History of Concerts in Parks
Find concerts in parks near you on our upcoming calendar of concert events.
The hum of human activity makes parks the centers of society. Programming the city's open spaces has always been a key component of the Parks Department's mission, and since the inception of parks, outdoor concerts have occurred within them. Today, if you're in New York City during the summer months, one of the great joys remains heading to a park and listening to any of dozens of outdoor concerts, most of which are free.
The Band Begins to Play
The long tradition of outdoor summer concerts in city parks and open spaces is rooted in a few choice spots, the Battery being one of them. Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton) served as a concert hall from 1824 to 1855, with military bands giving concerts regularly and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind performing in 1850. P.T. Barnum brought Ms. Lind to the States for her first American tour, and she continues to be honored by Parks years later. In 1995, an American Linden was planted in her name, and in 2000, 150 years after her debut, Parks hosted a gala event to commemorate the event, featuring Metropolitan Opera stars.
The Battery has hosted concerts continuously since then and continues to be a top spot for the summer concert season. In 1997, the Alliance for Downtown New York began its annual Castle Clinton concert series that draws upon one of the monument's historical uses. Most recently, the River to River Festival began to use the site for some of its venues. Headline acts in the Music at Castle Clinton series have included folk singer Arlo Guthrie and rhythm and blues artist Mavis Staples.
Conceived to be both an open space for city dwellers to stretch out and an edifying experience, instructing citizens on essentials of beauty and art, Central Park has always been a site for concerts. Free Saturday afternoon concerts served the goals of the park´s creation, and the first was given in 1859 in the Ramble. (The trees were not then fully mature; thus, the spot was able to accommodate more people.)
Concerts soon moved to the Mall, where the tradition grew into the 20th century. At the northern end of the Mall, an elaborate cast-iron bandstand once stood (on the present site of the bust of composer Ludwig von Beethoven). Thousands of people would attend open-air performances. To prevent the landscape from being damaged during musical performances, fences that also provided seating for concertgoers were cleverly designed by Calvert Vaux. These Victorian-era benches were recreated for visitors in 1991. The concerts at the Victorian-era bandstand were especially popular with the large and growing German-American community, who thronged the Mall.
The Music Swells
Owing to contemporary rules of Sabbath decorum, Sunday events were off limits until 1877, when Park Commissioners began experimenting with evening concerts to allow six-day-a-week workers to enjoy outdoor entertainment. The Parks Department expanded its musical offerings in 1910 when it built a temporary bandstand in the northern end of the park at McGown's Pass. The 1910 Parks Annual Report shows Parks sponsoring an impressive 314 concerts at 29 sites across Manhattan, including out-of-the-way locations like the plaza in front of the Queensboro Bridge.
The Parks Supervisor of Music noted: "In the consideration of these concerts it is assumed, as a necessary basis for progress, that the province of Municipal Music is something more than the provision of a merely casual musical entertainment— that under thoughtful direction it becomes a means of the cultivation of a popular appreciation of good music. Conducted with this in view, it is capable of becoming a powerful civilizing influence, promoting the musical development and taste of the community, and bringing about the most desirable conditions for awakening and stimulating the latent musical talent of the people." (The sentiment coincides with other progressive aims of the Parks Department at that time, including recreation and playground construction.)
Concerts continued during the 1910s and into the First World War as the Mall was used for patriotic rallies. Italian opera star Enrico Caruso entertained a Mall crowd estimated at 50,000 by performing a version of "Over There" in both English and French during a concert in 1918; newspaper accounts placed the crowd as one of the largest ever in Central Park.
Edwin Franko Goldman's Goldman Concert Band began performing on the Mall in 1923, and the ensemble continued performing there after his death in 1956, when his son Richard Franko Goldman took over. The Goldman Memorial Band continued after the death of Richard in 1980, performing at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx until it disbanded in 2005, following a labor dispute.
During the early 1890s, composer and conductor Victor Herbert led the Twenty-second Regiment Band with free concerts at the Central Park Bandshell. In 1927, he was honored on the Mall with a bronze bust donated by ASCAP, the music publishing company he helped found (along with Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa) in 1914.
