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April 2012

Washington DC's Local Music Scene

As a place where seeds of change are planted and new voices come to be heard, it is no surprise that Washington, DC is home to a robust music scene, with deep roots in jazz and bluegrass plus a reputation of cultivating new genres, including go-go, electrica and indie rock.

DC-based rapper Wale recently put the city’s hip-hop music scene on the global map with the release of his recent hit “Chillin,” featuring Lady Gaga. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters, credits his exposure to the music scene in DC (at places such as the former 9:30 Club) as his musical influence.

Homegrown jazz standout Duke Ellington played his first notes in the historic U Street district known as “Black Broadway,” while Chuck Brown, the Godfather of go-go, blended African percussion with funk, jazz and call and response hooks in this unique form of music that almost hints at rap. And Marvin Gaye, Prince of Soul himself, developed his passion for music in Washington, from sneaking into R&B concerts as a child to being discovered while performing at a DC club.

No matter which type of music your toes are tapping to or the scene you want to swing in, DC has an electrifying array of performance venues and live hotspots.

JAZZ: Much of DC’s musical history is centered north of downtown on U Street, which was once known as “Black Broadway.” DC natives Pearl Bailey, Jelly Roll Morton and Shirley Horn were regular fixtures on the entertainment circuit, playing such venues as Bohemian Caverns and the Lincoln Theatre. Joining these long-time fixtures on U Street today are spots like Twins Jazz and HR-57. For another soulful experience, catch a set at Georgetown’s Blues Alley, the nation’s longest-running jazz supper club. The Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club features an annual series of performances showcasing some of the hottest names in the genre, and Washington’s hotel scene even offers live jazz on select nights. A true testament to DC’s jazz soul, the annual DC Jazz Festival is the largest music festival in the District and includes more than 100 + performances at venues throughout the city. The Jazz Festival also produces year-round musical education programs for students and outreach for jazz enthusiasts.

The Howard Theatre:
After a $29 million renovation, the historic Howard Theatre has been restored to its former glory and then some, with a deeper stage and additional wing for seating. The Howard, once known as “the theatre for the people,” was also the stage to stardom for Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine, as well as a favorite of home grown Duke Ellington, who debuted his big-band style jazz there. The Howard Theatre officially opened its curtains again on April 9, commemorating its 101st anniversary.

COUNTRY/BLUEGRASS: The city’s proximity to the Appalachian Mountains led to bluegrass and country first finding a large forum in the Washington, DC area. The first nationally televised country music concert was broadcast from Constitution Hall in 1948; that milestone was followed by a bevy of country, bluegrass and folk greats including Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who got their start with regular gigs in Dupont Circle. Good bluegrass and country music can still be found weekly at Madam’s Organ in Adams Morgan, at the Birchmere or Nick’s in Alexandria, or through free summer concerts at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill. New Penn Quarter restaurant, Hill Country Barbeque Market, also doubles as an “American Roots” performance venue. Its Boot Bar hosts shows from Tuesday-Saturday, and many are free.

DJ/DANCE SCENE: With the advent of personal computers and digital sound editing equipment, a new genre, electronica, emerged on the Washington, DC music scene. The pioneering producer team Thievery Corporation is known for its diverse musical influences and eclectic DJ sessions, which span a broad sonic spectrum. Incorporating Brazilian music, film soundtracks, heavy electronic dubs, Indian-ragas, Middle Eastern influences, jazz and Afrobeat, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have become two of the world’s top global selectors. They have a strong affiliation with DC’s electronic music mecca, Eighteenth Street Lounge, where top DJs from around the globe showcase their soft beats and ultra-cool style. The success of Eighteenth Street Lounge has led to the opening of several other lounge-style clubs that also feature electronica sets, including Chi Cha Lounge and Local 16. The newest venue to hit the scene, U Street Music Hall, was founded by local DJs Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth and features a 60-foot dance floor.

CLASSICAL: The Kennedy Center is a world class venue and home to two of the most prestigious organizations in the world, the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra. The Washington National Opera presents five productions per season at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The National Symphony Orchestraalso resides in the Kennedy Center. A diverse season sees the orchestra perform everything from pops and patriotic to Prokofiev.
The Washington, DC area is also the capital of choral music, with more than 70 choral groups throughout the region including the Air Force Singing Sergeants, National Christian Chorus, Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC and the Washington Bach Consort.

LARGE VENUES: All-time legends and current chart-topping artists like U2, Bon Jovi, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake always fill the 20,000-seat Verizon Center in DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood. Outside of DC, music lovers rejoice at venues such as Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD and Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts. Both boast a wide selection of musical performances as well as beautiful outdoor settings to enliven your concert experience.

SMALL VENUES: While large venues and elaborate sets are enticing, many concertgoers prefer the ambiance of a smaller setting. Washington, DC boasts several intimate concert venues that book a variety of popular acts ranging from hip-hop, rock and reggae to indie, punk and local musicians. The 9:30 Club packs in crowds nightly and earns its rep as the best live-music venue in town (according to The Washington Post and URB Magazine) with a balcony and a downstairs area, several bars and a large stage. The Black Cat, where Foo Fighter Dave Grohl is an investor, is more of a warehouse space showcasing indie and post-punk rock shows. DC9 Nightclub is another venue that fills the gap between huge music venues and tiny bars – featuring a host of indie musical acts, popular DJs and a jukebox with more than 300,000 songs. The Rock & Roll Hotel, an alternative venue in the Altas District, features newer and up and coming acts like Carolina Liar, the Roosevelt and Telograph but also keeps people coming back with regular performances from DJ’s and over-the-top dance parties. In 2011, two H Street staples, The Red & The Black and The House of Wonders, merged to create The Red Palace, resulting in a much bigger venue to host a unique blend of live music and Vaudeville shows.

New on the scene and just steps away from The White House is The Hamilton, DC’s largest restaurant/bar/music venue that features live music almost every night of the week and a kitchen that stays open into the wee hours. Meaning not only can you party like a rock star during jazz, bluegrass, swing and R&B shows, but you can feast like king afterwards.

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About Destination DC: Destination DC, the lead destination marketing organization for the nation’s capital, is a private, non-profit membership organization of more than 800 businesses committed to marketing the area as a premier global convention, tourism and special events destination with a special emphasis on the arts, cultural and historic communities. www.washington.org