In New York, the show must go on — even if the stage is a stoop, and the audience is splayed out across asphalt.
For more than two months, the nightly distanced disco at the corner of St. James Place and Greene Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, was not just the best party in town, it was basically the only party in town.
At 7 p.m., Jo Vill and his son Chad, 31, put speakers in their first-floor windows and filled the brownstone block with an hour of house music, dance hits mixed with speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and an appropriately upbeat remix of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”
Vill, a 64-year-old retired bus dispatcher, initially set up his makeshift DJ booth for friends on the brownstone-lined street he’s called home for three decades.
Then quarantine dragged on, the weather got nicer and word of the party, known as St. James Joy, spread, drawing revelers from other parts of the city.
Residents of the block, for whom St. James Joy had become a regular social event and stress reliever, didn’t even mind.
“It’s a wonderful thing everybody getting together, black, white and whatever,” says Kevin Roberts, who grew up on the block and was wearing an “I love St. James Place” shirt on a recent evening. “Everybody has harmony and peace.”
The daily shakeouts began when Vill decided to add a few tunes to the 7 p.m. cheer for essential workers. That communal whoop and holler was, for many, the only chance to interact with anyone outside their four walls during the pandemic’s peak.
But while the noise still cranks up at the same time each evening, the energy behind it has shifted: As the city tentatively reopens, summer heat drives people out of their stuffy apartments and Black Lives Matter protesters march on, the refrains from St. James and other free concerts across the boroughs sound more like a city celebrating itself and the tight-knit communities that have held it together.
“It’s beautiful,” says Imani Mchunu Grosvenor, 27, an opera singer who brought out jump ropes to play double dutch on Sunday in front of her stoop on the block. “People bring their kids and their dogs, it’s just so free and so open and so positive. I’m glad it’s happening elsewhere in the city.”
On the Upper West Side, Jeff Jacobs has been treating his neighbors to 7 p.m. concerts from his girlfriend’s fire escape on West 100th Street (now they’re more pop-ups) using a small amount of amplification, a bevy of instruments and a catalog of crowd-pleasing hits from The Beatles, Whitney Houston and Justin Timberlake.
Dozens of people gather every day on the wide cross street below to listen. In recent weeks, as the pandemic’s grip on the city has eased, people have loosened up and danced a little more, Jacobs reports. Songs about New York — from Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z — are always a hit.
In his day job as a real estate agent, Jacobs saw the other side of the coin: people who fled the city when times got tough.
“For the people who are here and are optimistic about living here and have laid roots here and aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon, there’s a real spirit, and I think we’ve tapped into this,” says Jacobs, 35, who posts upcoming concerts on his Instagram account @JeffJacobsMusic.
In the early days of the pandemic, professional drummer Dan Kurfirst started Concerts From Cars with his wife Olga Morkova. He wanted to find a way to keep performing for homebound New Yorkers while remaining socially distanced, so he summoned musician friends to do both free and for-hire pop-up jazz concerts via a train of their vehicles.
Now that the city is reopening — and the streets are choked with car traffic again — the group is also doing live shows on the street. The next set kicks off with a series of 7 p.m. shows at the Astor Place cube on July 2, July 5 and July 8.
I’ve always loved the city, and now I just love it even more.
– Drummer Dan Kurfist of Concerts From Cars
“This is what we do. The show must go on,” says the Park Slope native, whose concerts by caravan have taken him to places like Elmhurst, Queens, which don’t typically host live jazz gigs. “I’ve always loved the city, and now I just love it even more. We’ve been all over the city, all really different neighborhoods, all walks of life.”
Over in Ditmas Park, a nightly jazz fest broke out in late March when Gabe Nathanson, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Vermont, grabbed his trumpet. His father Roy, a 69-year-old teacher and celebrated jazz musician, strapped on his saxophone, and they belted out “Amazing Grace” duet from their second-floor balcony.
Neighbors brought their own instruments to the porches and yards of their Victorian houses. The Nathansons’ blooming dogwood tree sometimes obscured the view, but the crowd continued to grow.
This week, the Nathansons decided to turn the jam sessions into into a summertime youth music program, offering pay-what-you-can lessons from porches and fundraising to buy students instruments. Now the whole block rocks out during twice-weekly jam sessions on Mondays and Thursdays at 5 p.m. featuring every type of music maker, from stand-up bass to melodica, and help raise money for local mutual aid groups.
“That is the most incredible thing I noticed about the community,” Gabe says. “We wanted to fight through this together.”
Vill, the elder St. James Place DJ, says while he mourns the loss of old-timers that gentrification ousted from the block as well as a cousin he lost to COVID-19, the block party he started has been a unifier during a divisive era. Attendees have started showing up with Black Lives Matter protest signs and Pride flags in hand.
“That’s another thing that made me want to bring the music out, to bridge the gap,” Vill says. “Now people are warming up, they’re speaking. It’s a good thing.”