D.C. doesn't always get the respect it deserves for its black music!
There have been so many black leaders of D.C. music. Some were born and trained here; some migrated here to learn and perform their art. We have had great singers, instrumentalists, writers and teachers in the various aspects of the music business.
Leading the list is, of course, the late, great Duke Ellington, one of the greatest music makers the world has ever known. He excelled in writing, performing and presenting music in many genres, from the beautiful romantic ballads that he or his orchestra wrote and performed all over the world to classical, gospel and, of course, jazz. Born in the Shaw area, he was taught in the D.C. public schools and began playing at clubs while he was in Armstrong High School. He is still the absolute first artist many music students strive to emulate.
Other capable and determined musicians played the clubs and after-hours spots on and around U Street and Seventh and T. Not all of them made it to the Howard Theatre, but some, such as Lady Byron, a pianist and singer, were able to make it anyway.
These days, world-famous jazz masters Shirley Horn, Keter Betts and Roger "Buck" Hill are performing regularly, and Marshall Keyes, Jerry Gordon and others thrive exuberantly in the spotlight.
And please don't forget the blues, as Napoleon "Nap" Turner always said. When he died last month, his funeral repast, held in the New Bethel Baptist Church dining hall, featured the superb, magic fingering of Jackie Hairston, another D.C. player from way back, on the jazz organ.
The pastor of the church, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a singer in his own right, knew Nap from years back, along with our great blues lady, Mary Jefferson, who also died recently.
Singing groups such as the Legendary Orioles and the Jewels live in or near D.C. and sometimes perform at the Kennedy Center. There are also many individuals and groups playing, dancing and singing in clubs, hotels and other places. Several churches also regularly host jazz and blues shows. A few churches even hold what are called gospel cafes that feature Christian comedy, gospel music and other religious programs according to their beliefs.
The late Marvin Gaye, who climbed out of the projects, as did so many others, performed his way to the very top of the star-studded stage to become an international favorite. Known worldwide, his music is still played everywhere and is now being embraced by the younger generation. They fall in love with him just as we old-timers had done! He is a good example of black music in D.C. Come to think of it, why don't they name that block of 60th Street NE Marvin Gaye Way?
These are just a few of the performers who are making fantastic music in D.C. Those I haven't named or have forgotten or just couldn't fit in, please -- as is often said in the Baptist church -- charge it to my head and not my heart.
While I'm in the church mode, another genre of black music comes to mind: gospel. Almost all black churches here have a good gospel choir. Many of them are beyond good. They are great and sing all over the nation and overseas. Among the best have been the Richard Smallwood Singers and Raymond Reeder, both winners of national awards. Here in D.C. the choirs in my church, Antioch Baptist in Deanwood, are tops. Joseph Brown, minister of music, is our director.
But even before most of these musical events, there was the incomparable Todd Duncan, now deceased, a renowned Howard University music teacher and singer. He was among the first black opera stars. His performance as the first Porgy in the great "Porgy and Bess" helped make that opera the most popular and most-performed opera that featured exclusively black casts. It was performed here on U Street at the Lincoln theatre in November 1999, and many D.C. musical actors and actresses were in the production.
Of course, Washington, D.C., has the Kennedy Center Opera House, where you may be delighted by the lovely Denyce Graves or Janice Chandler-Eteme and others. Denyce is a D.C. native who attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public school that continually graduates exceptionally talented future stars, just as Howard University has always done.
I haven't even addressed the rock-and-roll scene here. Go-go was started in D.C. by Chuck Brown. Hip-hop and rap are important in D.C. and have become one of the biggest moneymakers in the music business.
I can't keep up with all our vast music resources. But I do know that D.C. is full of music, and much of it began, and remains, in the black community.
Shirley R. Banks is a native Washingtonian who is married with four sons, three grandchildren and a great grandchild. She describes herself as a born-again Baptist who loves all kinds of music. She believes God has given many talents to His many different children.