May 17, 2012
Washington, D.C. lost a musical icon yesterday. The legendary Chuck Brown died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 75. Brown will be remembered for his decades of engaging live performances, his distinctive stage personality and his development of go-go music, a sub-genre of funk which incorporated R&B, early hip-hop elements and audience participation.
“He’s got such a legacy in music in creating a genre of its own,” says Dwan Reece, a curator of music at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “The chanting, the call-and-response—it was, more than anything, one long party.”
Brown was born in Gaston, North Carolina in 1936; after moving around as a child, his family settled in Washington, D.C. in the early 1940s. As a boy, he hustled, shining shoes and selling newspapers in the street. During this time, he met many prominent African-American entertainers—he said that he once shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes at the Howard Theater. His musical talent showed early on, as he sang in church from the age of two and learned to play the piano by ear as a seven-year-old.
The performer endured a turbulent adolescence, in which he worked odd jobs, hopped trains as a hobo and served three years of prison time (the crime was assault, but Brown maintained that he acted in self-defense). While at Lorton Penitentiary, Brown rediscovered his love of music, teaching himself to play guitar and putting on shows for other inmates. Once he was paroled, he began performing in clubs and lounges around D.C.
In the early ’70s, Brown put together a band called the Soul Searchers and began innovating his signature sound: go-go. He blended funk, R&B, the call-and-response tradition from African-American church culture and other elements to create a highly energetic, danceable style that took the city by storm. “He started off playing with rhythm and percussion, and adding Latin instruments,” Reece says. “Then he learned that he could keep the percussion going between songs, so there was always some kind of activity, no break. He would chant, he would rhyme, and it became like a house party, a really familiar, down home environment.” His biggest early hits included “We Need Some Money” and “Bustin’ Loose.”
Brown’s close relationships with neighborhood audiences enabled him to take participation to a whole new level. “People would shout out birthdays, they’d send notes of things for him to say. he would call them out, and the audience would repeat back, and then he’d break into the next song,” Reece says. “There was an energy, and it was infectious. There was no line between the performer and the audience.”
Brown never became well-known nationally—his music had to be appreciated in a live setting to truly understand what made it so special. In D.C., though, where he played as often as six nights a week and sometimes twice a night, he became an icon. “He was so intricately tied to this city,” says Reece. “There are certain cities that are just defined by their music—when you think jazz, you think of New Orleans, and for R&B, you think Memphis. When you look at go-go, it is really the only music indigenous to Washington, DC.”
Although it never took off as a country-wide phenomenon, go-go had an indelible impact on contemporary American music. “It was definitely influential, especially with hip-hop,” Reece says. “His music involved samples, and was all about rhyming and the beat, and using energy to keep it going.”
Brown said that the genre took its name because “the music just goes and goes.” And just like his music, the legendary performer kept on going, regularly performing through his final years.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, set to open in its own building on the Mall in 2015, will feature an exhibition called “Musical Crossroads” that examines the influence of African-Americans on music. “The exhibit will have a section on music on the city, with go-go as a case study, looking at the role that place and community play in helping to define music,” says Reece. “We had been talking to Chuck Brown, and he was very excited about it, so I’m sad that he won’t be able to see it, but it will certainty illustrate his legacy in a larger way.”
February 27, 2012
Events Feb 28-March 1: Paradox of Liberty, A Not So Still Life, and Perspectives on “Limits to Growth”
Tuesday, February 28 Paradox of Liberty Tour
If you haven’t yet seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” take a guided tour through the history of the plantation and the men and women who kept it running. Free. 10:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. American History Museum.
Wednesday, February 29 A Not So Still Life
This documentary follows the riveting story of world-renowned glass artist Ginny Ruffner, whose new body of work springs from a near-fatal car accident that left her in a coma for several weeks. From pop-up books, to room-sized installation pieces, to public works, Ruffner’s art continues to blossom. After the film, meet the artist herself and hear her thoughts on the experience. Free. 12:00 p.m. Renwick Gallery.
Thursday, March 1 Perspectives on “Limits to Growth”
This symposium marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the seminal 1972 report Limits to Growth, one of the earliest scholarly treatises to recognize the unsustainable nature of the planet’s growth. Even now, we face many of the same social, economic and environmental issues we did when the report was first published. Join scholars and experts in a day of debate and discussion on the sustainability challenges facing the world today. Free, RSVP at Consortia@si.edu. 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Rasmuson Theater, American Indian Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
February 22, 2012
This morning, amidst camera flashbulbs and television cameras in an enormous white tent on the National Mall, with President Barack Obama presiding, former First Lady Laura Bush, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, museum director Lonnie Bunch and others took part in a milestone moment in Smithsonian history. After a five-second countdown shouted in unison by the jubilant crowd, the assembled dignitaries plunged their shovels into a small rectangle of dirt, marking the groundbreaking for the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
President Obama spoke moments before the ground was broken, praising the efforts of those responsible for the museum. “This day has been a long time coming,” he said. “We will preserve within these walls the history of a people who, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ We will remember their stories.”
The ceremony that preceded the groundbreaking featured stirring speeches by notables such as civil rights leader and Georgia Representative John Lewis, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and others. There were inspirational performances by opera singer Denyce Graves, baritone Thomas Hampson, jazz pianist Jason Moran and the U.S. Navy Band.
Watch a clip from the Smithsonian Channel’s “Museum in the Making” special program:
Once the thousands of folding chairs are hauled away and the tent broken down, construction teams will begin the work of building a new museum that will tell a new strand of the American story to the public. Bunch and others will continue seeking out artifacts and curating exhibitions, adding to the more than 25,000 pieces they have already collected since 2005, when he was named director. Once it is completed in 2015, the museum will tell generations the story of the African-American struggle for freedom.
