- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Their sound floats up from the summer swelter of D.C.’s sidewalks and down the dark escalators to the Metro stations. It wraps around government buildings and museums and trickles through the water fountains in front of national monuments.

The music finds its way into the ears of politicians, lawyers, bums and whoever else happens to be on the crowded D.C. street corner at the moment. Some acknowledge the melody with a quarter. A few splurge with a dollar. Most just walk by, oblivious to the sidewalk fixtures they pass every day on the way to work.

Unnoticed by many, adored by some, street musicians dot the District like reliable guidebook markers. They’re there every day, 9 to 5, rain or shine. Some are homeless; others are quite well off. Some are novices trying to get discovered; others are touring professionals who practice on the street. They all agree on one thing: They’re there for the love of music … and to make a little dough.

Jose Dominguez, grant and legislative manager of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, estimates that the city is home to three dozen to four dozen permanent street musicians. He says they play wherever the crowds go — usually at Metro stops, in front of museums and monuments, and at busy hubs such as Union Station.

Mr. Dominguez says the musicians are protected by their First Amendment right to perform on any public property in the city so long as they keep the sound below a certain decibel threshold. The performers are not allowed to play on federal property or inside Metro stations, but Mr. Dominguez says many do so anyway. He says the reason many musicians defy city ordinances is the same reason they’re playing on the street.

“They’re a very independent lot,” he says, “And that’s one of the reasons they’re out there playing their music. I get the sense they definitely want to be supported and encouraged, but I don’t get the sense that they want to be regulated.”

Outside the National Museum of Natural History — well onto federal property — a man reclines against the railing, eyes closed, playing jazz on his saxophone. He’s dressed well: red Kangol hat, striped button-down shirt, khaki shorts. A bum he’s not.

Vincent Hammond, 41, says he has been playing around the city for years. He has gotten booked several times for disorderly conduct and panhandling, but he doesn’t let the charges keep him away.

“We get hassled sometimes, but after a while [police] just leave you alone because they know you’ll keep coming back,” he says. “They try to call what I’m doing panhandling, but it’s not panhandling. I’m playing the horn, and people are putting money in my case because I’m doing something.”

Mr. Hammond has spent his life playing music. He graduated from the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and New York State University and has bounced around between New York and Washington playing gigs ever since. He says he plays on city streets to practice for shows at jazz clubs such as the city’s HR-57. He adds that he often makes more on the sidewalk than he does at his shows.

At first, Mr. Hammond is shy about revealing how much he earns on the street, allowing only that “it’s much more than minimum wage.” Soon he gets bolder, admitting that he sometimes makes hundreds of dollars a day.

Aside from making money, many musicians use the streets for exposure. Many get booked for weddings and birthday parties by passers-by who notice their talent. Others get discovered by big-time bookers. Mr. Hammond says a little vaguely that he once was approached on the streets of New York City by Cyndi Lauper and has since worked with her.

Spencer Lancaster stands in front of the MCI Center with an electric guitar slung around his neck. Mr. Lancaster, 47, isn’t playing the guitar right now, though — he’s playing his hands. Known as “Hantastic Hands,” he plays a repertoire of songs just using his hands.

Mr. Lancaster says he has gotten countless invitations to play at birthday parties, weddings, churches and conventions from curious onlookers who are amazed that he can play Sade or Eric Clapton songs by blowing into his cupped hands.

Mr. Lancaster performed in a holiday vaudeville show on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in 2001. Right now, he’s playing “This Old Man” for Anna Brown, 4, who is in the city for lunch with her family.

As Mr. Lancaster plays on his hands, Anna stares in disbelief. She runs up and starts tugging on the guitar around Mr. Lancaster’s neck.

“You’re playing on this!” she yells, unable to fathom that someone could play a song without an instrument.

Then she pouts. “You’re a clown.”

Mr. Lancaster plays along, feigning tears. “Ooh, don’t call me that,” he wails.

Right now, Mr. Lancaster is doing what he does best: drawing in the laughing family, hoping it’ll get him a gig. As the family walks away, he tells the girl: “I can come play at your school. Or at your church. Or at your family reunion.”

Not all street musicians have great aspirations, or even hopes of landing gigs. Some play because they’re bored, they want to make a few extra bucks, and they have always loved music.

On the steps in front of Union Station, an elderly man sways back and forth playing the recorder softly. Clifton Prophet, 63, has been playing Union Station five days a week for years. He plays Eastern Market on the weekends.

Mr. Prophet says that being single and on a fixed income, he doesn’t have much else to do with his time. He says he makes between $15 and $20 a day — not a lot, but enough for pocket money.

As with most street musicians, money isn’t the only reason Mr. Prophet plays. For him, the pay is incidental. When asked why he comes out so regularly for so little money, Mr. Prophet perks up for the first time, holds his head high and cracks a big smile.

“Music,” he says. “Music is beautiful. I love music.”

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