On a recent Friday night, the sanctuary at Westminster Presbyterian Church is packed with people of all ages and ethnicities. But it’s not the congregants who are making a joyful noise: It’s the jazz quintet led by singer Bonnie Harris and saxophonist Lyle Link, now playing a robust rendition of King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade.” The crowd looks on, rapt, save for a man shouting “G’head! G’head!” to Link’s sax swoops. The room seems to undulate as an ocean of seated people bob their heads in unison.
Jazz Night in Southwest is one of the city’s most beloved musical traditions—as beloved by the musicians as anyone else, because of the crowd that comes to see them. “It’s an incredibly warm place. It’s a community,” says Link in between sets. “And you heard that first set—you could hear a pin drop. Which is rare these days: People actually come here for the music.”
The church fills like this more or less every week, according to organizer Dick Smith. The secret, he says, is that he programs strictly local music for strictly local crowds, which is a unique proposition in D.C. jazz. “Bohemian Caverns, they’re bringing people in from out of town, and it’s hard to get downstairs if you’re old,” Smith says. “Twins Jazz, it’s hard to get up in there. Blues Alley—that’s a tourist audience, with tourist acts. HR-57, they have their ups and downs. But you’re not gonna get this kind of crowd.
“Most of these people know music,” Smith adds. “They want to hear good music and go somewhere where they won’t be hassled. And we’re affordable.” Admission is $5, and children under 16 get in for free. Even so, the crowd is big enough for the musicians to earn roughly what they might at the city’s other jazz venues. “They don’t make beaucoups money like they should make,” Smith says, “but what they do get is something respectful.”
It’s that word—respect—that seems to have the most magnitude here. Musicians get a well-paying gig and a full house that knows and loves the music, and doesn’t treat them as window dressing. Meanwhile, patrons get a venue that doesn’t bleed them dry and high-quality performers who are thrilled to play for them. It may not be as fulfilling a relationship as the one between preacher and flock, but it, too, fills the church with the faithful, week after week.