Jazz and Colors: Autumn in New York

An outdoor festival in Central Park breaks new ground in jazz programming

Jacques Schwarz-Bart Quartet, Jazz & Colors, Central Park, NYC, 11-10-12
JD Allen Quartet, Jazz & Colors, Central Park, NYC, 11-10-12

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There was something surreal and dreamlike about Jazz & Colors, the event in New York’s Central Park on Nov. 10 that saw 30 different jazz ensembles, scattered throughout the 843-acre space, each play the same set list simultaneously. If you walked briskly enough, you might have caught the first several spirited bars of “Take the ‘A’ Train” by the YES! Trio featuring pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Ali Jackson, before hoofing it a few hundred yards to the Naumberg Bandshell to catch the Mingus Big Band whipping up the mid-section, finally arriving at the intersection commandeered by the JD Allen Quartet to catch the tail end of their interpretation.

From the southwest corner of the park near Columbus Circle, where the Wayne Escoffery Quartet welcomed visitors to one entrance, to Duke Ellington Circle at E. 110th Street in the northeastern corner, where the Knuffke Stacken Duo held forth, Central Park, on a cool but dry afternoon less than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, had a jazz soundtrack. (The day’s planned program consisted of two identical 90-minute sets split by an hour-long intermission occupied by other bands and solo performances.)

“That’s what made it an adventure,” says entrepreneur Peter Shapiro, who organized the event with assistance from the New York City Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy. “You chose the way you wanted to hear it. Usually when you go to the park you go here or you go there; you don’t go back and forth or up and down. Here we had 30 locations with jazz playing.”

The featured artists were chosen by Brice Rosenbloom, founder and organizer of the city’s Winter Jazzfest and booker for the club Le Poisson Rouge. When saxophonist and Soul Squad bandleader Lakecia Benjamin was contacted by Rosenbloom about participating, she immediately understood the concept and signed on. “We’d all play these songs together at the same time,” she says. “It puts a different idea in your mind about how to be creative, because you know someone is playing the same thing as you and you have to come up with your own thing.” (Some artists, it should be noted, did veer from the set list.)

For Escoffery, the event offered an opportunity to bring jazz to people who might not ordinarily pay to hear it. “These days, jazz is underexposed and underappreciated,” he says, “and I love opportunities for people to get to hear it, whether it’s outside or in a little bar somewhere.”

Shapiro, who operates the music-and-bowling venue Brooklyn Bowl and recently launched the renovated Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., for live music, says he envisioned Jazz & Colors as a “low impact” event from the start. Bands that required electricity plugged in to battery-powered amps so that no generators or gasoline were used, and no extra city police were brought in to keep the peace. The idea was simply that a jazz fan-with or without one of the maps handed out-could turn down a pathway in any direction and soon enough come across a great band, while those who’ve never heard live jazz before might like what they stumble upon and check it out for a short while.

The idea of having each group perform the same set list was another of Shapiro’s ideas: How cool would it be, he wondered, to have all 30 bands playing the same tunes-each song thematically connected to New York or the fall (among them standards “Central Park West,” “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Autumn Serenade” and, for a contemporary touch, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”)-in their own style? “It’s a very ambitious idea,” said Goldberg between sets at the park. “We enjoy putting our stamp on whatever it is that we do. And people are getting to hear free jazz and enjoy it.”

Shapiro hopes to repeat Jazz & Colors next year, possibly expanding the event to two days and more areas within the park. “Jazz lends itself to meandering, and no one wants to sit in a chair for three hours in the fall,” he says. “But no one could possibly see it all in one day either. I had a bike and I couldn’t make all 30. Jazz & Colors is about the ambience and the whole experience, not about seeing one band. And it’s about hearing the great players of right now. I think we got there.”