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NextFest returns with a two-day celebration of D.C.’s music culture

NextFest returns to Meridian Hill Park for a second year on Sept. 24. (Viva Ventura/Darnell Smith)

Whether referred to as Meridian Hill or Malcolm X, the rectangular park at the southwest corner of Columbia Heights has been the site of community gatherings for more than a century.

The park’s denizens, as once compiled by Washington Post writer David Montgomery, have included “Edwardian promenaders, Prohibition partyers, Depression bedrollers, bossy senatorial wives, soccer players, drummers, drug dealers, muggers, lovers, writers, martial artists, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Von Trapp Family Singers, Sun Ra, Tito Puente, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Bill Clinton.”

Since a revitalization in the early 1990s that restored its pre-bad-old-days glory, the park has remained a gathering spot for a diverse, if more mundane, cast of characters. Yet the weight of the park’s history is still present, even if unknown to recent adoptees. As Steve Coleman — one of the key organizers of the park’s rehab — once said, “Past, present and future must be present in the theme of every event.”

That is certainly the case with NextFest, which will be staged in and around the park on Sept. 24 and 25. Presented by CapitalBop, Long Live GoGo and Washington Parks & People, the second annual festival is a celebration of D.C.’s musical culture, with a full day of jazz, funk and go-go performances on Saturday and classes, discussions and lectures on Sunday.

“NextFest grew out of our desire to celebrate the cultural legacy of D.C. as a center of Black music and Black culture, and an acknowledgment that in D.C., politics, protests, music and gathering are always interlinked,” said Giovanni Russonello, co-founder and editor in chief for CapitalBop.

For 12 years, CapitalBop has worked to enrich, preserve and promote D.C.’s jazz scene. When booking shows, the organization has tried to connect younger and older generations both onstage and in the crowd, while bringing music to DIY spaces, galleries, rock clubs, theaters, warehouses and more. Often, the bills expand beyond jazz to a wider gamut of sounds and styles, which CapitalBop and the other organizers have looked to replicate with NextFest.

“CapitalBop is creating a space where it really displays all of the different live music offerings that D.C. appreciates,” said Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, founder of Long Live GoGo and co-booker of the festival. “Live music is definitely a part of the DNA of the area.”

Jazz can be more than a set of stylistic regulations: It’s a mind-set, a messy community history, music that puts you in a specific place based on the physical experience of listening to it. In D.C., CapitalBop and the organizers of NextFest hear jazz everywhere. And while D.C.’s musical identity is distinct and powerful, it’s not tied to any particular genre, despite efforts by some to pigeonhole the city’s musicians. Russonello poses Chuck Brown as an example: In his music, the threads of go-go are impossible to untangle from inspirations including Jimmy Reed’s blues guitar, Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestration, James Brown’s funk and Barry White’s soul. That musical tapestry informs NextFest.

“The criterion for booking this festival didn’t have to do with genre as much as it had to do with [the question], ‘Is this music about the community, and is it a force for healing?’ ” he explains.

The bill for NextFest delivers that force in different ways. There are go-go heavyweights New Impressionz, UCB (a band about to celebrate its 25th anniversary) and the Soul Searchers (who began their run as Chuck Brown’s backing band). Veterans including jazz drummer Lenny Robinson and free jazz bassist William Parker and his Heart Trio are programmed alongside D.C. soul singer Cecily. Meanwhile, the bleeding edge of experimental music is explored by duo Freddie Douggie, composed of Ben Lamar Gay and Jayve Montgomery, and genre agnostics Raw Poetic and Damu the Fudgemunk. And — as they did last year — the drummers and dancers of the long-running Malcolm X drum circle will keep the beat alive, as they do every weekend.

To connect to the park’s history of activism and education — it was Angela Davis who called for the park to be named after Malcolm X, after all — NextFest also includes a day of culture and conversations at the Josephine Butler Parks Center, which is operated by festival co-presenter Washington Parks & People. The festival is also being supported by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment as part of its 202Creates effort.

Having buy-in from various organizations, both nonprofit and city-run, not only makes NextFest possible but speaks to its mission of bringing people together and claiming space for the Black musical heritage of D.C.

“This is not a festival that’s about pushing people out or improvement of an area or upward mobility,” Russonello said. “This is a festival that’s about getting as low to the ground as we possibly can and staying in touch with the roots of what’s always happened here.”

Concert: Sept. 24 from noon to dusk in Meridian Hill Park, 16th and W streets NW. Music performances, panel discussions and films: Sept. 25 from 11:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Josephine Butler Parks Center, 2437 15th St. NW. Full schedule for both days can be found at Free.

Note: An earlier version of this story omitted the final paragraph. This version has been updated.