The syncopated sounds of old San Juan Hill at the new Geffen Hall

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The syncopated sounds of old San Juan Hill at the new Geffen Hall
The exterior of David Geffen Hall in New York, Dec. 1, 2019. The hall is reopening after a $550 million renovation aimed at breaking its acoustic curse — and adding a dash of glamour. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- Before there was Lincoln Center, there was San Juan Hill — a diverse neighborhood located in the West 60s in Manhattan. The “hill” refers to a peak at 62nd Street and Amsterdam.

To some, the neighborhood’s reputation was synonymous with racial conflict. In a Page 1 article in 1905, The New York Times reported that, on a weekly basis, the “police of the West Sixty-eighth Street Station expect at least one small riot on the Hill or in The Gut,” a stretch of the neighborhood on West End Avenue, involving the area’s Black and white rival gangs.

But beyond the notoriety of the police blotter, a different American cultural story was taking shape on San Juan Hill. Around 1913, James P. Johnson could be found playing piano at the Jungles Casino, on West 62nd Street. The dances he witnessed there, which he described as “wild and comical,” would inspire “The Charleston,” his syncopated Roaring Twenties-defining hit, a decade later.

During a recent interview at Lincoln Center, jazz trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles noted that the musical legacy of San Juan Hill was particularly rich throughout the first half of the 20th century.

“Thelonious Monk is from here,” Charles, 39, said. “And Benny Carter — to me Benny Carter is one of the most influential arrangers because he’s one of the first people to do a five-saxophone soli in big band, right? And he’s a great bandleader, a great improviser.”

The musical aspect of the San Juan Hill story long predates the era in which the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, led by Robert Moses, razed the neighborhood to make way for the sprawling Lincoln Center arts complex. (Using eminent domain, Moses’ “urban renewal” project displaced more than 7,000 economically vulnerable families, nearly all of them Black and Hispanic.)

It was the lack of a broader appreciation for this history, Charles said, that made him excited to propose a work about San Juan Hill when Lincoln Center approached him in 2020 for a piece to celebrate the reopening of David Geffen Hall. Turns out, the organization had been thinking along similar lines.

“It had already been in conversation, here,” Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer, said. The organization was “starting to really think about: What was our history? How do we talk about our history?”

They agreed that Charles would compose a piece evoking the old neighborhood — and that it would use the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center’s first-ever commission for a full orchestra. “San Juan Hill,” a 75-minute multimedia work, will have its premiere Oct. 8, when Charles and his group, Creole Soul, join the New York Philharmonic for two performances.

“We want to celebrate it and make sure as many people as possible see this as their first piece in the hall,” Thake said. (Tickets for the performances, which will be at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., were made available on a choose-what-you-pay basis; a limited number of free tickets will be distributed that morning at 10 a.m. at Geffen Hall’s Welcome Center.)

Thake said Charles’ new work “speaks volumes about what the future can look like” at Lincoln Center, adding that she couldn’t “imagine that it just won’t get deeper with time and that you’ll see more like this.”

At the Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center’s Rose Building, Charles was seated next to a piano and his score for “San Juan Hill” as he rattled off a roll-call list of all-stars with roots in the neighborhood, including, for a time, writer Zora Neale Hurston. And he recalled learning about the neighborhood’s cultural legacy shortly after arriving, in 2006, to pursue a master’s degree in jazz studies at Juilliard.

During preparations for a concert of Herbie Nichols’ music, pianist and educator Frank Kimbrough gave Charles his first lesson on the topic — and pointed out a connection to Charles’ background. “He was like, ‘You’re from Trinidad?’” Charles said. “‘Well, Herbie’s parents were from Trinidad, and he was born right there.’ And he pointed to San Juan Hill.”

It didn’t take long for that dual message — of local import, and of a broader tie to the West Indies — to be reinforced. When pianist Monty Alexander stopped by the apartment Charles was sharing with another student, Aaron Diehl, he schooled Charles on a fresh way to hear the music of Monk. “Listen to Monk’s music, and you hear that Caribbean bounce,” Alexander told Charles.

On the Kaplan Penthouse’s piano, Charles played an appropriately bumptious figure from Monk’s “Bye-Ya” as punctuation for that anecdote. “It’s almost like dancehall,” he said.

