Diving Into Washington, D.C.'s Music History—From Jazz to Punk, Go-Go And Beyond

Several walking tours will immerse you in the city’s rich musical heritage.

The Howard Theatre at 620 T Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C.

Music stars including Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye have graced the stage at the Howard Theatre.

Photo by faustasyan/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C., may be the center of government—but it’s also a profoundly musical city. “Any native Washingtonian will tell you that D.C. has amazing music history,” says Katie Kirkpatrick, who leads several music-focused tours for her company Off the Mall Tours. The birthplace of Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye, the city has produced extraordinary artists and fostered deeply influential music cultures, most notably in three genres: jazz, punk, and go-go (D.C.’s official music). Dive into that history with these tours, museums, and must-see sites.


In Northwest D.C., U Street has long been a center of nightlife and entertainment. Kirkpatrick’s “Ellington to Langston, the Jazz Era in DC” tour visits the iconic spots around the corridor once known as Black Broadway. “When we think of the 1920s and the Black arts, we think of Harlem [in New York City] and the Harlem Renaissance,” says Kirkpatrick. “But so many of those musicians started in D.C. first.”

The U Street area historically had a strong African American community, especially due to its proximity to Howard University, one of the nation’s top HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), founded in 1867. That community nurtured such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, who grew up just a block away from U Street. “He had a lot of resources to explore his musical talent,” Kirkpatrick says. Even after he achieved stardom at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Ellington often returned to perform in D.C., and he opened his own establishment there in the 1940s (now the site of the famed 9:30 Club).

Other renowned D.C. artists include Jelly Roll Morton, credited as being the first composer of jazz; singer and pianist Shirley Horn; and saxophonist and mailman Buck Hill (a 70-foot-tall mural of Hill playing the saxophone in his postal worker uniform can be seen at the corner of 14th & U Streets). Along with jazz superstars such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday—who frequently visited D.C.—they performed at clubs with tantalizing names like Bohemian Caverns, Club Bali, and the Jungle Inn. “U Street provided a home for these artists,” Kirkpatrick says. Historical markers denote the sites of the now-closed clubs; the building that housed Bohemian Caverns, located at the corner of 11th and U Streets, still sports its name and piano keyboard on the facade with a large 3D saxophone.

Historian and musician Ken Avis—a D.C. resident since 1996—regularly gives talks at the Smithsonian on D.C. popular music, and his “U Street Music History Walking Tour” unveils the area’s jazz scene. Along with sites of bygone clubs, both Kirkpatrick’s and Avis’s tours highlight the Howard Theatre, the jewel of Black Broadway. Opened in 1910 (predating New York’s Apollo Theater), the Howard was “the first theater in the USA constructed for Black artists and audiences,” says Avis. Today it still hosts world-class performances by artists including Wyclef Jean, Keke Palmer, and Kendrick Lamar.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, protest riots devastated U Street, and much of the city’s nightlife shifted to Georgetown. Avis’s “Music City Georgetown” walking tour, starting this spring, will focus on the neighborhood’s music scene from the 1960s to ’90s, featuring jazz, blues, folk, rock, and more. The tour will end at Blues Alley, a D.C. landmark. Founded in 1965, the intimate venue is the oldest continuously operating jazz supper club in the United States; legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Byrd have played here.

The band Void playing at the 9:30 Club in 1982.

The band Void playing at the 9:30 Club in 1982.

Photo by @jimsaah


Buttoned-up D.C. has a tougher side, amply demonstrated by its fervent punk subculture from the mid-’70s to the ’90s. Bands such as the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Bad Brains gave a voice to disaffected youth during the Cold War and the conservative Reagan era. D.C. was especially known for its brand of hardcore punk (often stylized harDCore).

“Punk rock is singing about the problem, while hardcore is singing about doing something about the problem,” says musician Jason Hamacher, the drummer for the ’90s punk band Frodus. “It’s more action-oriented.”

Hamacher owns Lost Origins Gallery in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which frequently hosts exhibitions related to D.C. music. I’ve attended fascinating shows at the gallery, including on Jim Saah’s punk concert photography and another on memorabilia from the legendary recording studio Inner Ear; another exhibition, conducted in partnership with the Smithsonian, covered the legacy of Fugazi.

