JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
Writer and poet Dorothy Parker famously described Los Angeles as 72 suburbs in search of a city. But its downtown has evolved into an urban hub over the past few decades, with skyscrapers, expensive lofts and free music at a spacious outdoor plaza that draws Angelinos from all those suburbs.
AMADOR OCHOA: And (unintelligible) from Venezuela, (unintelligible).
YDSTIE: It's called Grand Performances, and it's presenting forty shows this year at no cost to the audience. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited as part of our series about free music around the country.
NEDA ULABY, Host:
The night was cool and breezy. The moon, full and lustrous. The moment? Cinematic. So L.A. Four thousand Angelinos dancing together downtown, including actor and part-time reality show host named Joel Steingold.
JOEL STEINGOLD: It's the antithesis of the movie "Crash," you know that movie came out a while ago that all people in Los Angeles, we drive in our cars, we don't pay attention to people, we don't interact.
MICHELLE ADAMS: There's such a diversity of people here and we're all united under one umbrella, which is the love of music.
ULABY: Thirty-two-year-old Michelle Adams drove 40 minutes to see this show, musician Seun Kuti. He's carrying on the legacy of his late dad, Afro-pop legend Fela Kuti. Grand Performances was designed to add a heart to L.A.'s sprawl, says its director Michael Alexander.
MICHAEL ALEXANDER: The city wanted this to be a new center for downtown L.A. Downtown particularly when we started this program was neutral. It didn't belong to any community and therefore could belong to every community.
ULABY: Grand Performances is perched on a steep incline in a part of downtown called Bunker Hill. It's an office park, a concrete basin interrupted by a waterfall and ringed by a jigsaw puzzle of tall towers - different colors, different sizes - built about 30 years ago in accordance with an interesting municipal contract.
ALEXANDER: The city of Los Angeles owns the land underneath us. These buildings are all renting the land on 99-year leases.
ULABY: Ninety-nine-year leases with an unusual rule: they must help fund this performing arts program.
ALEXANDER: So, the tenants here are providing about 45 percent of our budget.
ULABY: The rest of Grand Performances' budget - $1.8 million - comes mainly from foundation grants and donations. Alexander says surprisingly, Los Angeles arts groups tend not to benefit from corporations or Hollywood.
ALEXANDER: We have very, very few Fortune 500 companies here. We have a few but not very many. And the entertainment industry, as important as it is from artistic point of view, is not important, unfortunately, on a philanthropic point of view. You don't see the studio names on checks nor on the donor rolls in a big way.
ULABY: Hollywood's apparently not interested in modern dance from China or Persian poetry. Grand Performances stages all kinds of contemporary global arts but it's best known for world music, and music from Los Angeles. Often that's the same thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OZOMATLI: Let me tell you a little something about L.A. I love it. The Grammy winning group Ozomatli was just starting out when it first played Grand Performances.
ALEXANDER: They had their first non-club performance on our stage.
ULABY: In addition to free shows, Michael Alexander says grand performances offers ad hoc mentoring for inexperienced musicians on how to work big spaces, manage tech in strange venues, and make the most of the tour.
ALEXANDER: We help artists, we work with artists to enter this presenting network, to enter it intelligently so they can be competitive in a very, very competitive field.
ULABY: Musician Geoff Gallegos, better known as Double G, runs a huge ensemble, the dAKAH Hip Hop Orchestra. It uses up to a hundred musicians. Grand Performances gave him a space for administrative work, stuff like booking and writing grants.
GEOFF GALLEGOS: You know, just the job of an artist, the grind to come and do that in an office environment was really helpful for me, I guess mainly because you can't smoke weed in the office.
ULABY: But free shows can mean artistic freedom too. When the L.A. Opera did the Ring Cycle last year, the city's arts groups responded with their own ring-related projects. Grand Performances commissioned a symphony that Double G called Gangsta Wagner.
GALLEGOS: The concept of that was in World War II, like, I imagined Hitler listening to Wagner. Like, that was, like, his gangsta rap. That was kind an idea, like, you build these really strong aggressive beats with Wagner samples and hard MC style over the top of it. Totally translated.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAKAH HIP HOP ORCHESTRA: (unintelligible) not yours, got mine, trying to make a mistake. Trying to take him away. Trying him to fake. Try to make them when they break 'cause they made a mistake...
ULABY: You think with concerts in the afternoon as well as evenings, there'd be noise complaints or parking problems with thousands of people crowding into downtown from all over L.A. I asked that of the area's city council member.
JAN PERRY: No, no.
ULABY: In fact, says Jan Perry, Grand Performances not only helped make downtown L.A. more attractive to everyone from developers to tourists, it remains one of the best things about it.
PERRY: Actually, it's near the largest senior housing development probably in the western United States, Angeles Plaza. Many times if you look up early evening, you can see the residents stand out there and listen.
ULABY: But most of the people at the recent Seun Kuti show were in their twenties and thirties, and in the mood to party.
OCHOA: Want a beer?
ULABY: You're allowed to bring booze to Grand Performances. Amador Ochoa takes a gulp, looks around and says there's something about this spectrum of people dancing to music from all over the world that to him is what it means to be a citizen of Los Angeles.
OCHOA: I'm born and raised, so this is what I'm from. This is what I am. I mean, I'm Mexican-American. But I'm diverse as far as music goes, you know. And this is my thing. I love this music. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel good.
ULABY: Ochoa says as far as he's concerned, the shows at Grand Performances are not free - they're priceless. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.