Musician and composer Etienne Charles Credit: Lawrence Sumulong

Trinidad-born, Miami-based Etienne Charles was almost destined to be a musician. “My father, my uncle, my brother played in steel bands and my mother always had music on in the house,” he told the Amsterdam News. Now, Charles teaches music and is a musician and composer himself. “I would describe myself as a musician, a trumpeter with a bit of percussion, but I also focus on telling stories with music.” Charles is also the mastermind behind the upcoming “San Juan Hill: A New York Story,” which debuts Oct. 8 at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.

A mix of music and visuals come together to tell the surprising history of the neighborhood where the sprawling Lincoln Center complex now sits. Once home to luminaries such as Thelonious Monk and Benny Carter, the area formerly known as San Juan Hill was a diverse home to Indigenous people, Caribbean immigrants, Black American migrants, and European immigrants, resulting in a rich musical heritage. San Juan Hill was bound by 59th Street to the south, West End Avenue to the west, 65th Street to the north, and Amsterdam Avenue to the east.

The release for “San Juan Hill: A New York Story” describes it as, “An immersive multimedia work…transports the audience via music, visuals, and original first-person accounts of the history of the San Juan Hill neighborhood and the indigenous and immigrant communities that populated the land in and around where Lincoln Center resides. A multitude of musical elements—from Ragtime, Jazz, Stride piano, Swing, Blues, Mambo, Paseo, Antillean Waltz, Calypso, Funk, Disco, and Hip Hop—are woven together with historical film and present-day interviews to showcase the myriad musical styles and culture that were brought to New York by migrants from the south and the Caribbean.”

Lawrence Sumulong photos

Charles’ boundless curiosity about music brought him to the project. “I read a lot about the neighborhood and some of the musicians that came from there. I decided I wanted to do a research project and compose a piece about it.” Charles then took the idea to Lincoln Center and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

As much as he knew from his reading, he did further research after getting the okay from Lincoln Center. “I spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library listening to accounts, reading The New York Times going back 100, 120 years ago. I also visited the Tenement Museum to get a feel for what it must have been like to live there because they were tenements.”

A number of things surprised Charles as he did his research. “Most surprising was about the volume of Caribbean immigrants in the neighborhood. Also the fact that the dance called the Charleston as people know it, was developed in San Juan Hill. These Afro-descendant art forms that then became American art forms, came from here.”

Charles also explained why with as much rich culture as was in San Juan Hill, it did not ultimately become the mecca that Harlem was. “That cultural melting pot continuously moved north and west through New York. When Black people were in Five Points, the culture was there, when they moved to Greenwich Village, the culture was there, when they moved to Chelsea, the Tenderloin, etc., the culture was there. The creative culture of Blacks in New York was continuously being moved.”

Charles elaborated that San Juan Hill was “branded a slum” as one reason why much of the culture eventually moved, or was forced to from there due to “urban renewal” projects, part of which resulted in the creation of Lincoln Center.

With “San Juan Hill: A New York Story,” Charles said, the most challenging thing was capturing all of the dynamics of the area at the time. To do so, he collaborated with a bevy of artists, which also hints at how ambitious the project is. “I worked with a graffiti artist, a spoken word artist, a historian, a playwright, a photographer, and a video artist. It was great because everybody did their own digging and brought what they thought I should highlight.”

Also challenging was infusing the piece with the type of dramatic elements that he sought. “The goal is to put the audience back in those times and to create the tension of times while also creating the joy, the energy of the music and dance of the era. The challenge was keeping the focus on the people while building tension. Just like any story, you don’t want it to plateau. So the hard part was that arc while centering the people and their culture.

“It’s important,” stated Charles, “that this story be told. It is a big chunk of American history. This concept happened all over the country. It’s important for people to know what happened here the same way when you pass by a cemetery or a plantation you know what it is. Having that deeper perspective makes you operate with a certain amount of respect.”

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