Katie Kirkpatrick explores the music genre in her “District of Punk” walking tour, which features punk locales in the Gallery Place neighborhood downtown like the site of d.c. space. The beloved arts venue championed the weird and the avant-garde between 1977 and 1991. “The whole point of it was to be open to non-mainstream acts,” says Kirkpatrick. Dave Grohl—who went on to international stardom with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters—“got his start playing at d.c. space in his early teens,” Kirkpatrick says. “The D.C. punk scene is where he cut his chops in music.”

Kirkpatrick’s tour ends at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which hosts both the D.C. Punk Archive and the Go-Go Archive. I recently visited the library to see its dynamic exhibits on the fourth floor, which showcase photos, band shirts, buttons and fliers, recording studio equipment, and historical concert footage of punk and go-go performances. Those wanting a deeper look can request to study the archives’ meticulously curated materials; I flipped through evocative posters for shows at Black Cat and d.c. space and through homemade zines from the ’80s filled with passionate band reviews and teenage angst. Visitors can see current punk and go-go bands in action during the library’s free summertime concert program on the rooftop.

Another historic site still offering punk shows is Fort Reno Park, in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Part of the National Park Service, Fort Reno has hosted an outdoor summer music series for more than 40 years, mostly dedicated to local punk acts. “If you’ve ever seen crazy footage of Fugazi, it’s mainly at Fort Reno,” says Hamacher.

The D.C. Preservation League has developed nearly 60 free self-guided tours of the city for its D.C. Historic Sites app. The “Exploring D.C.’s Punk and Go-Go Scenes” tour provides historical information on 15 sites that were pivotal to the development of the two music styles, including the original 9:30 Club and Georgetown University’s daring student radio station.

The Metro PCS building on Florida Ave

The owner of the Metro PCS building has been playing go-go music for decades.

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock


Not many cities can boast about creating an entirely new genre of music, but go-go was unquestionably born in D.C. Chuck Brown, hailed as the godfather of go-go, developed its distinctive beat in the 1970s and debuted the new sound in local clubs. “Bustin’ Loose,” Brown’s hit single with the Soul Searchers, topped the R&B charts in 1979, and D.C. go-go group E.U. was featured on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. In 2020, the city council passed a law decreeing go-go to be the official music of Washington, D.C.

A combo of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and Afro-Latin rhythms, go-go has many defining features, including nonstop percussion between sets—which keeps the crowd dancing all night long—and call-and-response routines that actively involve the audience.

“I most enjoy the unity of go-go,” says musician JusPaul. “The crowd is also a part of the performance.” A proud D.C. native who “grew up on go-go,” JusPaul performs with his band, JusPaul and the Family, and teaches master classes on go-go around the world. He offers private tours on the genre that also delve into the history of D.C. and its Black communities. “Go-go is a very politically driven music genre,” he says.

The tour starts at the Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast D.C., a center of civil rights activism and the home base of the Junkyard Band, a go-go group formed by children in 1980. So named because they played with buckets, soda cans, and other found objects, the hugely influential band was eventually signed by Def Jam Recordings. If dates align, JusPaul’s tours will end at a go-go performance. He loves taking people to Air Lounge in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, where the bands Sirius Company and Top5 often play on weekends.

The new Go-Go Museum and Café, due to open in April, will be an unparalleled resource for the genre. The 6,000-square-foot complex in the historic Anacostia neighborhood seeks to preserve and innovate the art form of go-go, detailing its Afro-Caribbean roots and cultural impact while providing a recording studio and performance stages for musicians. A mobile pop-up museum is also cruising the city, bringing music to schools and communities.

“Go-go represents the creative spirit, the never-give-up spirit of Washington, D.C.,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser at the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony. “We have to do all we can to preserve that culture.”

Karen Carmichael is a Washington, D.C.–based travel journalist. Production editor for AFAR, she has also been published in National Geographic, Budget Travel, and the Los Angeles Times.
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