Commuters looked on from the elevated Freeman Street subway station. Passersby spontaneously grabbed dance partners on the street. And those just making their way down Louis Niñé Boulevard this past Saturday stopped in their tracks. They were all gazing up to the roof of the Northpoint Medical Facility, where Bobby Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band kicked off the “Lookin’ Up in the Boogie Down” Fusion Jazz Festival with a rooftop show.
The familiar soundscape of car horns, sidewalk chatter and the rumble of trucks bumping was replaced with blaring brass, tapping feet and rolling congas. Sanabria, a seven-time Grammy nominee, led his band – in their all-white duds — through songs dedicated to the “Cubans on Prospect Avenue” and to the people of his native Puerto Rico.
“These are the songs I heard growing up in the Melrose Projects,” said Sanabria to the crowd. “You are in the Bronx, where only the strong survive.”
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The rooftop concert also featured a dance performance from local legend Arthur Aviles, performing with a troupe from his Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, as well as pedestrians who joined in. The idea of the series was to bring the sounds of jazz back to the borough where so many musicians got their start.
“It’s a call-back to a time when artists saw the whole Bronx as their stage,” said Christine Licata, director of performing and visual arts at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. Most of the performers have roots here in the borough. “These are our neighbors,” she added.
In previous years, the festival has highlighted other facets of Bronx culture, such as the Birth of Hip Hop in 2014 and 2015’s CineMusica City!, a celebration of forgotten concert and film venues in the borough. This year, jazz gets its moment to shine.
The festival is part of a larger effort by Casita Maria and the South Bronx Culture Trail, a series of informational street signs, to protect the culture and history of the borough. While the Bronx is well known for being the birthplace of hip-hop, the borough has played an important role in jazz history as well. Clubs like Blue Morocco on Boston Road in Morrissania, Hunts Point Palace on Southern Boulevard, and the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue held host to bebop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk in the 1940s and ‘50s, who played alongside Latin jazz titans Tito Puente and Machito.
The organizers wanted to bring the event directly to the people of the neighborhoods in the most literal way. “Rooftops and stoops are a part of our landscape,” said Elena Martinez, co-artistic director for Bronx Music Heritage Center.
“Every Saturday and every Sunday, everybody would go to the roof with their conga drums and we would be playing all kinds of music mixed together, it was like a big party with the drums,” said Ray Mantilla, a Grammy-nominated percussionist with Bronx roots. Mantilla performed with his quartet on April 23 atop SoBRo, at 555 Bergen Ave. in Mott Haven.
“The rooftop was always a sanctuary for city people,” added Sanabria.
In addition to the music, the the kickoff performance on April 16 also included a screening of the documentary “The Girls in the Band,” and continued with the opening of Bronx drummer Will Calhoun’s solo exhibition, AZA, at Casita Maria later that week. But the highlight of the series will be on the streets of the South Bronx. Organizers want the venue to serve as a reminder.
“Public space belongs to the public,” said Licata. “We want youth to know that they have agency and power in their neighborhood.”
The festival will run from until May 22, with performances in Hunts Point, Mott Haven, Morrissania and Westchester Square.
For a full schedule of performances, see Casitamaria.org.