Experience the Legacy of Washington, DC’s Greatest Black Musicians

African Americans have played a central role in the creation of some of the United States’ most famous musical genres and there may be no better way of honoring and learning about the African American musical talents behind them and their legacy than by visiting Washington, DC.

The music giants for whom DC served as a launchpad include jazz great Duke Ellington, who was born in the District; R & B legend Marvin Gaye; and go-go music visionary Chuck Brown. Visit DC to immerse yourself in sites where these musicians lived, trained, created, and performed, then head to the District’s still-thriving historic performing arts venues to see contemporary performances in the genres they shaped.

Visit DC’s ‘Black Broadway’

U Street Neighborhood

The Greater U Street neighborhood is known for the many black musicians and performers who once resided and created there. Their presence and performances earned the area the moniker “Black Broadway” and the musical creativity that bubbled up there not only predated the artistic development of New York City’s Harlem but also influenced it. Back in the 40s, U Street is where you would have gone to listen to Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and other top performers.

Two locations are especially important to DC’s rich musical history and they’re both still thriving performing arts centers: the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard Theatre. All the African American musical greats performed at both and they’re must-visits. But they’re not the only U Street venues for music and the arts—the neighborhood is all but overflowing with spots featuring both local and international acts, from jazz and indie to funk and rock.

Lincoln Theater, Washington, DC. Photo by Nandor Nagy

The Elegant Lincoln Theatre

The Lincoln Theatre at 1215 U Street, NW, opened its doors in 1922 to serve DC’s African American community as an elegant movie house, as well as a public hall—The Lincoln Colonnade—featuring events such as band performances and social club balls. After the 1968 race riots, the theater fell into disrepair and, over the years, underwent a series of restorations and got listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it’s again a top-notch performance arts venue. Check out the schedule of amazing performers here and head over. The space is intimate, the staff super friendly and the theater’s rich history can be felt in every square inch.

The Howard Theatre

In 1910, 20 years prior to the launch of “Amateur Night” at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theatre (located at 620 T Street, NW) opened its doors and premiered live music performances, plays, vaudeville shows, films and talent contests. People from the city and across the country would come here to watch native Washingtonians Duke Ellington and Mary Jefferson perform, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley and Motown’s top acts, from Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin.

After serving as the influential cornerstone of R & B, pop, rock, hip hop and other genres through its jazz and blues performances, the theater shuttered in 1970 and experienced various openings and closings until 2012, when it was beautifully restored and again started hosting headliners representing a variety of genres. Quincy Jones once called the Howard Theatre stage “the setting for some of the greatest performances by the greatest performers of the 20th century.” You’re definitely gonna want to catch a show.

Feeling The Vibes of DC’s Music Artists Today

Duke Ellington

To get up close and personal with the legacy of Washington-born international jazz legend Duke Ellington (born Edward Kennedy Ellington), visit the Duke Ellington Residences at 1805 and 1816 13th Street, NW in the Shaw neighborhood. 

Ellington attributed his success to the early influences of his parents, music teachers and patrons of a local poolroom. His career spanned five decades and though he entertained audiences all over the globe, he often returned ‘home’ to perform.

You can also see a moving statue of Ellington in front of the Howard Theatre. The work depicts him surrounded by piano keys and a large musical note.

Som Records, Washington, DC Photo by Elvert Barnes

Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go

Chuck Brown is regarded as the main force behind the development of go-go music, a subgenre of funk that was created in the DC area in the mid-1970s. In early 2020, the mayor of DC signed a measure making go-go the official music of the nation’s capital.

You can still catch Brown’s go-go music at music venues throughout DC, pay homage to him at the Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Northeast DC (20th & Franklin St. NE), and shop for his music and others’ at one of the city’s cool record shops, like Som Records on 14th Street and Crooked Beat Records on 18th Street. Catch a live show at a contemporary hotspot, the 9:30 Club—this venue hosted Chuck Brown back in the 80s, when he was just getting started.

Marvin Gaye, Motown Music Shaper

Marvin Gaye was born in DC in 1939, started singing in church when he was four years old, and eventually became a Motown chart-topper. To honor Marvin Gaye’s legacy, go see artist Aniekan Udofia’s Marvin Gaye mural in the Shaw neighborhood (710 S St. NW), visit the stream in Marvin Gaye Park (at 1.6 miles, the longest municipal park in DC) where the musical giant used to sit and compose and order a meal at Restaurant Marvin on 14th Street. Maybe you ‘heard it through the grapevine,’ but you also heard it from us.

16th St. NW, Washington, DC

Read Next: 9 Stops on DC’s African American Heritage Trail – explore the wonderful neighborhoods, and destinations, that showcase DC’s African American heritage and culture.

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