the redevelopment. Others recalled visiting Bruce Wahl’s Beer Garden at Fourth and C streets. I even had the opportunity, one evening, to speak with Joseph Owen Curtis, the photographer. His photographs are now part of the DC Public Library’s People’s Archive.
Music Is a Vessel
Gentrification. Displacement. Housing affordability. Cultural loss. #DontMuteDC. These issues and concerns appear regularly in public discourse surrounding the transformations that have swept over the district during the past decade. The discourse is contemporary, but the history underneath it is not. Change is often described in ahistorical and value-neutral terms—an inevitable process with no backstory, no clear heroes or villains, no clear winners or losers that we are all subjected and forced to react to.
In his writing about the concept of tradition, however, the folklorist Henry Glassie argues that change is always entangled with history and the application of social, cultural, and economic power.
“If tradition is a people’s creation out of their own past, its character is not stasis but continuity; its opposite is not change but oppression, the intrusion of a power that thwarts the course of development. Oppressed people are made to do what others will them to do. They become slaves in the ceramic factories of their masters. Acting traditionally, by contrast, they use their resources—their own tradition, one might say—to create their own future, to do what they will themselves to do. They make their own pots.”
In the district (as in so many other places), change has, historically, tended to be uneven and nonegalitarian, privileging the desires of a powerful and wealthy elite over the needs of marginalized communities and populations. It need not be this way. Yes, places change, but those changes are driven and directed by human beings which means they are not set in stone, not preordained to follow a particular trajectory. Hope for imaginative, aspirational futures emerges from the already existing places, communities, and practices of the present.
Jazz Night offers a window into the ways in which music can serve as a vessel for carrying and maintaining cultural and community knowledge in times of transformation and transition. Jazz, as the members of the Jazz Night community I have spoken with know and understand it, is intimately connected with a sense of the past—a real, tangible past, collected not just in aging photos, grainy video footage, and out-of-print vinyl albums but, more importantly, in musical notes, toe taps, ride cymbal flourishes, trumpet solos, and lived experiences. This is a connection to the past, a heritage, that lives in the subjective place where symbol, experience, and narrative (musical, oral, visual, and written) intersect.
Jason Morris is the operations director for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Maryland (applied anthropology) and George Mason University (cultural studies) and has been attending Jazz Night regularly for over two decades. Ethnographic fieldwork conducted at Jazz Night between 2003 and 2005 formed the basis for his master’s thesis: “Straight Ahead: Jazz and the Aesthetics and Labor of ‘Lived’ Heritage Construction in Washington, D.C.”