40 Years of Neighborhood Concerts
This season, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute celebrates four decades of outstanding live performances in community venues throughout the five boroughs of New York City as part of its series of free Neighborhood Concerts. During the program’s 40-year history, more than 1,000 performances of classical, jazz, and world music have been presented at over 200 different locations. Tapping into the pulse of diverse audiences in a variety of locales, these free concerts bring together local residents and people from throughout the city to share in the joy of music. We recently caught up with two longtime Neighborhood Concert partners—Latin jazz trombonist Chris Washburne and Harlem Stage’s Director of Programming Brad Learmonth—to discuss the profound impact of the series.
What has being a part of the Neighborhood Concert series meant to you?
CW: I love being part of creating new music opportunities and sonically transforming places, bringing live music to spaces and communities that may not regularly have it. Music has provided many incredible opportunities for me to perform all over the world and in some of the most prestigious concert halls, jazz festivals, and clubs. But in Neighborhood Concerts, it always feels like we are bringing the music back home to our own neighborhoods. It is gratifying to be able to do that. At the same time, we have experienced some of our most appreciative and engaged audiences at these concerts, making them some of the most memorable and gratifying performances.
Chris Washburne and the SYOTOS Band
What was one of your most memorable Neighborhood Concerts?
CW: For an afternoon concert at a library out in Brooklyn, we were asked to play a concert featuring the most important Latin dance music pieces of the 20th century. I was also lecturing a bit about the music as a way to introduce and contextualize each piece. The audience comprised mostly elderly folks who were enjoying the music and discussion—that is, until we got to the mambo of the 1950s and music played at the Palladium Ballroom. Several women in the audience interrupted the introduction of the song to say that they had danced at the Palladium every week, and then took over the lecture and related their firsthand experiences of one of the most famous Latin dance clubs. I learned so much that afternoon. They then got up (some from wheelchairs) and showed us how to really dance! That was truly inspiring.
What have you learned from your time performing on this series?
CW: A gig is never just a gig, but rather a special opportunity to connect deeply with others, to enrich their lives, and through the process, be enriched yourself. Music is such a powerful force of community building, catharsis, transcendence, and healing, and performing in Neighborhood Concerts has taught me so much about the value of that power and its potential positive role in our society.
How has being a Neighborhood Concert venue for 30 years shaped Harlem Stage’s role in the community?
BL: Key to our mission is to make the arts accessible to all. This can be challenging from a fiscal standpoint, but the Carnegie Hall partnership has allowed us to more fully embody this part of our mission and afforded us the opportunity to present high quality free concerts that our audiences have come to anticipate. It also gives us the opportunity to present artists that may be outside our normal reach and introduce our audiences to artists we might not otherwise present. So many wonderful artists have come to our stages because of this relationship, and many of them have continued on with us in subsequent relationships.
Emeline Michel at Harlem Stage in 2008 (Photography: Jack Vartoogian)
What was one of the most memorable Neighborhood Concerts at Harlem Stage?
BL: Without question, one of my most memorable experiences was Emeline Michel’s performance in 2008. Meeting Emeline was a life-altering experience on both a professional and personal level. Her spirit and artistry immediately swept me away, as it certainly did the audience, and it was the beginning of a deep and fruitful relationship. Emeline convinced me to fly a dancer, Benji Jolicour, up from Haiti to open the concert. That proved revelatory for the event itself, as he was a magnificent dancer who opened the program with a profound traditional Yanvalou invocation. But we also became dear friends, and I worked to mentor him and bring him back to New York to perform. That partnership was cut short by the earthquake in Haiti, in which he tragically lost his life. But our work with Emeline following that devastating event, with tributes to both Benji and Haiti, were some of the most heartfelt and well-received events we’ve done.