A tour of Central Park with jazz around every corner

The J.D. Allen Quartet. (Matthew Kassel)
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Sometimes we forget just how big Central Park is. Two-and-a-half miles long and half a mile wide, it’s a big chunk of Manhattan.

The fact that 30 jazz bands were scattered throughout the park on Saturday afternoon for the first Jazz & Colors Festival is an impressive feat. But at the same time, the park is so large that you could have walked through it in certain areas and not even noticed that an event inspired by The Gates, the public art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, was taking place.

That's to the festival's credit, though: It didn't draw too much attention to itself. In that way it felt natural entering the park from Sixth Avenue at noon to find the Kimberly Thompson Quartet amid a throng of tourists—some watching, most passing by—as carriage horses trotted obliviously along and hot dog vendors peddled their wares.

Street performers, after all, are a common sight in New York City. Early on in the day I followed the sound of a saxophonist soloing under an arch near the Wollman Rink. I soon realized he was busking. This happened a couple of times.

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Jazz & Colors, produced by the concert promoter Peter Shapiro in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy, was scheduled to occur as the fall foliage reached its peak. But that happened a while ago, and if they do this again next year, as I hope they will, the producers may want to schedule it for October. Brice Rosenbloom, who founded the Winter Jazzfest, booked the event.

At the Olmsted Bed, just south of the Mall, tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen led a quartet amid a patch of wizened oak trees, their leaves strewn about the ground. He played "Take the A Train," weaving delicate phrases around the accompanying lines of a trumpet. The crowd felt pretty big, for an open-air jazz performance.

I asked an elderly couple on a bench, Ron and Carol Maday, if they had planned to see the music in advance or if they had just happened upon it.

"Yes, we planned for this," Ron told me. "These are great bands, and they're playing all the classic jazz tunes, so we love it." (Each band had been given the same two set lists, with songs having to do with the city or the fall season.)

Ron had a cane. Did he and his wife plan to follow the music all the way up to 110th Street?

"No," Ron said, politely, "we've picked a few bands. The Mingus Big Band is next."

It was my pick, too. As I walked up the Literary Walk—lined with tall, leafless American elms—I saw a man making big bubbles with a stringed wand and a breakdancing team in action, among other attractions. I pressed on to the Naumberg Bandshell to catch the Charles Mingus tribute band playing a slow, soulful rendition of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which Mingus wrote for Lester Young.

A young couple there told me they had chanced upon the show. I asked if they'd seek out more performances.

"We're going to go through the park," they told me, "but the festival wasn't our purpose for being here." Later, I saw them at the southern edge of the Lake, sailing a model boat.

By 2:30 p.m., I hadn't even made it a third of the way through the park. It wasn't a requirement, of course, to traverse its entirety, but I wanted to. Plus, the vibraphonist Chris Dingman—whom I have never seen—was playing with his quartet up at the Frederick Douglass Circle in the park's northwest corner, which gave me a reason to go up there. So after I watched a bebop band on Cherry Hill, I quickened my pace across the Bow Bridge, hoping to take a shortcut through the Ramble.

It was cordoned off, at least where I tried to enter. The park itself, which had been closed for a stretch due to Hurricane Sandy, reopened in time for this event, but some areas remain off limits. (Perhaps that's why so many trees were leafless; hundreds of them were felled by the wind during the storm.)

Circling back past the Bethesda Fountain—where it seemed like half a dozen brides were getting their pictures taken—I walked up to the Glade Arch to see the alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity blow through the chord changes of "Blues Walk." Kids were playing football nearby on Cedar Hill. Rebecca Weston, a young woman also watching, said she found out about Jazz & Colors through an environmentalists listserv.

"I probably wouldn't have gone if it were in a building," she told me. "I'm just walking around before work."

I walked on to the tune of "Body and Soul," on my way to the Delacorte Theatre to catch a bit of the Joel Harrison Quartet.

Near the Great Lawn, I spotted Bill Cunningham riding by on his bicycle. I snapped one blurry photo and considered chasing him as he peddled down past Turtle Pond toward the Belvedere Castle. But time was tight, so I hurried along the West Drive up to 90th Street, near the Reservoir, where Eric Lewis, otherwise known as ELEW (pictured, above left), played blues-inflected jazz-rock on the only acoustic piano I saw that day.

Joggers and cyclists passed by, unconcerned with the performance. I ran into Patrick Jarenwattananon, who runs NPR's jazz blog, A Blog Supreme. He was on his bike. (Why hadn't I thought of that?) I realized I only had 45 minutes left to catch Dingman’s set.

"It's worth it," Jarenwattananon said as I took off. "That's a great band."

I walked up along the Reservoir to the East Drive: the wrong direction, I soon realized.

I hurried north, past the Kevin Hays Trio, to the 102nd Street drive, where fallen trees from the storm were lined up to be mulched. I reached the peaceful banks of the Pool, stopped for a second to listen to the sound of a chainsaw intermingle with the music of Yosvany Terry, and continued on.

Walking along Central Park West, I passed Mitch Frohman's Latin Jazz Quartet playing at Stranger's Gate, which, my map told me, was one of the original 18 entrances to Central Park. I entered the park again with ten minutes left and began to run.

And then, in the distance, I heard it: the airy tintinnabulation of Dingman's vibraphone. I emerged from the path to find a small crowd.

"We have one more tune for you," Dingman said. "I think you might recognize this one."

We did. It was "Empire State of Mind."