Drawn to a Jazzwoman and Her Trumpet’s Clarion Call
By ABBY ELLIN SEPT. 23, 2016
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From Sharing a Cab to Sharing a Life
An Rong Xu for The New York Times
On their first official date, Bria Skonberg, the jazz trumpeter and vocalist, and Matthew Papper, who would later become the artistic director of Town Hall, circumnavigated Manhattan in a yellow cab. More than twice.
It’s not that they found taxi rides especially romantic, but it was the only place they truly could be alone.
Because of their respective careers, the two are often surrounded by people and, of course, music. (The reviewer Nate Chinen of The New York Times recently described Ms. Skonberg, who has released a new album, as having become “the shining hope of hot jazz, on the strength of a clarion trumpet style indebted to Louis Armstrong, a smooth purr of a singing voice inspired by Anita O’Day, and the wholesome glow of youth.”)
“Our lives are consumed by art, not just ours, but going to and seeing and hearing art, from highbrow to lowbrow,” said Mr. Papper, who at the time they met was the marketing and advertising director for the concert promoter George Wein and his production company, Festival Productions.
Both the music and the people were in full force when the couple crossed paths in early 2013 at a performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks at Sofia’s in the Edison Hotel. Ms. Skonberg, 32, was sitting in with the band, and Mr. Papper, 40 (known simply as “Papper”) noticed her. How could he not? She was beautiful, she was talented and she was the only woman on the stage.
But they didn’t speak until a few months later, at the New York Hot Jazz Festival. “I made a comment about her set and said I enjoyed it,” Mr. Papper recalled with exuberance, his general state of being. “She thanked me, and we started babbling about our takes on artistic expression within a minute and a half. I was like, ‘Wow, this chick is cool.’”
She thought Mr. Papper was “cute” and that he possessed a “charismatic energy,” but Ms. Skonberg was seeing someone at the time. There was also the matter of her prior dating experiences.
Her social circle was primarily made up of musicians, but she was determined to steer clear of romantic entanglements with them. “Unfortunately, as musicians you don’t really interact with too many other people,” she said.
But the long-term relationship she was then having with someone in the food industry was also proving to be problematic. To those outside the arts, “a freewheeling jazz musician isn’t the most appealing,” she said.
Meanwhile, she and Mr. Papper kept running into each other at concerts or backstage at music venues. They never got more than a few minutes together, but each would remember enjoying their encounters.
Mr. Papper, who grew up in Detroit, recalled being increasingly attracted to her sense of humor, her passion for art and her adventurous spirit. “And she’s beautiful,” he said. “So, that all worked for me.”
Within a few months of their initial meeting, Ms. Skonberg, who had grown up in a musical family in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and began her trumpet playing at age 11, ended her other relationship and moved out of the apartment she had shared with her ex-boyfriend.
She said that she began gravitating toward Mr. Papper’s “positive disposition,” but she wasn’t quite ready for another relationship.
“The emotional stress was still fresh and the overlap was confusing,” she said. “I had just uprooted my life. I couldn’t tell if his excitement about my lifestyle and drive was genuine or going to be short-lived. I honestly didn’t know if I could find a partner that could endure this, and I didn’t have anyone to relate to.”
She didn’t want to let anyone in, but Mr. Papper was patient and persistent. Eventually the two exchanged phone numbers, but they were never able to get together. She was touring and performing constantly; he was out at concerts nearly every evening.
One early Wednesday morning in March 2014, as Mr. Papper walked out of the subway near his home on the Lower East Side, he received a text from Ms. Skonberg. She was at a bar uptown watching friends jam. Would he like to join them?
“I looked at my watch and said, ‘This is nuts,’” Mr. Papper said. It was 1 a.m. So he did the only respectable thing: He headed back uptown to meet her.
Ms. Skonberg was thrilled to see him, but every time they tried to speak, someone tapped him or her on the shoulder. Frustrated, at 2:30 a.m. he waved goodbye to the group and walked outside.
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Ms. Skonberg rushed out after him. “I get wrapped up in these social situations, but when I saw him leave I was like ‘Oh, my God! I have to go and chase after this person!’” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d have another opportunity.”
