Important Past Residents: Percussionist Barnett E. Williams

Image of Barnett Williams from Gazette.net, Photo credit: Christopher Anderson/The Gazette

Shortly after I started distributing the Park View Walking Trail brochure, I starting receiving emails informing me of notable persons and places connected to the neighborhood’s history. One of those individuals was percussionist Barnett E. Williams.

While I still have more research to do on Williams, I was told that he grew up on the 600 block of Rock Creek Church Road and confirmed that he lived at 634 Rock Creek Church Road by looking at DC Recorder of Deeds documents. The 2006 obituary from the Washington Post also provides the following:

Barnett Edward Williams, 61, a percussionist who lived his life to the beat of African drums and who loved sharing the drumming tradition with other enthusiasts, died March 4 of a heart attack at the home in the District where he was born. He was a District resident.

Mr. Williams, who was artist in residence for Fairfax County’s School Age Child Care Program, could be found on most Sunday afternoons in recent years in a drumming circle in the District’s Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park. Sweat-soaked on a summer afternoon, his palms callused from decades of drumming, he and fellow percussionists would pound out a seductive beat on squat West African djembes or maybe Senegalese kimbe drums or tall, sleek congas, as well as on maracas, bongos, cymbals and cowbells.

Considered one of the elders of the drumming circle, he started drumming at the historic park along 16th Street NW in 1967, when he was 11.

In addition, he was lead percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron and the Midnight Band and performed with Donald Byrd, Oscar Brown Jr., Candido, Dr. Billy Taylor and Donny Hathaway. Later, Williams founded the D.C. Percussion Society and formed the group Drums of Fire. With Melvin Deal, he founded the group African Heritage Dancers and Drummers.

The full obituary is really worth reading to understand just how accomplished Barnett E. Williams was.

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