Ten years ago on March 9 Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights premiered on Broadway, forever changing the way we think about musicals and the northern Manhattan neighborhood that gives the show its title. Pre-Miranda, popular culture represented Washington Heights as a haunt for drug traffickers and hoodlums—to the dismay of the mostly law-abiding WaHi folk, who didn't hesitate to challenge the negative stereotypes about their home. Today an influx of investment dollars and a rise in entrepreneurial activity have transformed the much-maligned neighborhood into a cultural destination: More and more people are riding the A train northward to take in the sweeping views of the Palisades cliffs across the Hudson, try out a restaurant reviewed in The New Yorker, or attend a dance performance, cabaret, or jazz jam.
This month alone, three recently sprung WaHi performing arts organizations mounted annual events that lay the groundwork for future programming. Behind each of these events are teams of innovative artists doing what New York artists always do—creating something from seemingly nothing and leaving beauty in their wake.
Interfaith Music Festival @ United Palace. To get to the loge seats at the United Palace, you must climb a grand staircase lit by crystal chandeliers and framed by gilt frescoes. At the end of the climb is your reward: From this vantage you can see the entirety of the 3,400-seat theater, ringed in still more gold and couched in red velvet, stretching out below to a massive proscenium. This stage is where on March 18 the United Palace hosted the 2018 Interfaith Music Festival, an afternoon of almost a dozen performances by artists affiliated with northern Manhattan places of worship.
The festival, sponsored by the Upper Manhattan Interfaith Leaders Coalition, showcased a range of talent that reflects the ethnic and spiritual diversity of the neighborhood itself—a Christian gospel choir, a Jewish cantor, a Mormon children's choir, a salsa duo, a liturgical dance ensemble, a classical soloist, a sound healer. "As an inclusive spiritual community, the United Palace celebrates spiritual practices born of the great wisdom traditions," says United Palace CEO and spiritual director Heather Shea. One way to access the joy of these traditions, she points out, is through music, dance, and the spoken word.
Much of the day-to-day execution of Heather's vision for music-based community-building falls on the shoulders of United Palace artistic musical director Anwar Robinson, the powerhouse vocalist and pianist who oversees all of the organization's many musical programs. Since joining the organization in 2016, Anwar has coordinated the music for a weekly interfaith service live-streamed each Sunday at noon, performed in large-scale events in the theater, and introduced the cabaret series Piano & Me in the United Palace's stunning lobby. No small feat.
But Anwar is nothing if not impressive. A graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College, he's toured in Broadway companies, sung with a Who's Who of contemporary pop and R&B acts, and, most famously, placed as a finalist on American Idol. It's when he's just sitting at the piano accompanying himself, though, that you can get a sense of the sheer depth of his ability. (Listen to his rendition of "In A Sentimental Mood" in the footage from the Feb. 22 Piano & Me lobby concert below.)
The Washington Heights Jazz Festival @ Le Cheile. Just about every Wednesday for the last three years jazz musicians have been crowding into the backroom at Le Cheile, an Irish bar-restaurant at the corner of 181st and Cabrini, and signing up to jam with the house band—singer Louise Rogers, pianist Mark Kross, bassist John Loehrke, and drummer Jeff Potter. This jazz jam, which flies under the banner of Jazz WaHi, started as a local hang among some friendly jazz aficionados. It quickly morphed into something much bigger.
First, in October 2016 Jazz WaHi co-founders Louise and Mark introduced a vocal jazz series at Le Cheile the first Thursday of every month. Then Jazz WaHi regulars stared playing in the some of the tonier restaurants within a few blocks of Le Cheile. And finally, on March 9 Jazz WaHi successfully launched the WaHi Jazz Festival—three days, three venues, one art show, and 12 bands, each playing in a different jazz genre.
Clearly Louise and Mark have tapped into an unmet need in their neighborhood: Within these last three years they have single-handedly brought dozens of musicians and hundreds of hours of live jazz into Washington Heights—with more to come. They've already set the dates for the second annual WaHi Jazz Festival (March 8-10, 2019) and are considering other possible Jazz WaHi programs. Why not a WaHi First Night with lots of events across lots of venues, asks Louise? Why not, indeed.
Even with their uptown commitments, Mark and Louise still find time to gig throughout Manhattan, and they often travel abroad as educators and performers. Next up: On April 4 they'll be performing selections from their recent CD, Fauré at Play, at a house concert in Paris, France. (In the videos below you can check out a couple of the tunes from the Fauré release concert at Cornelia Street Cafe with the Jazz WaHi house band and guest flutist Jamie Baum. And visit their website for info on this and future gigs.)
Higher Ground Festival's Winter Rise @ Cornerstone Church. Several years ago dancer/choreographers Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba and Temple Kemezis were looking for a way to bring northern Manhattan performing artists together in creative, multi-disciplinary collaborations. The idea was to mine the wealth of talent in the Washington Heights-Inwood area—not just that of performing artists, but of writers, scenic designers, costumers, and others—and create new works of art. These collaborations would culminate in an afternoon of curated performances at the Anne Loftus Playground, which boasts an outdoor stage offset by stone arches and the wooded hills of Fort Tryon Park. The perfect setting for the community-minded works that Temple and Pablo were looking to initiate.
Since 2015, the year these two DIY artists founded the Higher Ground Festival, their efforts have led to at least 20 premieres of new works offered free in northern Manhattan, and more than 100 artists have met up and shared ideas, talents, and stages. To facilitate creative collaborations, during the development phase of the Festival's submission process Pablo and Temple host multiple meet-and-greets at local establishments for the contending artists. At these meet-ups the artists forge relationships that will benefit their proposed projects, and at the end of the meet-and-greet period Pablo and Temple curate the Festival from the project collaborations developed during these sessions. All selected artists receive a stipend, several weeks of free rehearsal space, and non-profit resources to prepare their works for a late June performance at the Playground's theater.
Needless to say, the success of such an undertaking relies heavily on logistical and financial support from the community, support that has enthusiastically been forthcoming. Each year local stores and restaurants partner with the festival to host meet-ups in their spaces, donate goods and services for fundraising events, and help to promote the Festival. Organizational sponsors include The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Fort Tryon Trust, New York Parks & Recreations, and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance. And private donors have contributed through the Festival's annual crowdfunding campaigns.
But the artists themselves also do their part to make the Festival financially sustainable. On March 3 several Higher Ground artists performed for the fundraising event Winter Rise at the Cornerstone Church on Bennett Ave., presenting selections from a ballet, a solo dance, a spoken word piece, and a shadow play. Not only did the evening meet its fundraising goals for this year's Festival, but it offered WaHi-Inwood residents a valuable opportunity to connect with the artists who live next door and participate in their community's artistic identity. Exactly what Temple and Pablo hope for.
This year's Higher Ground Festival is slated for June 16, 7-9 p.m. at Anne Loftus Playground. See the photos below for examples of works presented in previous years.