It was a ministry of sound and rhythm that Batiste and a cadre of singers, dancers and instrumentalists brought indoors to the Javits Center, a sprawling site these days of coronavirus vaccinations, and then outdoors to Brooklyn parks, chichi shopping districts and housing projects. They were helping to kick off a public-private collaboration that on 100 scattered days between now and Labor Day will sponsor performers in concerts across the state — many unannounced.
Along with Batiste, some major talent will be participating: the likes of Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Idina Menzel, Hugh Jackman, Kenan Thompson and Billy Porter have signed on for upcoming free performances. But as Saturday’s events demonstrated, NY PopsUp shows will also provide employment for performers who are not household names. Among those who danced and sang with Batiste were tap dancer Ayodele Casel; countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo; and a band that included Endea Owens on bass, Bria Skonberg on trumpet, Joe Saylor and Nêgah Santos on percussion, John Altieri on sousaphone, and Tivon Pennicott on sax.
“All artists are itching to get back,” the Bronx-born Casel said, sitting in the Javits Center green room after the first show. “I feel energized and moved. It’s so humbling to see people who want to be communicating with us.”
Organized by film and Broadway producer Scott Rudin and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal — and supported by a $5 million state grant — NY PopsUp is the nation’s most ambitious performing-arts restart campaign. “It’s a plan to get New York up and running again,” said New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who attended the Javits Center launch. He added that the enthusiasm sparked by the entertainers reflected “the spirit of everyone in New York City coming out.”
Because the coronavirus imposes severe restrictions on public gatherings, the size of the NY PopsUp shows has to be strictly controlled. The inaugural event at Javits played to a socially distanced and masked audience of about 60 medical workers and members of the New York Army National Guard, who gathered in a room a level below the vast vaccination floor.
“Thank you so much for putting your life on the line,” Batiste, wearing sneakers and a white T-shirt, declared from the stage, after a rendition at the piano of his own “Don’t Stop.” The eclectic 40-minute performance — also streamed on Instagram Live — included a tap solo with recorded narration by the silver-shoed Casel, titled “While I Have the Floor,” and Costanzo singing “Ave Maria.” The vibrant mash-up that followed, with Casel, Costanzo, Batiste and the band performing George and Ira Gershwin’s “Slap That Bass” and “I Got Rhythm,” conveyed a unifying sense of where American eras and cultures converge.
“It’s amazing,” said Fatima Nizam, a medical evaluator from Toronto and one of the 600 workers on the vaccination force at Javits. Noting that “it’s been about a year” without live music, she called the performance “really uplifting to the spirit.”
Batiste, playing a handheld melodica, led the band off the stage, up the convention center’s escalators and into the area where the vaccines were being administered. The impromptu extended concert provided an exuberant break in the routine for nurses Tenita Morris, Tiffany Jones and Kenosha Nabors, who came from Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, respectively, to help with the vaccine program. “This wakes us up!” Morris declared.
Costanzo confided that — true to the nature of a pop-up — the program was essentially assembled the morning of the launch, with practically no time to rehearse. And given the changing safety protocols, the performers had to stay loose and adaptive. “As a classical musician,” he said in the green room, “there’s no time to be precious. And the pandemic has made that clearer than ever.”
The vagaries of the virus dictate that the entire NY PopsUp schedule remain a work in progress. “It’s being built as it goes along,” said Zack Winokur, the NY PopsUp artistic director. The bonus, he explained, will be in the imaginative mixing of artists at the pop-ups, for potential future endeavors. “The success of this,” Winokur added, “will be in the seeding of a lot of other things.”
The spontaneity of the event came into focus at the Brooklyn stop, as the bus unloaded at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights and Batiste assumed the role of pied piper. Trudging through snow-encrusted urban parks and narrow streets into the adjoining neighborhood known as Dumbo, the musicians played “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Passersby holding up camera phones recognized Batiste and joined the mini-parade, as children watched from apartment windows.
It all had a jubilant, movie-scene feel. “Being out among the people,” Batiste said, “is the most immediate transfer of energy and inspiration. That’s what music has been for centuries.”