Giant Step Arts Releases Recordings from Central Park


Giant Step Arts founders Jimmy and Dena Katz

(Photo: Luciano Rossetti)

While Manhattan was in the throes of the COVID-19 shutdown during 2020, renowned photographer, recording engineer, label head and lifelong jazz advocate Jimmy Katz, with his wife and artistic partner, Dena, got an inspired notion for bringing live music back to the people again: “There were a lot of organizations that were doing streaming at the time, but I really felt that jazz is a live art form. So I wanted to still have live concerts but do them in a safe way.”

That led to the creation of a free concert series in Central Park, which Katz dubbed “Walk With the Wind” in honor of the late U.S. representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, whose powerful 1998 autobiography was titled Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

The series, which provided much-needed economic, social and creative opportunities for musicians during a literal shutdown of live music, kicked off on Aug. 28, 2020, with a free, open-air concert by tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery leading a trio of bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. on the Central Park Mall. It was only fitting that Escoffery inaugurate the series, since it was he who gave Katz the idea.

“That summer, I left the Highbridge section of the Bronx and rented a sublet in a high-rise on the Upper West Side near Central Park,” the tenor man recalled via Facebook. “I made a post about the move and asked if anyone was in the neighborhood who wanted to play. Bassist Joshua Levine reached out and invited me to play with him and his crew of musicians at Ladies Pavilion in Central Park. At that time, many of the younger guys on the scene were busking in the park to keep their chops up, so I figured, ‘Why not join them?’ And the first time I did it, I ran into Jimmy Katz there. He and I had a nice talk, and shortly thereafter, he called and ran the idea by me about sponsoring real well-paid performances in the park. I thought it was a great idea, and I did the very first one and a few after that.”

The series continued through the fall with a who’s who on the current New York jazz scene, from the Marquis Hill Quartet and the Michael Thomas Trio to the Eric McPherson Trio and the Leap Day Trio with Matt Wilson, Mimi Jones and Jeff Lederer. Crowds ranged from 50 to 300 people for these regular weekend afternoon performances on The Mall by the likes of Joel Ross, Nasheet Waits, Mark Turner, Immanuel Wilkins, Melissa Aldana and Nicole Glover. Chris Potter closed out the fall series that year when the weather started getting too cold to play in the park.

When the series resumed in the spring of 2021, Katz relocated to a new location on the west side of the park, in an area historically known as Seneca Village. The first free Black settlement in New York City, it was founded in 1825 and thrived until the mid-1850s when the city took it over to build Central Park, which opened in 1858. “The Mall had gotten kind of crowded with buskers playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ while one of our artists was trying to play a ballad,” Katz explained. “So I wanted to move it, anyway, and I thought Seneca Village was really the perfect place to continue the series. What really impressed me was how much these events meant to all the people who showed up. People told me that they organized their whole week around coming out to the park and hearing these concerts, and the musicians were so excited to play in front of other human beings. The vibe was so great.”

There was no summer edition of “Walk With the Wind.” As Katz explained, “The whole time we were doing concerts, I was concerned that the Parks Department or the police were going to shut us down. Finally, I contacted them in July of 2021 and explained that I had already done 35 concerts, and they promptly said, ‘You can’t do any of those things out in the park.’ So we shifted locations to Hunter College, where we did a series of free concerts in the winter of 2021 called ‘Meditations on Freedom,’ curated by Nasheet Waits.”

Giant Step Arts plans to continue its free indoor series this summer at Hunter College. “I have to say, I’m not unhappy that we’re moving inside because it’s really challenging and very stressful recording outside,” said Katz. “Wind is really the biggest issue, of course, when you record outside. So I had windscreens on everything. And I was concerned about my microphones and recording equipment getting rained on and damaged because we were totally exposed to the elements out there. There was no concert stage or anything like that. But in retrospect, the musicians and I really liked having all of those external noises because it gives you a sense you’re outside in Central Park.”

Those ambient sounds can be faintly heard on two new album releases from Giant Step Arts: one by the Burton McPherson Trio with bassist Dezron Douglas and another by trumpeter Jason Palmer with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Edward Perez and drummer Johnathan Blake. Both were recorded live in the park at Summit Rock. And like all Giant Step Arts releases, the musicians have total control of their artistic projects. They receive a complete run of 700 CDs and digital downloads of their music. They also retain complete ownership of their masters. Giant Step Arts also provides promo photos, videos and PR. It’s an unprecedented formula.

“My mission is to put as much money into the hands of musicians as possible from what I raise,” Katz said. “So one of the things that made this Central Park concert series so wonderful is that all the money I raised went right to the musicians. And then on top of it, musicians got donations from audience members who came out and gave donations afterwards and bought CDs. It was a really nice, loose hang for people. It was designed kind of like a block party, except you had Chris Potter and Mark Turner and Nasheet Waits playing.”

Upcoming recording projects for Katz and Giant Step Arts include Mark Turner’s first live recording as a leader (at the Village Vanguard with trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jonathan Pinson), a new Tarbaby recording with Nasheet Waits, Orrin Evans and Eric Revis, and an all-star band featuring Waits, Turner, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and bassist Rahsaan Carter.

Katz’s catalog for Giant Step Arts, a label he founded in 2018, has maintained the distinctive visual signature of the cover photography he and Dena create.

“My visual cues really come from the sound of specific saxophone players, whether it’s the way Joe Lovano sounds or Pharoah Sanders sounds,” he said. “I’m trying to have a real ‘sound’ as a photographer, and I use them as my guiding light on how to do that. You know, Jackie McLean does not sound like Paul Desmond or like Lee Konitz. Each one of these artists has a really strong sound, and that’s what I’ve always worked on: having a real visual signature.” DB

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