By Kevin zimmerman
Nearly two decades ago, a group of Jamaica residents decided it was time for somebody to highlight the diverse talents of southeast Queens.
So, these commercial, political and cultural leaders made plans to bring vendors, artists and even pony rides to York College for an afternoon of fun.
They booked the musicians, contacted the creative set and lined up the cooks. Then they waited to see who would show up.
“At that first event, we got 7,000 people,” Tyra Emerson, executive director of the event’s organizer Cultural Coalition Jamaica, said. “And we were like, oh, we’re onto something.”
Since its debut on a Saturday in 1996, the Jamaica Arts & Music Summer Festival, known as JAMS, has turned into one of New York City’s tourist destinations and attracts well over 185,000 people to Jamaica Avenue on the first weekend in August.
As JAMS gears up for its 17th annual event — which TimesLedger Newspapers once again helps sponsor — it continues its mission of providing a stage for the best of what Jamaica and Queens creates in the fields of music, food, fashion and arts.
“It was a way to link arts to economic development in southeast Queens,” Emerson said. “And it was an opportunity to include the community in a festival which they didn’t have to travel to.”
Plenty of traveling still occurs during that summer weekend, but it’s people from the other boroughs, the Tri-state region and even Eastern Canada who head into Queens for the event.
Once they arrive, visitors will have the opportunity to settle in at Rufus King Park for the JAMS Under the Stars concert on Friday night. Each year the kick-off show varies in theme — 2012 was a tribute to recently passed icons Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, and this year celebrates World Music.
“There’s going to be African music, Latin jazz and a whole lot of genres from different nations,” Emerson said.
Between Friday night’s show and the main stage on Saturday, Emerson said about a dozen or so groups will perform throughout the festival.
But music is just one component of JAMS.
Because Queens and Jamaica in particular celebrate diversity, food from every corner of the globe will be available to sample.
“If you have a taste for something, it is going to be there,” Emerson said.
An entire city block will be converted into a kid-friendly zone with face painting, clowns and balloon sculptures. And for the first time this year, the health and wellness activities will include exercises for the 12-and-under set.
“The event is family-oriented,” Emerson said. “We always feel like we need something just for the kids.”
And just for the men — although Emerson admits women like it, too — JAMS includes another block lined with antique cars of nearly every make and model.
Automobiles will not, however, be anywhere along Jamaica Avenue between Parsons Boulevard and 169th Street as that entire stretch of road is turned into a pedestrian-only street fair on Saturday.
Emerson expects more than 400 vendors to set up shop along the thoroughfare selling a variety of wares. Interspersed among the retailers, about four dozen non-profit groups will have booths to advertise their programs.
“It’s an opportunity to tell the community, ‘we are here and these are the services we provide,’” Emerson said.
Antonio Rasmus, founder of Rally Win sportswear and sporting gear company, plans on being in one of those Jamaica Avenue booths. As a lead sponsor, Rally Win will debut its “I’m Such a JAMS Fan!” T-shirt during the event.
Rasmus, a life-long Jamaica resident, believes JAMS offers his company the perfect opportunity to promote its goods to a wide audience. He also sees the weekend as a way to celebrate Queens’ and Jamaica’s history and future.
“People move out of Jamaica — like to Florida or North Carolina — and they tell their friends there, ‘hey, I know an adventure we can take,’” Rasmus said. “The whole weekend is like a reunion. You see people you haven’t seen in years.”
If you go
Jamaica Arts & Music Summer Festival
JAMS Under the Stars concert, Friday, Aug. 2, 6 pm – 10 pm, Rufus King Park, Jamaica Avenue between 150th and 153rd streets
JAMS Festival, Saturday, Aug. 3, 11 am – 7 pm, Jamaica Avenue, between Parsons Boulevard and 169th Street
Rain or shine