“Millions of visitors will stand where we stand long after we’re gone,” Obama said. “When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl, or Nat Turner’s bible, or the plane flown by the Tuskegee airmen, I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life—I want them to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and the determination to right a wrong.”
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch echoed Obama’s call for the museum to illustrate the multifaceted history of African-Americans, from slavery through the present. “It must tell the unvarnished truth. This will be a museum with moments that make one cry, or ponder the pain of slavery and segregation,” he said. “It will also be a museum that soars on the resiliency of a people, and will illuminate the joy and the belief in the promise of America that has shaped this community.”
Creation of the museum began with passage of a congressional act in 2003. The building will be located on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets, just beside the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, and within eyesight of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. “What a magnificent location, and view, with powerful symbolism,” the Smithsonian’s Secretary G. Wayne Clough said. “It’s a fitting home for this museum, invoking the indelible threads that connect the fabric of African-American stories to the American tapestry.”
The building itself is designed by a team including award-winning architect David Adjaye, who was selected in April 2009 by a jury chaired by Bunch. The unique design includes a three-tiered copper-coated “corona,” which will house the main gallery spaces, along with a “porch,” which will serve as the entrance that connects the museum to the surrounding Mall. “The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility,” Adjaye said in an interview in this month’s issue of Smithsonian. “It brings that sense that this is not a story about past trauma. It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame.”
The museum will feature exhibitions on African-American culture, community and history, starting with the Middle Passage and continuing through slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century. Notable artifacts already in the museum’s collections include Emmett Till’s casket, a Jim Crow-era segregated railway car, a vintage Tuskegee plane and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible.
President Obama is confident that these artifacts and the exhibitions will not just serve as history lessons, but also motivate future generations to struggle against injustice and continue striving for equality. “The museum will do more than simply keep these memories alive,” he said. “It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily. It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop trying.”
February 17, 2012
Friday, February 17 Gallery Talk: Jacob Lawrence
Inspired by the shapes and colors of Harlem, painter Jacob Lawrence was, as the New York Times wrote, “among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience.” Find out why in this gallery tour led by Jacquelyn D. Serwer, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Free. 12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Hirshhorn Museum.
Saturday, February 18 Presidential Family Fun Day
Get your patriotic spirit up at the Kogod Courtyard’s presidential family party. Enjoy fife and drum performances, learn about American history, and make presidential crafts to take home with you. You might even meet George Washington. Free. 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Kogod Courtyard, American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
Sunday, February 19 Artuaré Tour
See Artuaré through the eyes of the artist himself with a special tour by Steven M. Cummings. Cummings will discuss the inspirations and stories behind this exhibition of his artistic evolution. Free, but make a reservation at 202-633-4844. 2:00 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
February 16, 2012
Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will break ground with much fanfare. As announced yesterday, the February 22 groundbreaking ceremony on the National Mall will be emceed by actress and singer Phylicia Rashad, will feature former First Lady Laura Bush and will include remarks by President Barack Obama. The event will also feature musical performances by opera singer Denyce Graves, baritone Thomas Hampson, jazz pianist Jason Moran, the U.S. Navy Band and others.
The museum will be located 0n the National Mall on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets, between the American History Museum and the Washington Monument. Scheduled to open in 2015, the museum will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to African American life, art, history and culture. Plans first began in 2003, when Congress passed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act. Since July 2005, when Lonnie Bunch was named the director, the museum has began collecting artifacts and producing exhibitions displayed in the American History Museum and elsewhere.
In April 2009, an official jury selected the design for the building, choosing David Adjaye’s bronze, multi-tiered structure. “The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility,” Adjaye said in a recent interview with Smithsonian. “For me, the story is one that’s extremely uplifting, as a kind of world story. It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame.”
Of course, the National Mall is home to many Smithsonian Museums—and has hosted a number of groundbreaking ceremonies throughout the Institution’s history. We assembled a selection of shovel-at-the-ready images from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
The Natural History Museum was originally constructed as the U.S. National Museum Building. Architects Joseph Coerten Hornblower and James Rush Marshall, Secretary Samuel P. Langley and Smithsonian employees looked on as the first shovel of dirt was lifted in 1904.
Solomon Brown worked at the Smithsonian for more than fifty years, from 1852 to 1906, and was likely the Institution’s first African-American employee, hired as a cabinetmaker soon after its founding in 1846. On the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking, in June of 2004, a tree was planted in his name on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History.
Geologist George P. Merrill and others gathered in 1916 to watch sod lifted for the Freer Gallery of Art, which was completed in 1923 to house railroad manufacturer Charles Lang Freer’s extensive collection of classical Asian art.
In 1972, the Smithsonian secretary Dillon S. Ripley and Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger turn over the first shovelfuls of dirt for the Air and Space Museum. They were joined by Representative Kenneth Gray and Senators Jennings Randolph and J. William Fulbright. Before the building was constructed, the museum was known as the National Air Museum, and its artifacts were housed in a number of Smithsonian buildings.
The Quadrangle complex was built behind the castle to house the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, the S. Dillon Ripley Center and the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Then-vice president George Bush was on hand to supervise the groundbreaking in 1983.
The Anacostia Community Museum was originally known as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, designed to reflect the history and traditions of families, organizations, individuals and communities, as well as serve the Anacostia Community. A groundbreaking ceremony in 1985 included the museum’s founding director John Kinard and then-Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams.