By Ivan Pereira
When the Jamaica Arts, Music and Summer Festival started 15 years ago, its organizers said they wanted to create an event that would put Jamaica in the spotlight.
Over the last decade and a half, their dream has grown from one block near York College to stretch 10 blocks across southeast Queens’s busiest commercial district, and this year’s two-day event, which takes place this weekend, will showcase some new forms of art created by the best local talent.
Tyra Emerson, executive director of Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, which created JAMS, said she has been amazed at the success of the event because they wanted to bring the Jamaica community together, but eventually it got more attention from other communities.
“We have gotten over the years people who come from the Tri-State area and buses from as far as Maryland and Canada,” she said.
Emerson and her board of directors established the festival in 1996 because the community was making a rebound from the troubled times of the ‘80s, and artists and business owners wanted to show the city that Jamaica was a place for them.
Cultural Collaborative, along with other groups such as the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, set up an outdoor presentation at York that featured a small group of vendors and musicians. Byron Perry, an administrative assistant at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre who was in charge of organizing the vendors for the first JAMS, recalled that there were 7,000 visitors and an exciting atmosphere.
“There was not a big attendance, but everyone saw there was potential for a large amount of growth,” he said.ï»¿
JAMS continued at the York location for another year and eventually moved to Rufus King Park, where the musicians had a bigger stage to show off their talents. More and more companies, community activists and elected officials became involved and the increased attention was apparent.
“When we got to King Park, it was like 35,000 people,” Emerson said.
A year after holding JAMS at the greenspace, Cultural Collaborative was able to get permission from the city to stage the festival for two days across Jamaica Avenue. The organizers said that having the commercial district from Parsons Boulevard to 170th Street gave them the visibility they had been looking for since day one.
“People like the concept of music in Queens,” Perry said. “There’s not as many [music-oriented] street festivals in Queens compared to Manhattan.”
Year after year, crowds would come out to the avenue to check out the sights and sounds of area musicians. Perry said more visitors from outside southeast Queens have come to the festival recently not only because of the good word of mouth, but also because of the family-friendly atmosphere.
“The best part of [JAMS] is that the police and the [volunteers] work hard to make sure everything is safe,” he said. “We’ve never had anything negative happen and I’m proud of that.”
This year, the JAMS organizers promise to keep adding to the festival’s popularity with some new featured pieces.
The show kicks off with a night concert Friday at Rufus King Park featuring musicians selected by the community. Some of the artists scheduled to appear are Emperor Adichie, a Nigerian singer who performs folk tunes, R&B performer Robbie Nova and Camille Thurman.
Thurman, who lives in southeast Queens, sings and plays saxophone and the flute.
“She’s a triple treat,” Emerson said.
JAMS continues the day, Saturday, with street performances, artist exhibitions and other venues, such as an antique car block and a farmers market. This year, Emmerson and her staff decided to add a fashion show after an artist came in last year with an idea to present clothing designs as part of the festival.
Although they could not allow the artist to be part of last year’s event, the organizers liked the idea and decided to open it up to other clothing designers in the area.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to show their work. The city has fashion week and we have JAMS,” said JAMS organizer Jule Grant, who is handling the fashion show.
Grant said the JAMS committee was enthusiastic about the shows because of the audience it would bring in.
“I know a lot of the young people in Queens express their artistic self through the clothes they wear and design,” she said.
But fashion isn’t the only addition to this year’s show. Emerson said the theme for the 2011 JAMS festival is “going green,” and vendors from various businesses and agencies will be on hand to teach people ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
“We will have recycling classes and giving free green products,” she said.
Emerson said she expects tens of thousandsï»¿ to come to Jamaica Avenue and for this year’s event to be another success. She predicted that the next 15 years would help to strengthen the artists in southeast Queens and help put the neighborhood on the map.
“I’ve always been impressed with JAMS,” she said. “Each year we make it bigger and better.”
Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.