SummerStage: Concerts that draw outside the lines

The Central Park SummerStage

Sonic Hot Sauce sat down with Erika Elliott, the Artistic Director of City Parks Foundation, to talk about this summer’s concert series at SummerStage, with shows at bandshells and stages across the five boroughs.

Erika Elliott has booked artists for performances at City Parks Foundation and for Charlie Parker Jazz Festival for over a decade.  She brings artists from all over the world to play in New York City for shows that are free to the public. She often presents bills that pair foreign acts with local artists and classic names with new talent, crossing genres and generations.  This season’s calendar spans a spectrum of NYC interests, from Brand Nubian to the Alabama Shakes and the Latin Alternative Music Conference performances.
 
The 2012 season seems off to an excellent start, were there any surprises so far?  What did you think of the first week?
 
Our first week was a tough one, the weather is so key to what we do and the rain last week made outdoor concerts a tough sell. That said, two-plus years in the making to get Ozomatli together with the NY Pops did not disappoint!  Those who braved the weather got an amazing show.  Our first week in Brownsville we did a Duckdown line-up that was great, Evil Dee, Sean Price, Buckshot, there was a BBQ. Buckshot grew up in Brownsville, that night really is an example of what we aim to do, connect artists with their neighborhoods and bring free music to the community.
 
You produce a ton of amazing shows all over the five boroughs, what shows are you particularly excited about this summer?

This past week’s run at Red Hook was great, Deer Tick, Das Racist, and Brand Nubian played. [I’m looking forward to] War in Queensbridge and Keith Murray and the Beatnuts in Staten Island. Lyricist Lounge’s 20th Anniversary with Pete Rock vs. DJ Premier in East River Park.  Also Robert Glasper in Marcus Garvey Park.  
 
[And] Charlie Parker Jazz Festival’s 20th Anniversary!  We commissioned Miguel Atwood Ferguson to re-imagine the Charlie Parker with Strings recording.  The festival starts with a week of educational workshops and showcases and was expanded to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday this year featuring Roy Haynes, Ernestine Anderson, Gregory Porter and much more.
 
World music and classic hip hop are always on the calendar. Are you a fan of those genres of music in particular, or do you book them because they fit the venues best? 
 
Love hip-hop, and soul music, but the reason you see so much of both hip-hop and salsa on the program is that it just makes sense.  It’s been amazing to connect both salsa and hip-hop artists to essentially places where the genres were born.  I had KRS One perform near the projects where he grew up in the South Bronx. Kool Herc deejayed in a park near where he lives.  Talib Kweli has played a few times for us in Brooklyn near areas he grew up in. Eddie Palmieri played in The Bronx, and the list goes on.
 
Do you ever find yourself booking artists whose music you can’t really relate to?  Or has booking SummerStage made your own tastes stretch over the years?
 
I definitely book music that I believe people are a fan of, and often that stretches my music taste. I don’t have to love everything I book.  I feel like I’m curating a festival for the City of New York and the audience, and so I’m more interested in the talent being meaningful to the audience than to me.  Now, that said, it certainly doesn’t hurt when I love the music too, and that happens a lot.
 
As a mom do you find yourself looking out for artists that families might be drawn to?
 
Actually, I don’t play “children’s” music for my son.  The soundtrack to his nursery was Adele’s “21,” which came out the year he was born. Ray Charles, Roy Hargrove, and Jose James.  For better or worse, he listens to Hot 97 in the car in the morning on the way to school. He has an opinion at four of what he likes and doesn’t, and he tells me when he wants me to turn the channel.
 
As far as programming SummerStage, most of what we do is family friendly, and just the environment if not the content is family friendly. I don’t aim to book for this goal but I do think the free, outdoor park location lends itself to this.
 
You yourself majored in anthropology and interned in radio in college. Do you feel like you’ve succeeded career-wise?  Would college Erika high-five you today?

Well, I don’t think I was ever the high-five type, but I still am star-struck by what I do. I think if I lose that, I’d do something else career-wise.  I’m also not one to easily define success, as I really think it’s about doing work that you are passionate about. The moments that make it all worth it, are when I am standing on the back of the stage looking out at the crowd of thousands and listening to music that has personal meaning for me.  Or when I see my work really effect people in the audience.
 
Two things that happened in the last week that really resonate for me.  Why I love my work:
 
I was at the Groovy Theory show, and tears were welling up as I listened to Tell Me.  I was thinking about my high school boyfriend who bought me the album, who died several years ago.  I could have never imagined then that I would be standing in Central Park as the producer of their show.  So I guess that’s what I view as success.
 
The other is that I produced a program with Ozomatli and the NY Pops, as I mentioned before, on a rainy night.  We collaborated with the Harlem School for the Arts to have Ozo workshop with some kids and then those kids performed with them during the Central Park performance.  During the students’ performance, I was standing in the audience and a woman next to me was cheering with tears streaming down her face.  I feel so humbled when I see things like that.
 
How do you see the state of public arts in the U.S. as compared to some of the places you’ve been able to visit as a talent buyer?  Is NYC on par with capital cities in Europe or Asia?

Other countries financially support the arts in a way its hard for an American to imagine. Also a festival like SummerStage would be a government funded or city run operation if it was in most other countries.   
 
Tell us about Brazil Week, how did that come about and what role do you play in the week of concerts by Brazilian artists?
 
Brasil Summer Fest is a great new Festival that exists to promote Brazilian contemporary music.   I collaborate with the festival, and am so excited to have Bebel Gilberto, Criolo, and Flavio Renagato at SummerStage this year, on July 21.  This kicks off a week of shows taking place all over the city. It’s a great way to discover new music, and Brazilian music is such a great sound track for summer!
 
What are some of your all-time favorite Summerstage moments – quick top five (or more) list?

My top five:

Seu Jorge / Jose James / Alex Cuba in Central Park
Seun Kuti / Afrika Bambata in Central Park
Citizen Cope / Blind Boys of Alabama in Central Park
KRS-One is the South Bronx at Crotona Park
Willie Colon in East River Park


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