What was Jazz and Colors, the outdoor jazz festival in New York City's Central Park on Saturday afternoon?
The journalist's answer is: a public art event. Thirty different bands each played two sets. They were all spread out throughout the nooks and crannies of Central Park's 843 acres. All the bands were instructed to play the same set lists (see below), making for 30 different interpretations of the same 18 standards. The songs were largely associated with fall and New York City: "Central Park West," "Scrapple From The Apple," "Autumn In New York," etc. It was free and open to the public.
Of course, it was much more than that. To casual attendees — those who simply wandered into the park for a run, or a stroll, or to practice skating moves, or an excursion with friends to the zoo — it was a pleasant surprise. Imagine the serendipity of stumbling upon a high-functioning jazz band on your way to, say, the grocery store. Now imagine that your walk to the grocery store overlooks a backdrop of deciduous trees in fall colors, aligned in magnificent vistas overlooking bodies of water, skyscrapers and other topographic landmarks. There's no context to shout at you, "This is an important band and you should like it!" There are no rules with which to experience it.
For jazz heads, it had much to recommend it, even if it wasn't an ideal way to hear a favorite band. This was an Cool Event, as in a "community happening" or "place for people to hang out," not a Major International Jazz Festival, even if the talent level was suited for that designation. To enjoy it, you had to keep that in mind. That meant ignoring (lack of) sound mixes, or the background noise of taxis and buses, or a wet bum from sitting on a hillside. It also denied the chance for the composers out there to show off their visions with the pen.
Conversely, it served as a de facto argument for a standard repertoire. These songs still command some recognition (however faint) in the public imagination, and New York's folkloric identity is still tied to swinging versions of, say, "Skating In Central Park" or "I'll Take Manhattan." But not only did it feel appropriate. The jazz community can seem awfully divided at times: uptown vs. downtown, black vs. white, new buzzed-about kids vs. ignored-but-wise veterans, straight-ahead vs. free, and other false dichotomies. Here was a reminder that most everybody comes up on the same tunes, and that they can serve as creative points of departure or unification alike.
So there was saxophonist JD Allen's quartet swinging hard on "A Train" by a flower bed; flutist Jamie Baum exploiting the timbres of her quintet on "Autumn Serenade"; cellist Marika Hughes with violin, bass and guitar jamming on the blues of "Blue Train"; Jason Marshall's baritone-sax-and-organ combo with a much different take on the same song literally across the pond. There was vibraphonist Chris Dingman leading a funk-inflected version of "The Blues Walk" as people walked up from 110th Street; The Klezmatics doing a, well, klezmer-inspired "Rhythm-A-Ning"; saxophonist Yosvany Terry's virtuosic quintet burning the same chart; the pianist ELEW with bass and drums setting a mellow scene on Ornette Coleman's "Peace"; the Mingus Big Band standing and delivering on their namesake's "Nostalgia In Times Square." They made everyone navigate through Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' hip-hop anthem "Empire State Of Mind." They made everyone play both blues heads and ballads at least twice a set. Young, old; Lincoln Center or Lower East Side: Everyone was equal, and nobody was the same.
It also served as an example of how resourceful jazz-trained musicians are (and how many of them there are in New York). Creative adaptations were everywhere. When bassist Vicente Archer's solo wasn't loud enough, pianist Kevin Hays stood up and leaned a microphone into the bass, while jabbing at chords on his Wurlitzer. While trumpeter Roy Campbell looked for a parking spot, his keyboard player and drummer kept the music going on "Nature Boy." Lead sheets, impromptu arrangements and unplanned encores were widely seen. There were a lot of battery-powered amplifiers; keyboard synthesizers, nice electric pianos, terrible electric pianos, melodicas, half-finger gloves and other piano-player substitutes; drum kits stripped down to bare essentials of kick, snare and two cymbals — if that. And the natural give-and-take of four musicians acting as their own sound guys: If imperfect, that was actually preferable to a lot of overamplified jazz you see in clubs and theaters.
One can't discount the novelty of it all either. As most performances weren't far off the six-mile loop which circumnavigates the park's interior, I took my bicycle and circumnavigated the road, catching a song or two here and there by about 20 of the bands. If nothing else, it was a fun and unusual jaunt on a pleasant fall day, a reminder that so much of the live music experience is in the journey.
Most of all, it was a reminder of the intimacy of this music. To see a group of skilled blues idiom musicians playing familiar material up close — there were few boundaries between audience and performer, other than propriety — voids most intellectual concerns about jazz's egghead-learnedness, or really any other concerns that jazz people talk about when they aren't listening to music. It's often music that prompts a deep visceral reaction, and when you're outside with your dancing toddler, as opposed to a dark and silent concert hall, you see it. There's no substitute for seeing this stuff live and in person, where the phenomena of mysterious rhythm and humans-doing-things-well overcomes so casually and so powerfully. It's an experience that ought to be available often, to more people. And if New York City can come up with the budget, it ought to be back next year — or, in another form, even sooner.
- "Straight No Chaser" (T. Monk)
- "Take The A Train" (B. Strayhorn)
- "Central Park West" (J. Coltrane)
- "Nature Boy" (E. Ahbez)
- "Fall" (W. Shorter)
- "Autumn Serenade" (P. DeRose)
- "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (C. Mingus)
- "Manhattan" (Rodgers/Hart)
- "Blue Train" (J. Coltrane)
- "Scrapple From The Apple" (C. Parker)
- "The Blues Walk" (C. Brown, based on "Loose Walk" by S. Stitt)
- "Body And Soul" (J. Green)
- "Skating In Central Park" (J. Lewis)
- "Rhythm-A-Ning" (T. Monk)
- "Peace" (O. Coleman)
- "Nostalgia In Times Square" (C. Mingus)
- "Autumn In New York" (V. Duke)
- "Empire State Of Mind" (Jay-Z/Alicia Keys)
List Of Bands
Clockwise from 110th and Central Park West: Chris Dingman Quartet, Jason Marshall Quartet with Hilary Gardner, Kirk Knuffke/Jesse Stacken Duo with Bill Goodwin, Marika Hughes and Bottom Heavy, Kevin Hays Trio, JC Hopkins Quintet, Jamie Baum Quintet, Marc Cary Quartet, Roy Campbell Tazz Quartet, Sharel Cassity Quintet, Mingus Big Band, JD Allen Quartet, Jacques Schwartz-Bart Quartet with Stephanie McKay, Kahlil Kwame Bell, Bob Stewart Quintet, Kimberly Thompson Quartet, Wayne Escoffery Quartet with Carolyn Leonhart, Lakecia Benjamin and Soul Squad, Yes! Trio (Aaron Goldberg, Omer Avital, Ali Jackson), Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, Doug Wamble Quartet, Joel Harrison Quintet, Mike Mo Quartet, Jason Kao Hwang Trio, ELEW, Claire Daly Quartet, Gregoire Maret, Yosvany Terry Quartet, The Klezmatics, Mitch Frohman's Latin-Jazz Quartet.