Although this year’s Harlem Week officially began Tuesday, Sunday’s “A Great Day in Harlem” was the yearly monthlong festival’s ceremonious start. The all-day party at U.S. Grant National Memorial Park ended with a free concert that saw the likes of “Late Show With David Letterman” music director Paul Shaffer and R&B singer Chuck Jackson take the stage in front of an enthused crowd of hundreds.
The fact that this is Harlem Week’s flagship event speaks to how central music is to the decades-long festival. It’s also been a focal point since Harlem Week started as Harlem Day in 1974.
“On the cultural side, [Harlem] is synonymous with being innovative in terms of all the musicians and the nightclubs since the turn of the century,” said Voza Rivers, executive producer of Harlem Week. “It was a natural fit for us to perpetuate our culture that way.”
“A Great Day in Harlem,” which shares the same name as the famed photograph of 57 noted jazz musicians, is just the first of a long list of music events that will take place over the next month. The lineup is eclectic, ranging from Caribbean legends to jazz concerts, that fits into Harlem’s long history with the genre. Harlem Week, overseen by the Harlem Chamber of Commerce, consists of over 18 events running through Sept. 22.
A majority of the headlining acts should appeal to young adults and older. The first major act is Beres Hammond, the famed singer who’s known for lovers rock hits such as “In My Arms” and “Tempted to Touch.” He’ll perform at NJPAC (One Center St. in Newark, N.J.) this Friday. Hip-hop legend Slick Rick will perform at the same venue Aug. 13. Jill Scott and George Clinton (founder of the Parliament-Funkadelic) will follow up Aug. 15 and 16, respectively.
Harlem residents don’t have to hop on NJ Transit to catch all of the festivities. Although the headlining acts are sticking out of state, the neighborhood will be home to multiple festivals. Summer Stage in Harlem, a series of events funded by the nonprofit City Parks Foundation, will host three events in the always-lively lot outside the Adam C. Powell State Office Building. R&B will have its night Aug. 6, jazz will get its moment within its mecca Aug. 8 and African culture gets its representation Aug. 16.
The wide range of acts are sewn together by the theme “Love Is the Answer,” the motif for Harlem Week’s music festival. It’s one of the few “micro-themes” that fit over Harlem’s Week’s overarching one: “Celebrating the Journey and Embracing the Future.” The themes were settled on by the Harlem Chamber of Commerce after going through over 100 ideas.
Andre Fields, a 55-year-old Harlem resident, exemplifies the music festival’s theme. The spry, bespectacled man arrived as early as 9 a.m. to “A Great Day in Harlem,” and he was still swaying along to the live music by 8 p.m. Fields has been going to Harlem Week events since 1981. The festival has changed and expanded since then, but in some ways, it hasn’t changed. One constant has kept him coming back.
“It’s the atmosphere, you know?” Fields said. “It’s the gathering of people. I like that. It’s still the same. It may need more food, but it’s still the same.”