This summer marks 40 years of free concerts at Fort Dupont Park. Carlos Evans remembers 38 of them. “The trees you see down there used to be about this tall,” he says, tapping the brim of his periwinkle ballcap. He’s seen too many acts from the top of this hill to count. Gil Scott-Heron. Mother’s Finest. Bobbi Humphrey. Stacy Lattisaw. The Ohio Players. Zapp. Jill Scott.
Too many people to count, too. These days, Fort Dupont’s biggest concerts quietly draw a whopping 11,000 fans, and everybody seems to know everybody else. Leave your blanket. Nobody’s gonna mess with your stuff. We’ll keep an eye on the kids. Need more ice? Want some fruit salad? Wanna dance? The closest thing to violence anyone in the Hillside Crew has ever seen at Fort Dupont was a man shaking his groove thing so hard, he slipped and went somersaulting down the slope in his white linen slacks.
“The party to remember.” That’s how jazz singer Roy Ayers put it in “Ft. Dupont Park,” a song he wrote about this place in 2004. “I have had some great experiences there,” says Ayers, who will make what he calculates to be his 10th Fort Dupont appearance this weekend. “It’s a great atmosphere for the summertime where people can go and just let out their frustrations.”
Four hours before showtime, Evans rolls down the windows of his SUV and pumps Ayers’s anthem from the speakers. Its syrup-sticky melodies carry over to Kenneth and Raydean Thomas of Fort Washington who have pitched a half tent on the hill’s summit.
The couple have been coming to Fort Dupont for a decade, lounging in their lawn chairs until the sun sinks down and the music fires up. Then it’s time to two-step in the grass. Like so many Fort Dupont faithful, they first learned of these concerts by word of mouth.
“D.C.’s biggest, best-kept secret,” Raydean says. “That’s what it is.”
Four decades ago, many of Washington’s biggest parks doubled as dance floors thanks to “Summer in the Parks,” a program implemented by the National Park Service in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots that destroyed so many District neighborhoods.
In order to draw young people out of the streets and into the parks, free concerts were held in Meridian Hill Park, Anacostia Park, on the Mall and at other locations. Today, only the annual summer concert series at Fort Dupont, Fort Reno in Northwest and Carter Barron in Rock Creek Park have survived through the decades.