It has often been said that street musicians supply the music that is the soul of the city. In sync with the rapid pace of footsteps on the pavement, providing the beat for the day and offering a bit of entertainment, street musicians are very real and in touch with reality. So real and in touch, in fact, that the New York Hotel and Casino hired musicians from the mean streets of New York to create an authentic environment when it opened a location in Las Vegas.
Street musicians do not just perform in New York. In fact, there are plenty right here in D.C.
Cleophus Rice is one such artist. Standing half a block from Metro Center at 1317 G St., NW, Rice belts out tunes on his trumpet from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. After each song Rice, who wears a pair of dark sunglasses, yells or nods to people walking by, some who seem to recognize the musician.
How you doin’, pretty lady? he says as he bows his head just slightly, points with his trumpet and gives a woman walking by a tooth-baring smile.
Taking a moment to realize that the musician is speaking to her, a woman walking by on the sidewalk turns toward Cleo, as he likes to be called, and responds.
Who me? the woman says. I’m doing fine. How you doing?
Oh me, I’m blessed by the best, Rice says, with the Church of the Epiphany behind him.
That’s how Rice, a deeply religious man, responds whenever someone asks how he is feeling or doing. I’m blessed by the best.
Perhaps Rice has every reason to be a deeply religious considering some of the things he’s been through. Just about a year ago his daughter was diagnosed with terminal leukemia.
I could not work a regular job, says Rice, who has worked as a teacher and house painter before. She needed lots of attention.
Rice turned to playing music as an outlet to help him through tough times, saying it was all he wanted to do. It was his release, he says.
When Rice’s daughter died last April, he said his world came crashing down. As devastating loss was, Rice persevered – which he maintains everyone must do – and has continued to play music.
I don’t want to sink, I want to swim, Rice says. I put soul into my music. Some people say I blow like Louis (Armstrong), but I just blow the best I can.
Venturing around the District to spread his message and to paint a beautiful picture of who I am and what I want to be, Rice can be seen rain or shine, in the cold of winter and the heat of summer. Although he mostly can be found at his spot in front of the church, Rice travels throughout the city spending time in Georgetown, Friendship Heights and on Connecticut Avenue south of Dupont Circle, he says.
Rice says his love of music began when he was eight years old. He started playing the trumpet and singing along to Michael Jackson songs. He says he still sings – though no more Michael Jackson songs – and has also added dancing to his repertoire. Calling himself a Renaissance man, Rice likes to joke about his multitude of abilities. He is putting all of his talents to use as he rehearses for the part of a preacher in a play called Serafina.
While Rice said he is working on putting together a recording and occasionally has played in some clubs, it is apparent that he gets immense joy playing on the street and seeing people’s reaction.
I like to try to give them something, Rice says. It is my emotional personality that reveals itself in my music.