Irivng Berlin's association with Central Park continued throughout his career. A reported 8,000 Girl Scouts sang "Happy Birthday" to Berlin on his 80th birthday in 1968. The singer Kitty Carlisle led the scouts in Sheep Meadow as Berlin looked on. (Berlin's connection with the Scouts stems from his God Bless America Foundation, which gives royalties from his "God Bless America" to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.)
The administration of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses sponsored a Citywide Barbershop Quartet Contest from 1934 until the 1960s. Each borough sent a group to the finals, which were held on the Mall in Central Park. The stage for the finals featured an elaborate setup, with a banner hailing the "Parks Tonsorial Parlor."
Classic Comes Alive
When one thinks of concerts in parks, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a summertime performance by the New York Philharmonic on the Great Lawn. These annual performances began in 1965 at Sheep Meadow and were an immediate success; parkgoers enjoyed a generous free performance by a world-class symphony, and the symphony was exposed to an audience that may never have gone to an indoor event at Lincoln Center. The performances are the largest crowds the Philharmonic gets.
The idea sprang from an outdoor New York Philharmonic concert, sponsored by Schlitz Brewing Company, in Milwaukee in 1964. The concert drew 30,000 people to a Milwaukee park, prompting the Philharmonic to approach the City and suggest similar concerts in Central Park. Then mayor, Robert F. Wagner encouraged the Philharmonic to find a way to perform in all five boroughs, starting the tradition of New York Philharmonic outdoor concerts. Schlitz also sponsored the New York concerts.
Leonard Bernstein conducted the Philharmonic at a concert in 1966 to a then-record crowd of 75,000 who came to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 and Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring." An amazing 110,000 people saw an all-Tchaikovsky performance in August 1973, an attendance that rivals some of the largest football games. Philharmonic concerts in the outer boroughs also get large crowds; a concert at Prospect Park in 1965 conducted by Seiji Ozawa and featuring "King of Swing" Benny Goodman drew 44,000. Few Mets games draw that many fans.
When one thinks of "monuments," the common perception is of a general on a horse, a heroic explorer, or a long list of names delineating those who paid "the supreme sacrifice." But there is another kind of monument, sculptures to creativity, art that honors artists. There are 11 composers commemorated in New York City's parks with monuments, each subject leaving a lasting mark on the musical idioms of the western world, and each was so revered as to inspire a permanent tribute in our urban landscape.
Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), German composers Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Karl Maria Friederich Ernst von Weber (1864-1920), and Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg (1843-1907) are all honored at the Concert Grove in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Beethoven is also depicted on the Mall at Central Park, along with Victor Herbert (1859-1924), the Irish-American cellist, composer, and conductor. American jazz pianist, composer, and orchestra leader Edward "Duke" Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974) is commemorated with a monument at the circle on the northeast corner of Central Park at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, near the Harlem neighborhood where he was so revered. Another jazz legend, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), is celebrated in the Corona, Queens neighborhood near where he once lived with a large-scale painted cast-iron and welded steel abstract sculpture.
The American composer, playwright, actor, and producer George M. Cohan (1878-1942) is honored with a statue in Times Square, paying tribute to his famous line "Give my regards to Broadway." Farther up Broadway, the Verdi Monument near 72nd Street pays tribute to Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901), who composed timeless operas such as Aida, La Traviata, Otello, and Rigoletto. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is depicted in Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan; Dvorak made this neighborhood his home for a time, settling for three years at 327 East 17th Street while serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in America. Finally, Central Park's Strawberry Fields, located on the west side of the park near 72nd Street, is a living memorial to the world-famous singer, songwriter, and social activist John Lennon (1940-1980), who found fame in the 1960s with the rock group the Beatles and settled in the 1970s at the landmark Dakota Apartments across the street, where he was tragically killed in 1980 by a gunman.
Little Dances, honoring Louis Armstrong (Louis Armstrong Recreation Center)
Rock, Pop, and Jazz Arrive
The Schaefer Brewing Company sponsored jazz and rock concerts at Wollman Rink with performances by Willie Bobo, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Led Zeppelin, and Jimmy Cliff, to name just a few. The annual event began in 1966 as the Rheingold Music Festival, and Schaefer picked up sponsorship in 1968. Dozens of top names performed each summer and ticket prices stayed reasonable, making the festival a huge draw. Dr. Pepper began sponsoring the event in 1977, and the festival moved to Pier 84 on Manhattan's West Side for the 1981 season after renovations were scheduled (and noise complaints increased).
