In the 1980s, independent music producer Joe Killian was working with some of the best musicians New York had to offer. Seemingly every style of music, from zydeco to salsa to flamenco to klezmer, passed through Killian’s ears.
And then it hit him.
Why, he wondered, shouldn’t this privilege be extended to everyone in New York, as opposed to a privileged few in the music industry?
“I wanted to curate a series that represented the best of our musical communities,” he said. “I wanted to give an opportunity to these musicians who didn’t have a platform.”
In 1985, Killian developed the idea for SummerStage, a free music festival in Central Park, in the hopes of exposing New Yorkers to the esoteric music he heard over the years.
“It’s not that New York didn’t have free entertainment,” said Killian. “There was ‘Shakespeare in the Park’, you know. But Shakespeare is an easy draw because he’s got 500 years of being lauded as the greatest English writer.”
Now, 30 years later, the festival is still brightening up Central Park and the outer boroughs, with stages in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, and shows no signs of slowing down.
This year’s festival, which runs through Sept. 24 at Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield and at venues in each outer borough, will feature performances from the 11-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band, British soul-funk group Jungle and numbers from musical “The Wiz,” among other performances. The festival also offers dance performances, spoken-word readings and film screenings, including a showing of “Time is Illmatic,” a documentary about the life of New York rapper Nas.
Erika Elliott, artistic director for SummerStage, said that the spirit of the festival has always been about showcasing new artists, a tenet of its founder.
“Conceptually, the goal has always been to use the platform of SummerStage to introduce new talent and new artists, to really celebrate the cultural diversity of the city,” she said.
The first act Killian ever booked for SummerStage was an artist he’d long admired but had yet to work with, jazz band Sun Ra and the Omniverse Jet Set Orchestra. Killian had seen composer Sun Ra perform many times in the 1970s and 1980s, and was quick to confirm him as a performer for the inaugural show in 1986.
As venues went, Killian saw no better locale than Central Park, which in the mid-‘80s was less scrubbed and family-friendly.
“Central Park was a dangerous place,” Killian said. “People look at that as a negative, but I saw it as an opportunity.”
When SummerStage got its start, the New York City Police Department mandated that each show had to end by 6 p.m., Killian said, since the department wasn’t responsible for the park in the evening. Shows started in the afternoon, making them a draw for families.
As the years went by, SummerStage began to develop a reputation among musicians. Killian remembers booking New York punk legends Sonic Youth for the 1992 festival.
“They said they wanted to perform with Sun Ra,” Killian said. “They, of course, had known Sun Ra had played the first SummerStage, which motivated them to say yes to me.”
SummerStage isn’t only about giving the floor to new talent. Elliott added that she and her colleagues are always happy to book famous bands and artists. This year will feature performances from rapper Scarface and funk legend George Clinton, among others.
“I absolutely want to have artists that are iconic, and the best of the best of any given genre,” Elliot said.
But even established artists can sometimes surprise audiences, Killian said. When former Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed played the festival in 1991, he recited some of his spoken word poetry, instead of playing hits from his solo records.
Eventually, Killian said, SummerStage was a household name, with Central Park’s stage as a sought-after venue for recording artists.
“We cracked it kind of early, but it was only a few years later that it really exploded,” he said. “All of a sudden we became a standard, and artists started saying, ‘I want to play there. It’s a cool place to play.’”
For Elliott, a Los Angeles native, SummerStage is a uniquely New York spectacle.
“Since I came here, I’ve just been in awe of what SummerStage has to offer,” she said. “In L.A., there are some music festivals, but nothing like what I’ve seen in Central Park.”