Quetzal Guerrero performs at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park on Aug.… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
As dusk fell over the Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park one recent Friday, Eddie Cota drank in the scene with quiet satisfaction.
On the lawn, kids and adults executed Brazilian capoeira moves while an impromptu drumming coterie tapped out muscular rhythms. Nearby, vendors selling tamales and pupusas did a brisk trade with Central American and Mexican families who were popping open picnic coolers, while clumps of twentysomethings spread blankets and snogged under the trees.
Half an hour remained before the evening's free entertainment, the Brazilian American soul-funk-samba artist Quetzal Guerrero, was due to step onto the Levitt bandshell and fire up his electric-blue violin. But the atmosphere already suggested a friendly fusion of neighborhood block party and indie nightclub.
"MacArthur Park, it's possibly the most interesting neighborhood in the country right now," said Cota, 29, artistic director of the Levitt Pavilion summer concert series at MacArthur Park as well as the Levitt Pavilion's sister series in Memorial Park Pasadena. "Within a five-mile radius, the number of ethnic cultures and city cultures and subcultures and pop cultures that I have access to is mind-blowing. And it takes one artist to bring all those people together."
Superlatives aside, Cota indeed could make a strong case for the Westlake neighborhood's ethnic wow factor. But what's equally striking about what's happening this summer at MacArthur Park is the range and vitality of the Levitt Pavilion's performers, especially its slate of Latin-alternative and progressive world-music acts such as the Colombian electro-tropical ensemble Bomba Estéreo and the Malian hip-hip folk group SMOD.
The Levitt's lineup in those categories easily ranks among the country's most cutting-edge, drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of weekend visitors to the city-owned urban oasis just west of downtown.
"The core is Latin and also it's an experimental community," said Cota, who spent several years working in radio station promotions before joining the Levitt organization in 2008. "We just had Nosaj Thing. That to me is very sophisticated music that just happens to be electronic, but there's classical elements, there's jazz elements. It's a very complicated neighborhood, and for that reason complicated music works."
Thanks in part to the Levitt Pavilion series, MacArthur Park's growing reputation as a warm-weather cultural hub has cast a new light on the surrounding area: a blue-collar but gentrifying enclave that's trying to shake off its old image as an after-hours paradise for gangbangers, crack dealers and fake-ID hustlers.
"I think the work Eddie's doing is amazing," said Guerrero, who moved to L.A. from his native Arizona six years ago, "because he's giving a stage for a lot of obscure or outside-of-the-box, outside-of-the-status-quo musicians and artists to really express themselves."
The 6-year-old Levitt series at MacArthur Park and its 10-year-old Pasadena sibling are relative upstarts in Southern California's outdoor concert universe. Unlike the Greek Theatre or Hollywood Bowl, which lean toward familiar names with the proven power to draw, the Levitt series favor artists just surfacing from below the radar. And unlike those venerable venues, the Levitt series are free and open to all comers. So if you're accustomed to VIP parking and luxury-box seating, you're pretty much out of luck.
Or in luck, as the case may be. Three weeks ago, at the Quetzal Guerrero show, the attendees sprawled on the grass included not only working-class immigrant families who arrived on foot but also Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, vice president of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and daughter of the late custom-shirt magnate Mortimer Levitt and his wife, Mimi, the New York philanthropists whose largesse helps support Levitt pavilions in several cities in addition to those in L.A. and Pasadena.
Each pavilion has its own independent board of directors and must secure additional individual sponsors and grants to meet its financial goals, said Cota, who estimates MacArthur Park's annual budget at $650,000 and Pasadena's at $480,000. It's up to Cota, who oversees booking at both sites, to recruit artists who will give each space a separate and distinct identity.
Cota said he pays artists competitively so he can keep up with bidding against clubs such as the Echo, the Troubadour and the Satellite. Artists who've performed at MacArthur Park say they enjoy playing to audiences that are more demographically diverse than a typical club crowd.