During a break during the filming of "Funny Girl," Barbra Streisand performed a legendary two-hour concert in 1967 at Sheep Meadow, the first of many large-scale concerts there in the 1960s and 1970s. A crowd estimated at 135,000 attended the concert, which was notable in that Streisand received death threats that contributed to her reticence to perform in public. Other concerts during this era included Herb Alpert (1966), Jefferson Starship (1976), and the annual Metropolitan Opera concerts.
The last big concert at Sheep Meadow came in 1979, when James Taylor played to a crowd estimated at 250,000. The concert was partially intended to raise awareness of the need to fix the area; ironically, large-scale concerts were in part responsible for Sheep Meadow's dilapidated state. Concerts and active recreation were restricted after the area was renovated and relocated to other spots in the park, most notably the Great Lawn.
Under Park Commissioner Gordon Davis, the Great Lawn hosted two large concerts in 1980 and 1981—Elton John and Simon & Garfunkel. On June 12, 1982, the No Nukes rally that began at the United Nations ended on the Great Lawn where performers such as Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, and Linda Ronstadt sang to a crowd estimated at hundreds of thousands.
Two disastrous Diana Ross concerts in 1983, one disrupted by severe weather and the other marred by excessive rowdiness, slowed down large events on the Lawn but recent years have seen more events, with considerable financial support to maintain the site, which was recently renovated at great expense. (Diana Ross later contributed $250,000 in funding towards the construction of a playground on the west side of the park.) A return by Paul Simon in 1991, Garth Brooks in 1997, and Dave Matthews in 2003 are three notable Great Lawn concerts.
SummerStage was established in 1986 by the Central Park Conservancy to bring a diverse selection of music to the park in a series of free performances during the summer months. The first concerts were held at the Naumberg Bandshell and featured acts such as the Sun Ra Arkestra (1986) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (1987). In 1990, SummerStage moved to nearby Rumsey Playfield. Notable concerts over the years included one of Curtis Mayfield's final performances (1990), Sonic Youth (1992), and Patti Smith (1993). The City Parks Foundation— the nonprofit entity established to supplement Parks programming — assumed responsibility for SummerStage in 1994. Over the last 14 seasons, standout performances have included a tribute to Joni Mitchell attended by Mitchell herself (1999), Celia Cruz (2002), and a generator-assisted performance by the Indigo Girls on the evening of the worst blackout in the US in decades, August 14, 2003. Over the years, SummerStage has added film and spoken word events to its busy lineup.
Elsewhere in Manhattan
The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, an annual event around the jazz great's birthday on August 29, has celebrated jazz at Tompkins Square Park since 1993, just across the street from Bird's house on Avenue A. The City Parks Foundation took responsibility for producing the event in 2003, and each August, concerts take place at both Tompkins Square Park and farther uptown at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Tompkins Square also hosted WPA-era Federal Music Project concerts in the 1930s. These make-work performances happened all over the city and focused on highlighting American composers. The New York Philharmonic complained about the free concerts, worrying that it would lose audiences to competition from the federal government.
Composer, musician, teacher and broadcaster Dr. Billy Taylor began Jazzmobile in 1965 as a portable venue designed to bring live jazz concerts to streets in Upper Manhattan. The Harlem Cultural Council featured shows by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. The Jazzmobile stopped at Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park in 1976 for a concert with the Louis Haynes-Junior Cook Quintet and has been going strong at the spot ever since. In more recent summers, concerts have been scheduled all across the city at sites such as Claremont Park in the Bronx, City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan, and Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, as well as Grant's Tomb.
At Washington Square in Manhattan, violinist Alexander Schneider and the Washington Square Association started producing outdoor chamber music concerts in 1953. The festival continues today as the Washington Square Music Festival; in 2008, it celebrated 50 seasons of programming the park. New York University sponsored other chamber concerts in the 1960s, and military bands entertained parkgoers at the turn of the century, but the site is perhaps best known for its folk music that flourished there after the end of World War II. A small riot took place after permits for the popular Sunday gatherings were denied by Parks officials in 1961, and musicians defied authorities by continuing to assemble there.
