By Wilma Goldstein
Westminster Church at 4th & I St., SW works at living its motto, “Not Just A Church.” Services on Sunday are open to anyone of any faith, even the atheists and agnostics among us. Pam Wilson conducts seated yoga there several times a week, young mothers can come and learn about child care, and Food and Friends, the organization that delivered meals to AIDS patients who were confined to home, began in Westminster’s kitchen. Everyone who walks through the door is warmly welcomed; no one ever needs to leave hungry. And then there’s the music!
Several years ago, after I retired and was still living in Virginia, I knew I had to make some lifestyle changes. Friends were encouraging me to leave the area and one day it dawned on me that I could neither leave nor replace the Westminster music programs or my fellow jazz “fiends.” For someone who loved cities, I had been in the burbs long enough. I moved into what is now known as Modern on M at 6th and Maine. My life became everything I had hoped it would be after I left the nine-to-five world, now that I was living in a small, friendly community with an active, involved life and whatever I needed, including Westminster, no more than two blocks away. It was the best decision I ever made.
The church is well known for its live music programs and has access to a roster of hundreds of local musicians who enjoy playing at Jazz Night on Friday evenings, church services on Sunday mornings and the Blue Monday Blues on Monday nights. The jazz program celebrated its 20th anniversary this past January and I’ve enjoyed listening for 17 of those years.
The two live music programs have similar formats. Five bucks gets you in the door, you save yourself a seat, slip downstairs to get dinner, which could be what many have said is the best fried whiting in town, bring your food upstairs by 6 p.m. when the music starts, and listen while a different band each week plays three sets of jazz or blues. During Monday Blues, you can dance in the back of the room. The jazz crowd is a bit quieter, but on both evenings there is cheering, loud applause and standing ovations. DC musicians ask to play at Westminster because of the enthusiastic audiences.
Nine years ago a group of musicians and Westminster audience members came to Rev. Brian Hamilton, founder of the church music programs, and former Redskin and singer extraordinaire, Dick Smith, who manages Jazz Night and serves as its MC, to explain what all the noise was in the back of the room during the set breaks. Audience members wanted to know more about the music than they could get from listening. So, continuing the practice Brian and Dick have followed with all these programs—“if we build it, they will come”—Thinking About Jazz (TAJ) was born one Saturday morning with a small circle of people sitting around a piano-playing professor who came to talk about jazz.
Today TAJ is a three-part program with a planning board, and a fairly consistent and committed audience. On the last Friday of every other month at Jazz Night, the band plays a tribute to the
TAJ featured artist and on Saturday a presentation is made by a jazz historian, biographer, local radio DJ and sometimes our musicians themselves, solo or in a panel, on the lives and challenges of being an American jazz musician. The presentations include vintage film footage of the subject as well as snippets of their music. The audience is encouraged to arrive at 12:30 p.m., where they receive a warm welcome, a research packet on the artist of the day, a ticket for the door prize drawing, and an evaluation form, and they can then wander over to the buffet for a light lunch, with the presentation beginning at 1 p.m. It is all free. After the presentation there is a Q&A period followed by a drawing for door prizes. Activities are over by 3 p.m. Then during the next month after a Friday evening of jazz, there is either a documentary on our featured artist or perhaps a film shown in which they appeared.
Additional information can be found at www.westminster.org.