NEW YORK — What started as a way for two musicians to get out of the house during the pandemic has turned into nightly concerts at the boathouse in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park -- with fans who expect them to play three to four hours a night, seven nights a week.
The musicians, accustomed to playing their Haitian roots and jazz music in bars and restaurants that had been shuttered or limited to takeout by the lockdown, couldn’t be happier.
“One day I came here with my guitar out of nowhere, to just get some fresh air. And people just started coming over. And then they were like, ‘Thank you!’ And then it took a life on its own,” said Alegba Jahyile, leader of Alegba and Friends.
Jahyile, a Haitian raised in New York who plays guitar, drums and bass, recalled a woman who cried at one concert.
“You made my day,” she told him. “It’s been a terrible week for me and my family. Listening to you, singing, I felt the joy, I found a little bit of serenity, of peace to my day.”
It was then, Jahyile said, that “I decided that every day I would come here.”
Classically trained saxophone player Mark Kraszewski has played with Jahyile for more a year. But Kraszewski, who was busking for tips in Central Park last September, can’t believe the group’s good fortune.
“Initially when we started, it was just us playing. We were just practicing and jamming and having fun with it,” he said. “Every once in a while, we’d end a song and we noticed people were clapping. Alegba quickly realized that the Prospect Park boathouse would be a better spot than the park entrance,” where people had no place to sit.
Prospect Park is Central Park’s lesser-known, outer-borough sister, designed as well by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. With so many people out of work, — with no school, no camp and for most, no vacation homes to escape to — the park has become a daily escape. On weekdays, it’s as crowded as Memorial Day or July 4, especially in the early evening when the group performs.
Situated on what’s known as the Lullwater, a winding park waterway, the Beaux-Arts style 1905 boathouse has steps that are good for sitting. It’s also adjacent to a grassy hill where people can bring children and dogs, spread blankets, plop down lounge chairs, and picnic while listening to the music.
“I think everyone just kinds of needs that literal breath of fresh air,” said one fan, Jackie Padilla. “But also just hearing them reminds you that it’s still summertime, and we still can be a community.”
Said Jahyile: “When people come here, they come to have a little good time, to have a picnic with their family, their friends, their lovers. And then the music takes them to another level. So, it becomes a daily thing.”
People ask him, “’Are you going to be here tonight?” And I say, ‘Yes. This is your daily rendezvous until the next snowflakes. I will be here.’
Kraszeswki has his own take: After each performance, as the musicians leave, “people on the steps say, ‘Thank you for doing this. I haven’t heard live music in months.’ Ironically for us, if there were just three people, we would still be doing the same thing.”
New York City is in the second phase of reopening and gatherings are restricted to 10 people or less.
The constant work is good for the band’s music. “We get to keep working on our skills and on our sound while also building an audience, turning our music on to new people,” Kraszewski said. It has become, he said, “our own self-generated concert residency in Prospect Park.”
And the crowds are enthusiastic. “We’ve had really lively concerts that rival where we would have been playing in bars and clubs. Some nights it’s better,” Kraszeswki said.
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Kathy Willens And Emily Leshner, The Associated Press