Experimental cellist Jacob Cohen has played in Tokyo and Beijing, Warsaw and Nicosia. But of late his preferred performance space is a decidedly distinct venue.
“Lately my favorite place to play has been Rikers Island,” Cohen said recently. “It is such a tough atmosphere, but the music breaks through all the negative energy immediately and allows the officers and the inmates to share a common positive experience. It feels like my music is being appreciated very deeply in that setting. The kids are always ready to collaborate and improvise with lyrics and drum on the tables or garbage cans.”
Cohen, an accomplished musician, started Cellos Without Walls, a program geared to help the incarcerated, particularly younger people behind bars.
Cohen is otherwise a busker, making his living by playing on subway platforms and on the street – nearly anywhere it takes to get his music heard. More recently he played at Zuccotti Park, the so-called privately owned public space that served as a staging area both following the 9/11 attacks and during the Occupy Wall Street protests, at the invitation of Arts Brookfield, the cultural arm of the commercial real estate company that owns the park.
“Music is a universal language that everyone can enjoy,” said Kara Delos Reyes, a spokeswoman with Arts Brookfield, which is bringing a different musical artist to the park each Tuesday through July 26 as part of its Downtown Local series. “The artists of Downtown Local are some of the city’s best underground buskers and performers. We are proud to showcase these fine musicians and others as part of the hundreds of free performing and visual arts events that Arts Brookfield presents year-round.”
Cohen said working with Arts Brookfield “a great experience.”
“They were very professional and provided a team to setup the speakers and adjust the sound,” he said. “Everything was just smooth.”
During his Zuccotti Park gig, Cohen played what he described as “an hour-long improvised solo cello meditation” for park-goers and passers-by.
“I think free concerts in the parks are one of the best things about the summer,” he said. “I love performing in public because you never know who will stop and listen. I saw a lot of people take a moment out of their routine to stop and enjoy a brief moment of beauty that they did not expect.”
But Cohen has parlayed his musical skills into Cellos Without Walls, his educational music program. The instrumentalist also has lead musical workshops in prisons throughout the Northeast.
“In Rikers Island, I have had jam sessions where correctional officers and inmates were rapping back and forth all laughing, dancing and having a great time together,” said the musician. “I have performed in an orphanage in New Delhi and the kids were so curious and engaged with everything that I was doing and interacting in very fundamental ways that transcend cultural barriers. Some of my greatest collaborations have been with people that I do not share a common language with. I want to start doing free collaborative music and painting workshops in the parks.”
Downtown Local continues with Roberto Poveda, the self-described “Troubadour of Brooklyn” on July 12.
“At Arts Brookfield, we feel that live music is something that can be experienced independently or collaboratively, whatever the audience chooses,” Delos Reyes said. “Which is why live music is such a heavy part of our programming across the globe, from chamber music to jazz to rock and more. People often experience our live music events collaboratively, whether it’s families or groups of friends or co-workers attending, or two stranger sharing an artist or musical genre they both love