“I was so in love with this guy,” Campbell recalled. “The stories he told, the music – he had it all. And on the way out, I talked to Plunky, and I was like, ‘We have to do a documentary. Can I help you ?’ He said, ‘Sure, let’s talk about it.’
It was not a well-covered topic in music history. Primarily a jazz label, Black Fire was a small, niche operation with sales mostly concentrated in the DC area. Outside of the Beltway, most of his artists and recordings had cult hits at best.
On the other hand, its founding in 1975 coincided with the beginning of DC’s inner regime (to which the “HR” of Campbell’s operation refers), itself a microcosm of the growing political, social and economic consciousness of the African-Americans of the time. And it had significance beyond symbolism: Black Fire’s roster slowly expanded beyond jazz to include soul, funk and the early recordings of genre group Experience Unlimited – later known as from EU, one of the main artists in the DC go-go music scene. (A decade after his Black Fire debut, EU would perform “Da Butt” in Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” bringing perhaps his brightest international spotlight.)
It was a legacy worth commemorating.
Armed with a grant from HumanitiesDC and a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Campbell assembled a team to produce “The Black Fire Documentary,” a 28-minute film that chronicles the label through archival footage and about two dozens of interviews (including, full disclosure, this writer).
But that wasn’t enough, Campbell decided. “Black Fire” needed a real splash.
The Home Rule Foundation was already sponsoring a series of concerts and movies at the Parks, an outdoor community space on the former Walter Reed campus. “The light bulb went on,” Campbell said. “Why don’t we get Plunky, try to get EU and [other representative artists]and spend a day of music, then end the day with the screening of the documentary? »
Branch quickly agreed. Jimmy Gray’s son, Jamal, a DC-based musician and curator, has also signed on to help the Home Rule Foundation organize the festival, scheduled for June 11 at the parks. Although EU has already been booked for a gig in Virginia, lead singer Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott has signed on for another date to lead a workshop on go-go music and culture.
Added to the procedure are artists who did not record for Black Fire but who represented the same era, the same philosophy and the same aesthetic. If the EU can’t make it happen, TCB – another beloved and long-running go-go band – can. Doug Carn, a witty jazz pianist (and a frequent presence at DC’s Bohemian Caverns in the 2000s and 2010s), recorded in the 1970s for the Black Jazz label of Oakland, California. He agreed to perform and lead a meditation workshop. CapitalBop, DC’s loyal jazz advocacy organization, features an octet led by saxophonist David Murray, arguably the most iconic avant-garde jazz artist of the 1970s and 1980s.
Add DJs to open the proceedings, on-site concessions by Denizens Brewing and Anxo restaurant and cider house, and even a special one-edition Home Rule magazine (in homage to Gray’s old Black Fire magazine), and a day of music and film becomes a full-fledged Home Rule festival.
Branch and Oneness of Juju close out the musical program, with the saxophonist next performing in the climactic documentary.
There’s a certain eerie irony in celebrating Black Fire — emblematic as it is of DC’s largely bygone ‘Chocolate City’ design — in Walter Reed’s parks, whose mixed-use redevelopment is a symbol of contemporary gentrification in the capital.
Yet there is also a note of victory. Amid new condominiums, a charter school and a Whole Foods, old DC is once again leaving an indelible mark.
“I think we’re hitting all the key components and under the guise of trying to follow the spirit of Black Fire and Jimmy, if we can,” Campbell says. “It’s tough on these tracks, but we’re doing our best. And we’re really excited about it.
Parks at Walter Reed, 1010 Butternut St. NW. homerulemusicfestival.com.
Date: June 11 from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (the rainy date is June 12.)