The city that gave birth to Duke Ellington used to be a hotbed for live jazz. Long-time fans reminisce about the sounds that came from the Howard Theatre and clubs like One Step Down and Bohemian Caverns. But they’ve all either closed or stopped performing jazz.
There are still a number of places here to catch a jazz performance. But where should you go if you want to capture the next big thing?
That’s pretty much what Kyra Lasko of Damascus, Maryland, wondered. She recently moved to the region and was eager to hear live jazz.
“I wonder if D.C. jazz culture is still alive and well,” Lasko wrote to WAMU’s “What’s With Washington?” Are there still jazz clubs where up-and-coming artists perform?”
The answer is there are plenty, many of them in some of the most unexpected places. It could be a club or in someone’s home. It could even be in a church.
Soul Music And Soul Food
About 200 people attend Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest D.C. every Friday night. The audience fills the benches and occupy several portable chairs around the perimeter of the room. A different local jazz band performs for three hours each week. Admission to the event is only $5.
W. Allen Taylor leads with vocals at Westminster Presbyterian Church’s weekly Jazz Night.Tyrone Turner / WAMU
Co-pastors Brian and Ruth Hamilton first began offering jazz at the church 20 years ago. It was a time when other institutions critical to the heyday of jazz in the District were still flourishing. Now the church is happy to help fill the void.
“We present straight-ahead jazz, acoustic jazz, stuff that comes out of the swing tradition, and out of the bebop heritage,” Brian Hamilton said.
Downstairs in the church’s cafeteria, for a few extra dollars, guests can purchase an assortment of fried fish, sides and dessert. The setting is relaxed. Customers are encouraged to put their plates on a tray and take the meal back to their seat and watch the show.
“Depending on the mood you’re in, jazz music just reaches in and it calms you,” said Rodd Trent, who regularly drives from Stafford, Virginia, for the Friday night jazz.
Lenora Baker serves up fried fish and other tasty dinner treats before the jazz show at Westminster Presbyterian Church.Tyrone Turner / WAMU
Hamilton, 61, said the demand for jazz transcends gentrification in the District. Jazz helps the church cross racial lines which otherwise separate members of the community. Much of the tension, Hamilton said, stemmed from urban renewal: a 1950s government construction project that rebuilt the struggling Southwest neighborhood and pushed many African American residents to the suburbs.
Jazz, Hamilton said, is enough to bring everyone back together.
“There are some folk for whom this is such an important experience in the flow of their life, that they’re just totally committed to it and they look forward to it all week long,” said Hamilton. “And that’s a narrative that has been common from the very beginning.”
Where Both Up-And-Coming And Seasoned Talent Can Thrive
The D.C. jazz scene is also being refreshed by younger musicians who are fine-tuning the music to engage newer generations.
“If you go to our jazz concerts, you’ll see everybody represented in the audience,” said Sunny Sumter, executive director of the annual D.C. Jazz Festival.
Sumter said nearly half of the festival’s audience is between the ages of 18 and 36. She said young people like jazz improvisation, where you can compose a song on the spot and add the influence of other music genres.
“Jazz is not just one singular kind of music. It is straight-ahead, it’s free jazz, it’s soul jazz, it’s gospel jazz, it’s big band jazz, it’s Latin jazz, it’s hip hop,” Sumter said.
Ameen Saleem plays on the upright bass during the weekly jazz show at Westminster Presbyterian Church. “To be established in the local jazz scene, musicians need to have played Westminster,” said pastor Brian Hamilton.
The June event attracts not only local musicians, but players from across the globe. This summer, Sumter said, many of the live concerts won’t take place in a traditional jazz club or large arena. They’ll be spread across more than 25 neighborhoods and 40 smaller venues across the region.
To groom the younger jazz enthusiasts, festival officials run an education program inside D.C. public schools, charter schools, local after-school programs and community centers. Sumter described a “storytelling hour” for toddlers, where instructors use books to teach children about jazz.
“Reach people at a young age and educate them about this music, and they become jazz fans for life,” she said. “Jazz is not your grandmother’s music. It is your music.”
There are other well-known local venues like Blues Alley, Twins Jazz on U Street, Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill and the John F. Kennedy Center. Between those four, you can listen to live jazz on almost any night of the week.
Want a more intimate setting? A house in the Takoma, D.C. neighborhood has live music, too. About 60 people packed into the two-level house also known as Rhizome on Sunday. The intimate spot has art installations upstairs, while bands headline concerts downstairs in the living room.
Bass player Luke Stewart plays there regularly, either solo or as part of several different bands. He said he feels at home jamming in the arts space.
“It’s one of the most organic community developments that I’ve seen in my time as a musician here in D.C.,” Stewart said. “And it’s more profound in my eyes, because it’s not what’s known as the popular underground dominated by punk rock, indie rock, or hip hop, it’s purely experimental.”
The 32-year-old also promotes local talent by hosting a monthly series called the D.C. Jazz Loft in his role as artistic director of nonprofit Capital Bop. Just relaunched, the concerts consist of one stripped-down performance every month.
“We’ve been an organization since 2010, which is amazing and just recently in the past year or so have been able to garner a lot of great support,” Stewart said.
The Duke’s Hometown
But no matter where the scene evolves, Stewart and other musicians said they still draw influence from jazz greats like Ellington.
The musician and bandleader remains one of the most influential figures in the development of jazz music. He was born in 1899, grew up at a home on 13th Street N.W., and began his musical career playing in neighborhood clubs. Ellington popularized the ‘swing’ form of jazz in the 1930s and 40s.
U Street’s most famous resident is honored throughout the community with a bridge and murals. Ellington’s contribution to the music world is celebrated every day, with jazz still playing on the streets of his youth.
Pastor Brian Hamilton said he wants the legacies of Ellington and those who came after him to live on at the church every Friday night.
“The old timers, the old players, we were really fortunate to be able to welcome a lot of them,” said Brian Hamilton. “But the church has also buried a lot of great D.C. jazz players over the years. People like [saxophonist] Buck Hill and [bassist] Butch Warren.”
The audience stands to applaud the jazz performance of Marshall Keys and Friends at Westminster Presbyterian Church.Tyrone Turner / WAMU
Through all the changes over the decades, Hamilton said the local musicians he hires never lose their energy. And, he said, knowing there are still stages to perform like the one at Westminster on Fridays, is an undeniable asset to jazz lovers and D.C. as a whole.
So, Where Are Some Places To See Live Jazz?
This is just a sampling. Let us know your favorite jazz venue in the comments!
1. D.C. Jazz Loft at Rhizome
If you’re looking for a really intimate venue focused on experimental jazz and up-and-coming acts, this monthly series run by Capital Bop happens once a month in a two-level house in Takoma.
2. Westminster Presbyterian Church
Every Friday you can sample some jazz — local talent only! — for just $5, plus a few more bucks to sample the fish-fry.
3. D.C. Jazz Jam
A great spot to see up-and-comers, this no-cover open jazz jam session happens every Sunday inside The Brixton on U Street from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
For a more underground (literally) feel, this lounge underneath the Ghibellina Restaurant on 14th Street was rebooted last year to feel more like a jazz club, and it brings in some of the area’s best young trios and quartets.
5. Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society
It’s all about the music at this all-ages, alcohol-free spot in Brookland nestled between rowhouses on 12th St NE. Just $5 at the door will get you in the door for three hours of jazz on Wednesdays and Sundays and some Saturdays.
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