By Talia Winiarsky
About 100 years ago, when jazz was born, to hear popular jazz artists in New York City, fans flocked to dark speakeasies and basements. Last Sunday evening, however, popular jazz bands played in a different type of setting — above ground and outside, in the middle of Central Park.
Capital One City Parks Foundation SummerStage hosted the free concert with headliners British jazz group Sons of Kemet and performer Makaya McCraven, as well as performances by singer Danielle Ponder and band L’Rain.
Audience members brought blankets to lounge on and eat with friends in front of the stage, which is located on 72nd and East Drive. The venue was very crowded, with many people standing. It was casual enough that some audience members engaged in quiet conversations with their friends as the performers played.
SummerStage has put on free concerts in the park since 1986. Their performances “represent the cultural fabric of New York City, ranging from jazz, hip hop, Latin, global, indie and contemporary dance,” according to their website. Over six million people have attended.
The first performer of the night, Danielle Ponder, sang a mix of “pop, R&B, blues, rock, and moody trip-hop,” according to her bio. A former public defender from Rochester, NY, Ponder incorporates her unlikely path to becoming an artist in her lyrics. “I look at the sky and say, ‘Lord, what am I doing here?’” she sings. She left her full-time job in 2018, and had a billboard in Times Square yesterday, she told the crowd.
Then, L’Rain performed a set of experimental and trance-style music. Their music blends “gospel, jazz, and neo-soul,” with the goal of changing “our expectations of what musicians, especially Black women musicians, are categorized to do versus what they need to do,” according to their website.
The main event was the two headliners. As they performed, the crowd stood up from their blankets and swayed to the rhythm of the music.
The first was Makaya McCraven. A self-described performer of “jazz-rooted 21st century folk music,” he performed with a band with some traditional elements while adding in more inventive aspects. Brandee Younger, a Black woman, carrying on the traditions of other jazz performers, played the harp.
The last performance was Sons of Kemet, a four-member band that draws upon Caribbean and African music and fuses it with jazz. “They’re doing what the real heroes of jazz would want,” audience member Caleb told the Rag.
Several other people said they came to SummerStage especially to see Sons of Kemet perform. Their music prominently features drums, encouraging the audience to dance along to the fast and strong rhythms. This concert is a part of the band’s last tour together, although Elliot, from Brooklyn, suspects that the band might reunite in the future, he said.
Elliot has been a jazz fan since receiving a CD from his uncle when he was in middle school, he said. SummerStage represents a part of NYC that he had dreamed of before moving here. While a free concert in his hometown in Missouri must appeal to a broader audience, in New York there are enough people with a diverse set of interests to want to see a jazz-inspired concert.
Although Maggie, also from Brooklyn, is more of a fan of old jazz, she enjoyed the performance and was happy with the venue, which fosters a “convivial scene,” she said. She thought that the setting would be more formal and have assigned seating, but upon arriving, the relaxed environment calmed her. “My Sunday scaries kind of evaporated,” she said.
SummerStage will offer more concerts and some movie screenings in all five boroughs through September.