For Charles, one challenge of “San Juan Hill” was its scope. His first thought was: “I’ve never composed for orchestra,” he said. But thanks to his training at Juilliard, he had studied orchestration and completed some arrangements for orchestra. “So yeah,” he said to himself. “Let’s go.”

While reflecting on the music that filtered into and out of San Juan Hill, Charles also went on fact-finding missions — looking through archives and speaking with people who lived in the neighborhood before 1959, including a former leader of one of its many gangs. (Charles said he couldn’t specify which leader or which gang.)

Thake said such efforts were emblematic of how “deeply researched and how curious” Charles is as a performer. “He has a deep investment in this place, coming from Juilliard, moving through Jazz at Lincoln Center,” she said, noting that he was one of the first musicians to play a free concert in the organization’s Atrium space.

That civic impetus is familiar to Charles’ former Juilliard roommate Diehl, a pianist who has also memorably collaborated with the New York Philharmonic. In a phone interview, Diehl remembered fondly Charles’ way of schooling him on the connections between Caribbean traditions and American jazz.

“Spending time with him really revealed an entire world of Afro-diasporic music that I hadn’t even encountered,” Diehl said. “He will be very quick to tell you if you’re not playing one of those grooves correctly.”

For the Oct. 8 performances, “San Juan Hill” will open with a mini-set by Creole Soul. While the group plays, images of the neighborhood, past and present, will be projected inside Geffen Hall. But the bulk of the piece involves the Philharmonic players and their music director, Jaap van Zweden, in dialogue with Creole Soul. Then, the images will be projected only between movements. (The multimedia aspects involve film elements directed by Maya Cozier, graffiti by visual artist Gary Fritz (known as Wicked GF), and 3D imagery by Bayeté Ross Smith.)

The movements with the Philharmonic — there are five, representing about 55 minutes of the 75-minute performance — feature a wealth of American musical textures, from vintage stride piano to modern hip-hop.

“A lot of it is heavily influenced by what James P. Johnson was doing, what Fats Waller was doing,” Charles said. “And then I also wanted to channel the sounds of the immigrants. I’m from Trinidad; there was a significant number of English-speaking Caribbean people in this neighborhood — so I had to channel calypso.”

The historical record is also fodder for Charles’ musical imagination. The first movement with the orchestra, titled “Riot 1905,” refers to one of those infamous street altercations in San Juan Hill. That front-page story in the Times, from July 1905, had to do with a race riot that broke out when a Black man stepped in to assist a local ragman who needed help making his way through the neighborhood.

But toward the end of “Riot 1905,” a rhythmic indication in the score name-checks the work of hip-hop producer J Dilla, who died in 2006. It’s a playful fillip — and perhaps anachronistic, at first glance. But for Charles, it’s a way to draw a parallel between eras, since “people are still dealing with senseless acts of violence.”

A movement for his group and the orchestra, “Negro Enchantress,” paints a portrait of Hannah Elias — at one point a courtesan and, later in life, a landlord and property owner and one of the richest Black women in New York City.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Elias received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a lover, John R. Platt, a white man. “I don’t know if you want to call it like an 1895 version of ‘The Tinder Swindler,’” Charles said. “But he sued her. And they put it all in the papers. She had a mansion on Central Park West. Seven-bedroom mansion! And this whole mob showed up outside her house. She won the lawsuit; he lost the lawsuit. She bought property all over New York.”

The music of this movement begins softly and seductively, before taking on a suspenseful tinge. “It gets really out,” Charles said. “It’s like Jekyll and Hyde. You thought this person was one thing — but it’s also really that you’ve been convinced by your family that you shouldn’t be giving this person money.”

The third and fourth movements — “Charleston at the Jungles” and “Urban Removal” — address the sharply divergent legacies of Johnson and Moses. But Charles didn’t want to end the piece on a downer, so the final movement for the orchestra, “House Rent Party,” is a delirious fusion of ragtime, Afro-Venezuelan waltzes and turntablism.

“What is it like being a DJ in a party with people from everywhere?” Charles asked, rhetorically, after I pointed to the profusion of styles in this portion of the score. “You’ve got to give them a little taste.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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