After much controversy, Music in the Park is back this year for a single show on July 19 with Latin fusion group Ozomatli to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the event, but this time it’s not free and it’s not at Plaza de Cesar Chavez.
Arriving in San Jose in 1989, Music in the Park emerged as a few summertime concerts to promote the fledgling downtown scene and quickly grew into an annual series that became one of the city’s most well-attended annual cultural events. After a few years, thousands of people gathered for regional and national touring bands, including Tower of Power, Cracker, Smashmouth, Pete Escovedo and Gaslight Anthem, for a free concert series that was unparalleled in other large Bay Area cities.
“I always loved Music in the Park,” says former Smashmouth guitarist Greg Camp. “We used to ride down every Thursday in the summer no matter who was playing. When Smashmouth came home to play, it was great for us to be able to give something back.”
That all changed in 2011 when the Downtown Association scuttled the event, claiming that it outgrew the Plaza de Cesar Chavez venue amid complaints from business and residents and reports of an “undesirable element” at the Thursday night event.
Some argued that Music in the Park got too big, and rather than promoting downtown, it clogged it with traffic, brought in drunks and troublemakers and even (gasp!) public use of marijuana when pot-friendly bands played. Others saw the decision to cancel the series as a huge disappointment and an affront to San Jose’s low-income population who cannot afford to see the performers at ticketed venues.
The show at St. James Park on July 19 with Ozomatli is the Downtown Association’s attempt at giving the event another chance, this time with a $10 admission fee and control over how many people can attend.
“We’re not closing the door to the possibility that we might have stumbled upon a new model,” says Blage Zelalich, deputy director of the Downtown Association “There might be Music in the Park in the future but we’re not really ready to make that commitment or that announcement right now.”
Considering the importance of 25 years of Music in the Park, Ozomatli is a fitting pick, not just because of the Latin fusion band’s name recognition, but because, as Ozomatli bass player Wil-Dog said in a phone interview, the South Bay is one of their better markets. In recent years they’ve played the Mountain Winery and the Heritage Theater in Campbell to large crowds and for far more than $10 a ticket.
“It’s always been one of those places that people embrace us,” Wil-Dog says. “Whatever the dynamic of the audience is, the make-up racially or culturally or even economically, it just works.”
Back in the ’90s, the idea of mixing hip-hop, funk and other elements with Latin music was not nearly as common as it is now. Ozomatli were pioneers in what seems to be an explosion in modern Latin-fusion music in the last five to 10 years.
“We were lucky enough to be in the mid-90s where it was kind of like this transformation,” Wil-Dog says. “Kids now on their iPod, they’ll listen to songs and they’ll just jump genres. You’re not seeing the kid that’s only into this one music. We were just before the Internet generation. It lent itself to that generation.”
Ozomatli’s success can’t be attributed to any one single hit, but rather a lot of hard work and flexibility. They’ve done nearly anything a band can do, contributing songs to movies and video games, becoming Gabriel Iglesias’ house band for his show “Stand Up Revolution,” acting as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. government in the mid-2000s and releasing a children’s album in 2012. They were even arrested at SXSW in 2004 and accused of potentially starting a riot after an impromptu late-night streetside jam—generating press that helped push the band and the festival to greater heights.
“We’re constantly working and engaging with people, we get opportunities. We’ve always been in the peripheral, looking in. We’ve never had the song,” Wil-Dog says.
The band is putting the final touches on their new album, Place in the Sun, which he says will have some of the classic Ozomatli sound, but will also have some new elements, including a techno-banda song and a reggae song that was co-written by Eurythmics songwriter David A. Stewart.
Locally, this same approach is used by Music in the Park opening act Sonido Clash, a collective of musicians that host a modern Latin dance party every first Friday of the month at the Pagoda. They DJ, produce and perform new Latin music, as well as invite guests from all over the world to play.
“There’s a new generation of Latinos getting involved in music and making new sounds and meshing all these cultures, these sounds together,” says Mexia Hernandez of Sonido Clash and local Latin-fusion group Raul y Mexia. “We basically got together to showcase those sounds and that culture.”
If Music in the Park does come back, the Downtown Association may have to rethink its approach and potentially go with a new model like the one being used for the Ozomatli show. “Free concerts are getting to be fewer and fewer and farther between,” says Zelalich. “Really, the cost to produce large scale outdoor events continues to rise. We wanted to continue to make it accessible to people, but we felt like for the caliber and the talent that we were bringing it was appropriate to charge a nominal fee.”
Part of what is happening on a deeper level, local business owner Chris Esparza points out, is that Music in the Park has fundamentally changed its intent.
“It was a community builder. It was starting to turn the downtown office workers into people staying a little later and being a part of their downtown,” Esparza says. “It was so greatly needed to get people to start getting into a pattern of dinner and drinks with coworkers and friends and actually being the downtown we all wanted it to be.”
It succeeded in its mission. People came downtown. Downtown businesses thrived. At a certain point, Music in the Park no longer was needed to promote downtown, though it still brought some excellent concerts to San Jose.
“I still think it was a really positive event,” Esparza says. “It started to be less about what its original purpose was. It grew into such a success that it got justified being a different thing and I’m not sure if everybody was comfortable with where it went.”
The idea that Music in the Park would charge admission has upset some people. The real test though is whether people come and actually pay the admission to attend the show.
“I don’t feel like anyone is bringing back Music in the Park—and that is likely what the fuss is about,” says local musician Ben Henderson. “Music in the Park was a series of free concerts in Cesar Chavez Park with a diverse lineup for many years. This summer, there is an Ozomatli show in St. James Park for $10. Call that Music in the Park and people are all up in arms that their memories of free summer music bliss is costing money now—and it’s at the park they love to hate. Call it Ozomatli in St. James Park for $10, and it’s actually a sweet deal. I’ll be there, and I’m looking forward to more shows like it.”