Add ethnomusicologist to Lafayette Gilchrist’s résumé. The Washington, D.C. born and raised, Baltimore-based jazz composer and pianist is sitting in a Mount Vernon coffee shop using Parliament’s ‘Aqua Boogie’ to illustrate the way go-go, the dance music that began percolating out of Washington in the late 1960s and ’70s, saturated his life growing up. The P-Funk song, he explains, follows Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, the funkless character who claims he can’t swim. He’s tossed into the water and emerges, baptized, at last able to get under the groove.
“Go-go was like that,” he says. “Nobody stood still—even those hard heads, man. They wouldn’t dance a whole lot because they were gangsters but they would be like,” and he nods his head a little bit. “And I mean gangsters—that was their job. Even they would be at the go-go show.”
Gilchrist often turns to other artists and music to discuss his new album, “The Go-Go Suite” (on Bernard Lyons’ Creative Differences imprint), which was inspired by Washington’s homegrown dance music and its figurehead, the late Chuck Brown. Of course music forms the building blocks of his mind; he’s a musician. But even those of us who can’t combine noise and time to stir the soul recognize music’s Proustian power. It’s memory’s wallpaper; its notes, rhythms, and feelings peel back the layers of our individual experiences.
Go-go’s origins as the people’s party music anchors the album. Gilchrist envisions it as a single night’s dance-floor experience, telling a story about what’s gone on in his hometown’s African-American communities since the music bubbled up through the inner city and spread out into the suburbs today.
Gilchrist says his first exposure to a number of jazz classics were performed by Brown and set to go-go’s leisurely, syncopated rhythms. Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the “A” Train,’ Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)’—these songs first hit Gilchrist’s consciousness as dance-floor funk. “One tune that really caught my ear that he used to play a lot, especially at Chapter III, was ‘Harlem Nocturne,’” Gilchrist says, referring to the Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers standard and the now-closed Southeast Washington nightclub. “When I first heard ‘Harlem Nocturne’ the way it’s traditionally played, I was like, ‘Why they messing up the rhythm?’” He hums the melody as a stately strings ballad, shakes his head and laughs, and begins humming it again with a hip-wiggling bounce. “Man, that would get everybody on the dance floor.”
“The Go-Go Suite” opens with ‘The View From Here,’ which builds from go-go’s instantly recognizable pulse and spreads into a tapestry of brassy horns and driving funk. Gilchrist’s band, the New Volcanoes—trumpeter Michael Cerri; reeds players John Dierker, Tiffany DeFoe, and Gregory Thompkins; guitarist Carl Filipiak; bassist Anthony “Blue” Jenkins; percussionist Kevin Pinder; and drummer Nathan Reynolds—chews into the song, using the backing beat as a launching pad for soaring, intertwined solos and finishes with Gilchrist’s piano walking away from the melody to a more poignant, reflective moment. For Gilchrist, the song is a portrait of his Washington and “what’s happened to various neighborhoods that I knew, which haven’t changed all that much,” he says. “But what’s around them has changed.”
Listening to Gilchrist talk it’s clear he recognizes that go-go’s shift from inner-city party music to the suburbs goes hand in hand with the economic constriction of Washington’s black population. After all, Washington was Chocolate City, one of America’s urban metropolises with a majority black population, which Parliament honored with a 1975 album of the same name. In 2011, the capitol’s black population fell below 50 percent for the first time since 1957; recent estimates have it hovering just either side of 50 percent. Some of that decline can be attributed to the population losses that have beset cities since the 1960s, but some of it also comes in the form of urban renewal’s higher rents and costs of living that many people can’t afford.
It’s an awareness of class conflict that Gilchrist puts into ‘Contact,’ which pairs a chilled-out go-go beat with some of the album’s more hair-raising horn blasts and Gilchrist’s own impassioned playing. It’s an abrasively arresting song, positing go-go as a part of the city’s past that’s trying to be swept aside. ‘Contact’ is about different populations “coming to grips with one another, gentrification, and the squeezing of the black middle and working class out of D.C.,” he says, explaining that’s why it’s so strident, which he illustrates by clapping his hands together firmly. “It’s like a ton of bricks hitting you in the head.”
That narrative might not come through in such specific details when listening, but ‘Contact’ is forged in conflict. “I don’t know how I could write music without it having some kind of protest or some kind of strong insight into the injustice of the arrangement of things,” Gilchrist says, admitting it’s difficult because “political people tend to do some corny-ass music.”
He then makes a poignant observation: Go-go is one the last forms of regional urban dance music to have instruments. Yes, producers have used a number of live instruments in mixes of house, club, techno, hip-hop, and any of their many hybridizations, but it’s not music born out of the social group dynamic of a band. Technology reduced that process to the individual, and these DIY tools have empowered so many more people to make art. But does the atomization of the music’s production impact its power to unite?
For Gilchrist go-go was always a social experience, from its creation by a band to its consumption on the dance floor. That it brought everybody together might’ve rubbed a few people the wrong way. He says that he recalls black and white people who “had certain class aspirations” hating go-go. Was it considered working-class? “They used less polite terms than ‘working class,’” he says. “But because it was a working-class thing, nobody ragged on the way each other danced. You were free to do what you know how to do.”
“The only people who were ragged on were white folks, because it was new to you guys at that time,” he continues with a smile. “But now everybody dances to it in D.C.—which is great, because that means the music really means something.”
Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes are joined by Shodekeh and play a record release show for “The Go-Go Suite” Nov. 2 at the Windup Space.