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Free Music In The Heart Of The L.A. Sprawl

Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80's July 15 show at Grand Performances in Los Angeles. For over 25 years, Grand Performances' free shows have drawn diverse crowds to downtown L.A.
RJ Sakai
Courtesy of Grand Performances
Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80's July 15 show at Grand Performances in Los Angeles. For over 25 years, Grand Performances' free shows have drawn diverse crowds to downtown L.A.

Over the next few weeks, we're producing stories about the business of putting on free concerts, how they work and what they bring to their communities. Last week's All Things Considered piece looked at impact of the dwindling Performance Trust Fund on free concerts around North America.

Dorothy Parker famously described Los Angeles as "72 suburbs in search of a city." But over the past few decades, its downtown has evolved into an urban hub, with skyscrapers, expensive lofts and free music at a spacious outdoor plaza that draws Angelenos from all of those suburbs. It's called Grand Performances, and it's presenting 40 shows this year at no cost to the audience.

When Afro-pop musician Seun Kuti took the stage on July 15th, the night was cool and breezy. The moon, full and lustrous. The moment? Cinematic. So L.A. 4,000 Angelenos are dancing together.

"It's the antithesis of that movie Crash. [In that movie] all people in L.A., we drive in our cars, we don't pay attention to people, we don't interact," says concert-goer, actor and part-time reality show host Joel Steingold, "There's such a diversity of people here, and we're all united under one umbrella, which is the love of music."

Grand Performances was designed to add a heart to L.A.'s sprawl, says director Michael Alexander.

"The city wanted this to be a new center for downtown L.A. Downtown, particularly, when we started this program, was neutral. It didn't belong to any community, so it could belong to every community," he explains.

Grand Performance is perched atop a steep incline, in a part of downtown called Bunker Hill. It's part of an office park, a concrete basin interrupted by a waterfall and ringed by a jigsaw puzzle of tall towers in varying colors and sizes. They were built about 20 years ago in accordance with an interesting municipal contract: the buildings rent the land from the city of L.A. on a 99-year lease.

Alexander says about 45% of Grand Performances' budget comes from the proceeds of this unusual rental agreement. The rest of the organization's $1.8 million budget comes mainly from foundation grants and donations. Surprisingly, though, Los Angeles arts groups tend not to benefit from corporations or Hollywood.

"We have very few Fortune 500 companies here, and the entertainment industry, as important as it is from an artistic point of view, is not very important from a philanthropic point of view. You don't see studio names on checks or donor rolls in a big way," Alexander says.

Apparently, Hollywood isn't interested in Chinese modern dance or Persian poetry. Grand Performances stages all kinds of global contemporary art. It's best known for world music. The Grammy-winning group Ozomatli played their first outdoor concert on the Grand Performances stage.

In addition to free shows, Alexander says Grand Performances also offers ad hoc mentoring for inexperienced musicians on how to work big spaces, manage tech in unusual venues and make the most of a tour.

Musician Geoff Gallegos, better known as Double G, runs the dAKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, a unique ensemble that uses up to 100 musicians. Grand Performances gave him a space for his administrative work, like booking and writing grants.

"To do that in an office environment was really helpful for me, mainly because you can't smoke weed in the office," Gallegos jokes.

Free concerts also mean artistic freedom. When the LA Opera did Wagner's "Ring Cycle" last year, city arts groups responded with their own Ring-related projects. Grand Performances commissioned a symphony that Double G called Gangsta Wagner.

"The concept was that in World War II, I imagined Hitler listening to Wagner like that was his gangsta rap. You build these really strong, aggressive beats with Wagner samples and a hard MC style over top of it," he explains.

With concerts in the afternoons as well as evenings and thousands of people crowding into downtown from all over L.A., you'd think there would be noise complaints, or parking problems. Not so, says city council member Jan Perry. Not only has Grand Performances helped make downtown L.A. more attractive to everyone from developers to tourists, it's one of the best things about the area.

"Actually, it's near a senior housing development, probably the largest in the Western U.S. Many times, if you look up there in the early evening, you can see the residents stand out there and listen," Perry says.

At the Seun Kuti show, most of the attendees are in their 20s and 30s — and in the mood to party. After taking a sip from his beer (Grand Performances shows are BYO), Amador Ochoa looks around and says there's something about this spectrum of people, dancing to music from all over the world, that, to him, is what it means to be a citizen of Los Angeles.

"This is what I'm from and this is what I am," he says. "I love this music."

Ochoa says as far as he's concerned, the shows at Grand Performances aren't free -– they're priceless.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.