Another notable spot is Randall's Island, which has been a mecca for concerts since Downing Stadium opened in 1934. Its replacement, Icahn Stadium, continues to draw concertgoers. From Wagner operas and Duke Ellington in the 1930s to Jimi Hendrix and other rock acts in the 1960s and 70s, Randall's Island has hosted many performers. Ozzy Osbourne's Ozzfest and the Vans Warped Tour are two recent large-scale festivals that took place at Randall's Island.
In addition to the Philharmonic concerts frequently performed in Van Cortlandt Park, the bandstand at Poe Park (erected in 1925) featured regular classical music concerts that drew large crowds. Beginning in the 1940s, contemporary big bands performed in the park, and singer Rosemary Clooney (aunt of actor George Clooney) is reported to have made her public debut at the Poe Park bandstand. The Rolling Stones also used Van Cortlandt Park for the site of a press conference to announce their 2002-03 tour; a large blimp carrying the band took off and landed in the park. And DJ Kool Herc pioneered the sound of hip-hop at Cedar Playground in the University Heights section of the Bronx.
Within the otherwise pastoral Prospect Park, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set up a Concert Grove featuring formal design elements, lavish floral beds and elaborate decorative sandstone carvings, noting, "Promenade concerts are common in many European pleasure grounds universal in German towns, common in French, and less so in British."
At the north end was built the Concert Grove House, demolished in 1949, and at the south end Vaux designed the Concert Grove Pavilion, completed in 1874. Made of eight cast-iron posts modeled after Hindu columns of the medieval period (8th to 12th centuries), and supporting an elaborately painted hipped roof with stained-glass cupola, the structure, restored in 1987, is also known as the Oriental Pavilion. At one time, it was used as an open-air restaurant.
In 1887, the Music Pagoda, another structure, was built near the Lily Pond, and with the subsequent creation of a new music grove at the north edge of the area of the park known as the Nethermead, this section came to be referred to as the Flower Garden. The Concert Grove also possesses a rich collection of bronze sculptural portraits, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1897), among others.
At the Prospect Park Bandshell, the Celebrate Brooklyn festival has entertained parkgoers since 1979. The festival is designed to raise awareness of Prospect Park. Otis Blackwell, who wrote and helped arrange several of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, visited the bandshell in 1987 and played with guitarist Vernon Reid. Other performers through the years have included Brooklyn's own They Might Be Giants, The Neville Brothers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Maceo Parker, and Joan Armatrading.
Concerts resurrected Greenpoint, Brooklyn's McCarren Pool, the long-dormant Olympic-sized WPA-era facility. From 2006 to 2009, concert promoters Live Nation and Jelly NYC produced live events at the site, with the audience sitting in the pool's expansive basin. New York's Sonic Youth was one of the first bands to play at the site.
Coney Island continues to be a hotspot for summer concerts, with its Seaside Summer Concert Series at Asser Levy/Seaside Park and the annual Siren Festival, sponsored by the Village Voice, staged in the shadow of the landmark Cyclone roller coaster in late July.
Queens is perhaps best known for the Beatles' groundbreaking concert at Shea Stadium in 1965. Other notable acts that played at Shea include The Who, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Elton John.
The first Met Opera in a city park was held at Crocheron Park in Bayside on June 25, 1967, and the George Seuffert, Sr. Bandshell in Forest Park has a tradition dating back to the park's 19th century beginnings. George Seuffert, Sr. and his son, George Seuffert, Jr. led band concerts at the site from 1894 to 1995— over 100 years between the two. Seuffert, Jr. served as the City's music consultant, appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1966. Seuffert reportedly knew all the world's national anthems, and was responsible for performing them at diplomatic functions for the city. Today, the Queens Symphony Orchestra continues the tradition of free concerts at the bandshell.
The Parks Department sponsored concerts at Silver Lake Park in the 1930s; Mayor Fiorello La Guardia attended one such event in 1938. The Philharmonic also visits the borough during the summer; in 1965, Aaron Copland was the featured soloist at a concert at Clove Lakes Park. Recent years have seen the orchestra play at both Snug Harbor and the Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George.
Catch the Beat in Parks
Whether it's the New York Philharmonic or Sonic Youth, the Met Opera or Jazzmobile, there is something for everyone at a park this summer, but the best way to discover it is to experience it for yourself. Take along a blanket, food, and a beverage of choice and take in a concert. By doing so, you'll be participating in one of New York City's longest running traditions.