Since a revitalization in the early 1990s that restored its pre-bad days glory, the park has remained a gathering place for a diverse, if more mundane cast of characters. However, the weight of the park’s history is still present, even if it is unknown to new adoptees. As Steve Coleman – one of the main organizers of the park’s rehabilitation – once said, “The past, the present and the future must be present in the theme of every event.”
That’s certainly the case with NextFest, taking place in and around the park on September 24-25. Presented by CapitalBop, Long Live GoGo and Washington Parks & People, the second annual festival is a celebration of DC’s music culture, with a full day of jazz, funk and go-go performances on Saturdays and classes, discussions and lectures on Sundays.
“NextFest was born out of our desire to celebrate DC’s cultural heritage as a center for black music and black culture, and the recognition that in DC, politics, protests, music and gatherings are always linked,” said Giovanni Russonello, co-founder. and editor of CapitalBop.
For 12 years, CapitalBop has worked to enrich, preserve and promote DC’s jazz scene. When booking shows, the organization has tried to connect younger and older generations both on stage and in the crowd, while bringing music to craft spaces, galleries, rock clubs , theaters, warehouses and more. Often the bills extend beyond jazz to a wider range of sounds and styles, which CapitalBop and other organizers have sought to replicate with NextFest.
“CapitalBop is creating a space where it really displays all the different live music offerings that DC enjoys,” said Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, founder of Long Live GoGo and co-organizer of the festival. “Live music is definitely part of the region’s DNA.”
Jazz can be more than a set of stylistic rules: it’s a state of mind, a messy community history, music that puts you in a specific place based on the physical experience of listening to it. In DC, CapitalBop and NextFest organizers hear jazz everywhere. And while DC’s musical identity is distinct and powerful, it’s not tied to any particular genre, despite efforts by some to categorize the city’s musicians. Russonello takes Chuck Brown as an example: In his music, the threads of the go-go are impossible to disentangle from inspirations like the blues guitar of Jimmy Reed, the jazz orchestration of Duke Ellington, the funk of James Brown and the soul of Barry. White. This musical tapestry informs NextFest.
“The criteria for booking this festival had not so much to do with genre as with [the question], ‘Is this music about community, and is it a healing force?’ ” he explains.
The Bill for NextFest provides this strength in different ways. There’s New Impressionz, UCB (a band about to celebrate its 25th anniversary), and the Soul Searchers (who started their career as Chuck Brown’s backing band). Veterans including jazz drummer Lenny Robinson and free jazz bassist William Parker and his Heart Trio are scheduled alongside DC soul singer Cecily. Meanwhile, the avant-garde of experimental music is explored by the Freddie Douggie duo of Ben Lamar Gay and Jayve Montgomery and genre agnostics Raw Poetic and Damu the Fudgemunk. And – as they did last year – drummers and dancers from the longtime Malcolm X Drum Circle will keep the beat alive, as they do every weekend.
To connect with the park’s history of activism and education – it was Angela Davis who requested that the park 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 supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment as part of its 202Creates effort.
Having the membership of diverse organizations, both non-profit and city-run, not only makes NextFest possible, but speaks to its mission to bring people together and claim space for DC’s black musical heritage.
“It’s not a festival about pushing people out or improving an area or upward mobility,” Russonello said. “It’s a festival about getting as close to the ground as possible and staying in touch with the roots of what has always happened here.”
Concert: September 24 from noon to dusk at Meridian Hill Park, 16th and W streets NW. Musical performances, panel discussions and films: September 25 from 11:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Josephine Butler Parks Center, 2437 15th St. NW. The complete program of the two days is available on nextfestdc.com. Free.
Note: An earlier version of this story omitted the last paragraph. This version has been updated.