Eight out of the 10 years that Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest D.C. has hosted its weekly “Jazz Night in Southwest”, Herman and Catherine Flora have been there to listen to the smooth sounds of musicians, crooners, and their lively renditions of the country’s classic songs.
Every Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., large crowds gravitate to the church to experience what the Floras, who affectionately refer to themselves as “Herbie” and “Kitty,” have experienced since they started attending in 2002.
Dick Smith, a performer, and former Washington Redskins defensive back organized the event. He has been the event’s music coordinator since it has started.
Every week, he assembles a group of accomplished artists, and this week’s performance was no different.
The theme for this week’s performance was the “Rare Vibe of Lionel Hampton.” Chuck Redd, a local area drummer and vibraphonist, led a group of experienced local area performers, Chris Grasso, Lenny Robinson, and Tommy Cecil in a tribute to legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. The resume of these four performers is extensive, from composer, drummer, percussionist, to bassist, and pianist.
“The quality of music is good,” said Smith. “These are accomplished musicians, who perform here because of their love for the music. They don’t do it for money.”
Week by week, Smith not only organizes the talented musicians who perform at the church, but also performs the duties of master of ceremonies for the event. His colorful commentary arouses laughs from the farthest corners of the church.
“He pokes fun at everyone who comes up,” says Kitty. “It’s all in good fun. Everyone here is like one big family.”
With couples swaying in the corner and folks jamming to the side, “Jazz Night in Southwest” brings people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy the soothing sounds of the music that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie helped to pioneer.
The tapping of feet could be felt, the snapping of fingers could be heard, and Herbie and Kitty could be seen holding hands while the music played throughout the building.
The two of them have been married for 55 years. Kitty recalls her first memory of the song “Love is here to stay,” a popular early 20th century jazz song that was performed by the musicians that evening.
“When Herbie was going to Howard [University] he called me and said to listen to this song,” said Kitty. “It has been our song ever since.”
As the two of them move in closer to give each other a kiss, Kitty says, “When we hear that song it’s like brand new.”
In addition to the performances, the Southwest Catering Company provides food, which could be purchased by jazz night attendees. Friday’s menu included fried fish, baked trout, baked chicken in tomato-sage sauce, cheesy potatoes, and rice and beans. Entrees ranged between $6.50 and $8.50 and each one included a side order. During a brief intermission, attendees rushed downstairs to grab themselves a plate.
“You can’t get cat fish everywhere,” said Chuck Redd, jokingly, as he stood on stage. “We’ve performed in many venues. This is the best jazz venue in Washington.”
The District has a rich jazz history. It was the hometown of many jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn, and Frank Wess. With places such as the Lincoln Theater and Bohemian Caverns, U Street was a vibrant entertainment center during the first half of the 20th century. With its musicals, vaudeville, and jazz music, U Street was at one time referred to as the “Black Broadway.” In addition, the Howard Theater on 7th and T Street Northwest has played host to many famous players such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lionel Hampton.
At this week’s event, the performers were surprised by Joe Coleman, one of the original members of the music group, “The Platters.” Coleman performed two songs with the musicians that evening. “This is a fantastic place,” he said after the show. Coleman grew up in Washington, before moving to New York. He spent 25 years in New York before recently moving back to the Washington area.
Drummer Lenny Robinson shared the sentiment of the performers that evening when he said, “I play all over the place, but this is a special place because its community oriented.”