Celebrate Brooklyn executive producer Jack Walsh does not remember the first concert of the series he attended, as a teenager in 1979. He does, however, remember one of his first as an employee of the festival, in 1982.
“Betty Carter with the Brooklyn Philharmonic,” he said. “I drove her to the show and then drove her home from the show.”
Celebrate Brooklyn began as an upstart music series in a neglected, broken-down park in an unfashionable borough. Now entering its 36th year, it is a rite of summer held in one of the jewels of the city’s park system in a borough known worldwide for its homegrown art and music.
It’s hard to imagine that Prospect Park, which today draws more than eight million annual visitors according to NYC Parks, could ever want for interest from the general public. But in the late 1970s, the Brooklyn park was little more than a run-down blight, with broken lights and little regard for safety.
“In the 1970s and 1980s the park was regarded as dangerous and people stayed away, particularly at night,” said David Colley, author of “Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece,” via email. “Bicyclists in the 1970s sometimes had police escorts to ride the drives and traveled in packs for safety.”
“Celebrate Brooklyn has been hugely important for the park,” said Eric Landau, the Vice President of Government and External Affairs for the Prospect Park Alliance. “[It] was a big part of that revitalization. It took a time when people were not coming to the park like they are now, and then there was this fabulous, free summer programming series that drew people back to the park.”
Season 36, which kicked off with a performance by R&B superstar Janelle Monae at the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 4, will feature 31 performances, 24 of which are free, and will draw an estimated 200,000 visitors to the park over the course of the summer. Brooklyn will be well-represented in the lineup, with indie rock darlings The National and St. Vincent (the latter closing the series with a free show in August), rapper Talib Kweli and poet Aja Monet among the locals taking the stage.
But it’s not just the performances that celebrate the renaissance of the borough. Walsh and BRIC, the non-profit arts organization behind Celebrate Brooklyn, put an emphasis on staffing the festival with “friends and neighbors,” as Walsh calls them, that extends from the seasonal staff to the concession stands.
“It’s very much a community organization,” said Anna Gordon, the founder and executive baker of Brooklyn’s The Good Batch, which runs the festival’s snack bar. “[Brooklyn] itself is a huge supporter of local businesses and we’re certainly not in short supply of delicious food and talented foodmakers. ? It’s a perfect pairing.”
For Walsh, who has served as Celebrate Brooklyn’s executive director since 1994 and grew up in Park Slope, keeping the event as local as possible has always been the goal.
“Now, [Prospect Park] is a jewel, but we still see the purpose of the festival as reflecting Brooklyn,” he said.
If you go: For a full schedule and ticket information, go to bricartsmedia.org.
All shows at Prospect Park Bandshell
Jack Johnson/Bahamas: Tomorrow, 7 p.m., sold out
Celebrate Ornette: The Music of Ornette Coleman featuring Denardo Coleman Vibe Thursday, 7 p.m., FREE
Ozomatli’s Ozokidz: Saturday, 4 p.m., FREE
The National: June 17-18, sold out; June 19, $49.50
Amos Lee/Lake Street Dive: June 20, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Dum Dum Girls/Hospitality/TEEN: June 21, 7 p.m., FREE
Warpaint/Yellowbirds: June 26, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Shovels & Rope/Valerie June/Shakey Graves: June 27, 7 p.m., FREE
Luciano/Sandra St. Victor & Oya’s Daughter: June 28, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Robert Glasper Experiment featuring Talib Kweli/Glenn Kotche/Aja Money: July 5, 7 p.m., FREE
Illya Kuryaki & The Valderramas/Choc Quib Town/RVSB: July 10, 7 p.m., FREE
Vote, It Ain’t Illegal Yet: July 11, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Alloy Orchestra: He Who Gets Slapped/ Stephane Wrembel: July 12, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Shen Wei Dance: July 17, 8 p.m., FREE
Bebel Gilberto/Vinicius Cantuaria/Netsayi: July 18, 7 p.m., FREE
Deltron 3030/ Nomadic Massive: July 19, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Neutral Milk Hotel: July 22-23, 7 p.m., sold out
Nickel Creek: July 24, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Park Harmony, Neo Muyanga & WIlliam Kentridge’s Second Hand Reading: July 25, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: July 26, 7 p.m., $59.50
Dance Theatre of Harlem/Leyla McCalla: July 31, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Jimmy Bosch y Su Estrellas/ Pedrito Martinez Group featuring Ariance Trujillo: Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Kes The Band/Kuentai Tambu/DJ Dr Wax/ Steel Sensations: Aug. 2, 7 p.m., FREE
Altan/Maura O’Connell: Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m., FREE
Asian Dub Foundation: THX 1138/Taylor McFerrin: Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m., FREE
St. Vincent/San Fermin: Aug. 9, 7:30 p.m., FREE