MUSIC: Talking With The Artistic Director of Summerstage Erika Elliott


New York City’s Summerstage is in full swing; the past couple of weeks they’ve brought Vivian Green, Kamasi Washington, Ron Carter to various parks all over the city along with upcoming shows featuring Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Fat Joe (in the Bronx!). It’s a complex endeavor; taking place over multiple boroughs, multiple parks, at multiple times (often concurrently). Multiple genres are covered, from jazz to hip-hop to rock, along with poetry and comedy. On the low it’s probably one of the biggest music festivals in the world and outside of a handful of benefit concerts to help support the entire endeavor its entirely free (donations are always welcome). Couchsessions got a chance to interview Summerstage’s artistic director Erika Elliott to pick her brain and find how they pull it all off. She’s got a long history in the music business from cutting her teeth in hip-hop’s golden era working with Wu-Tang Clan to her decade plus run at Summerstage. Check out the list of shows here and check out the interview below.

While SummerStage has always done a good job showcasing Jazz this year there seems to be a particular focus on that genre. Why do you think the relationship between New York and Jazz is so strong?

Jazz and New York City are closely intertwined. From Sugarhill and Harlem, to Queens, Midtown, and the Village to The South Bronx, many of the most important Jazz figures of all time have lived and worked in New York City neighborhoods. New York has always been an important center of music and culture, and thats as true today as it was 100 years ago. We at SummerStage were inspired to look regionally at presenting Jazz across the five boroughs as well as in Central Park, and finding shows that would resonate in a variety of locations.

SummerStage is more than straight musical performances; you’ve had comedy, poetry, and even relatively straightforward parties such as the popular Everyday People curating an event in Bed-Stuy. How do these events figure in your vision for SummerStage?

I want SummerStage to be a platform where we can celebrate New York and New Yorkers through arts and culture. What we do that I believe is special is curate a festival in neighborhoods across the city, as well as Central Park. In each of those locations I try to curate a range of performances that have a connection to the location. And I believe deeply in collaboration to do the best job, especially in a city with so many creatives. When you look at our season we work with major institutions like the Metropolitan Opera in presenting a recital series around the five boroughs, as well as trend setting lifestyle brand / promoters like Everyday People and Soul in the Horn, Okayplayer, and MeanRed. I think that makes us both interesting and authentic in what we are presenting as well as supports people doing great work year round.

Festivals in general are growing in popularity across the US, with some major ones either playing or planned for NYC. Running multi-venue events taking place over several months is a daunting task; has it gotten any easier over the years?

The answer is yes and no. Like anything, the more you do something the easier it is to forecast issues and problem solve, so in that way its easier. I have learned so much in my 10 + years programming the festival. The hard part is culture is always changing evolving, there are always new artists, and competition in the recent years has grown–that has made it perhaps more difficult. However I love my job, and think there is nothing better that presenting culture for free to people, and my feeling is there is no shortage of amazing talent both in New York and around the world – so that really is the hard part, how to look around the globe and program 100 shows from around the world. A big task but amazing all the same.
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On a personal note you’re someone who’s been involved in music from the hip-hop golden era until now; how do you keep up with all the new music out there and keep your ears fresh?

I proudly have been involved in music for a long time, but first and foremost I am a fan of music and have been all my life. So I am always listening to music and going to shows, and most importantly these days relying on the contacts I have from around the country and around the world to tell me what they are listening to that I should know about.

And finally, what can people do to support this and future SummerStage events?

Donate your time and money, become a member and get season long benefits! Donate what you can at the door when you come to any of our free events, volunteer in Central Park or to work at any of our events City wide. And spread the word– share our events with your friends and on social media, all of those things support the festival. And learn more about City Parks Foundation and all the great work we do in city parks.