When I lived in D.C. in the late ‘70s, my tiny studio apartment was on the northwest side of the city, in a building right across from Meridian Hill Park, commonly known in the black cultural community as Malcolm X Park.
It was in Malcolm X Park where guys and a few girls of Afro and Latino persuasions gathered daily with their bongos, congas, djembes, bottles, plastic buckets and sticks, to form a makeshift percussive band. I adopted that band from a distance and relied on their homegrown rhythms to be my morning wake-up and pain reducing backdrop for my workouts in the park.
The members of my makeshift rhythm band were a down-to-earth, motley bunch of folks. They were people who I saw frequently on the streets, but never any one I expected to see on screen or stage. Then one day, Gil Scott- Heron, my poetic hero, sat in. Without fanfare, there he was, sitting in the mix, rocking with the rest. To me, that was a big deal. I was 20-something recently moved to the culturally vibrant Chocolate City and totally in love with Gil’s voice, his looks and his lyrics. I never expected to see the man who was celebrity to me, jamming in the park in a show that wasn’t his own. When I noticed that Gil’s presence wasn’t causing the hearts or the rhythms of the other band members to skip a beat, I figured that he must have been more regular on that scene that I had imagined. I was told later that he was. I was in awe, but I didn’t do anything idiotic like make the band stop the music so I could ask Gil for his autograph. But I did stop my workout and stood there gazing as he sat with conga between his knees, wearing a look of pure bliss on his face as he played.
While I never had an opportunity to see Gil perform live in concert, I don’t feel deprived now that he is gone. My memories of that brief moment in the park and the literary legacy that he left in his wake, makes me still feel rich indeed.