The music of Chuck Brown has helped soundtrack life in Washington over the course of four decades, eight presidencies and three Redskins’ Super Bowl rings — but Washington won’t be hearing much go-go in the memorial park bearing Brown’s name.
This week, news spread that blueprints for the amphitheater that would anchor Chuck Brown Park in Northeast had finally been crumpled. For months on end, residents of the Langdon neighborhood had been bristling against the city’s designs for the park’s bandshell, citing the noise pollution it might produce. Now, they’ll have enduring quiet. Instead of music, Chuck Brown Park will feature some sculptures, some benches and some green space where we can ponder the Godfather of Go-Go’s percussive brilliance in contemplative silence.
Mayor Vincent Gray first promised the park at Brown’s memorial service in 2012, declaring that go-go music “embodied the best of what our city could be.” But if the current plans for Chuck Brown Park come to fruition, the memorial will double as an embarrassing and permanent reminder of our city’s inability to properly support its own indigenous music.
At Brown’s home-going service, Gray surprised the thousands gathered with his park proposal, setting his sights on “a place just like Chuck — a place where there’s action, a place where there’s people, a place where there’s traffic, a place where there will be the sounds of the city.”
But Langdon obviously doesn’t fit that description, and neighborhood residents — while relieved the amphitheater has been kiboshed — remain far from enthusiastic about renovating Langdon Park in Brown’s honor.
“I think, generally, they’re ambivalent to it being out here in our neighborhood,” says local advisory neighborhood commissioner Nolan Treadway, adding, “it would be weird if this were the only thing in D.C. memorializing Chuck Brown’s legacy.”
Weird because a park named after a musician won’t be hosting music? Or weird because we’re celebrating one of our city’s loudest heroes in one of our city’s quietest corners?
Either way, we seem to be many years away from our city’s officials figuring out how to properly embrace, celebrate and nurture go-go music. But with Brown’s death more than a year behind us, Washington needs to figure out a way to recognize the music’s creator, and fast. How? There’s a strong example smiling in the sunshine nearly 5,000 miles away.
Tourists who have wandered the black-and-white cobble of Copacabana have likely stumbled upon a seaside statue of beloved Brazilian singer and composer Dorival Caymmi. It’s not the most handsome sculpture, but it has admirable qualities. Caymmi’s bronze loafers touch the ground — the statue has no pedestal — and the singer’s left arm is raised, eternally waving hello. Even in Rio de Janeiro’s 70-degree winter chill, only a few minutes manage to pass without someone cozying up to Caymmi for a snapshot.
Could there be a more perfect template for a statue honoring Brown?
Toward the end of his life, Brown enjoyed posing for pictures with fans almost as much as he enjoyed performing for them. An unannounced appearance from Brown could turn a coffee shop into a portrait studio, a drab sidewalk into a red carpet. Countless Washingtonians have smiled for pictures with Brown over the years — enough for Washington City Paper to wallpaper its cover with reader-submitted photos in the wake of his death.
“Everybody wants to take pictures with me, and it’s a wonderful thing,” Brown said of his fans in 2010. “I love taking pictures, nowadays. Because you never forget where you come from. Fifty years ago, the only people who wanted to take pictures of me was the police! And now the police take pictures with me.”
Like Caymmi’s sculpture in Rio de Janeiro, a Brown statue would be most powerful without a pedestal. Through his life-affirming call-and-response routines, Brown vaporized the psychic barriers between performer and audience. Everybody was somebody in the go-go. The stage was a formality.
As for where a statue of Brown should go, Gray’s ideas about action, people and traffic make sense. And how about a place where there’s music, too?
Imagine a statue on a sidewalk near the Howard Theatre, where Brown used to hustle sideman gigs before forming his legendary Soul Searchers. Or on that section of Seventh Street NW that the city renamed “Chuck Brown Way” in 2009. Or outside the Prince Hall Masonic Temple building at 1000 U St. NW, where $8 could once cover a ticket to sweat out your troubles until 4 a.m.
These are places in Washington’s night-life district where go-go still sneaks out of nightclub doors, floats off roof decks, pumps out of open car windows. These are places in Washington where everybody still wants a picture with the Godfather.