She asked him to split a cab, and he agreed. They talked. And talked. They were so entranced that they told the cabby to keep driving, and they spent the next three hours circling the city. “I think we made two and a half rotations around Manhattan, from Washington Heights all the way down to Battery Park,” Mr. Papper said.
Eighty-five dollars (plus tip) later, they landed at a diner downtown for some ice cream. It was 6:30 a.m., and Mr. Papper was due at work in a few hours. Ms. Skonberg scribbled a note: “Dear Boss, Papper can’t come into work today, he has typhoid. ” “I’m sure it looked it was written by a 5-year-old from the Oregon Trail days,” she said.
After that improvised first date, they knew it was serious. “She’s Canadian, so you’re just born with a great sense of humor,” Mr. Papper said. “She’s incredibly warm and friendly. I can fly off the handle, and she keeps me in check. We both have the same passion and drive. In terms of her art, she knows what she likes and loves, but she’s also not afraid to expand the vocabulary of it. She always wants to try things and take them to a new place.”
Ms. Skonberg liked his enthusiasm, his passion and that he understood that music would always be a part of her life. “Let’s be honest, musicians don’t have the best track record for staying in relationships or having their partner not have a sense of competition with their livelihood,” she said. “Dating was challenging because of my schedule. But Papper understands.”
They also know they it would be hard because she traveled so much. But that didn’t deter them. Ms. Skonberg was impressed that he would come to her gigs and late-night jams, and immediately make friends.
“He was social and confident,” she said. “If I had to wait around the club to get paid, sign CDs, take care of the band before and after he would either help, talk to others or wait patiently. He would also want to relive the set I just played song by song and focus on what was good or needed work, and talk about it together. I value his ear, eye and advice.”
“I was a fan of hers first, and I think that’s important,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is fall for someone and find out their art is bad. We don’t have mundane conversations. We get bored, both of us, with the mundane.”
To their friends, their relationship was a no-brainer. “His art is his passion, and her work is her passion,” said Anne Cavallaro, a friend of Mr. Papper’s from N.Y.U., his alma mater. “She’s like a female version of him, the way she approaches life with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the absurd.”
And Mr. Papper had no issues with Ms. Skonberg’s touring schedule. “There’s a certain amount of understanding that’s required to be in this field and do well,” he said. “You have to graduate to a point where you spin it for yourself and say, ‘I don’t mind that my wife or girlfriend is leaving for a week and a half.’”
Major decisions don’t seem to fluster them. A few months into their relationship, for example, they wanted to move in together. But where? Ms. Skonberg lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Mr. Papper was on the Lower East Side, and they each liked their respective neighborhoods.
They decided to play a game of backgammon, winner chooses. Never mind that Ms. Skonberg had never played it. “We bet boroughs and I lost,” she said with a laugh. “I must have wanted to do it. Who bets their living arrangement on a game they’ve never played before in your life?”
The marriage proposal came during a typically frantic time. It was October 2015, and Mr. Papper had just been named artistic director of the Town Hall in Manhattan, a job that entails programming 25 to 30 concerts and other events each season.
After a dinner gala, the couple decided to go out for a celebratory drink. They both would soon be heading to Budapest to attend a music conference. They hopped into a cab, and Mr. Papper whipped out a ring he had designed with the help of Ms. Cavallaro: a white gold band twisted into the shape of a trumpet, with a sapphire in the middle of it.
“I love you, I think you’re amazing,” he remembered telling her. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”
“Yeah, I’ll marry you!” she cried. She had worn a trumpet ring for 11 years, a good-luck charm, and the engagement ring took Mr. Papper’s commitment to her and her career to another level. “This said, ‘It’s me and you and your craft.’ It put a big hug around the three of us.’”
The couple’s wedding took place at 4:30 p.m. on a sweltering Sept. 10 at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center in Lower Manhattan.
The mood was music carnival meets speakeasy meets open jam session, with a marriage ceremony thrown in for fun. The bride and groom had spent that morning decorating the space, which included origami flowers that Mr. Papper had made by hand. Palmettos and cocktail tables dotted both sides of the aisle, which ended at a stage in the front of the room.
Mr. Papper and his mother, Ginny Papper, boogied down the aisle. Then came Ms. Skonberg and her parents, Owen and Chris Skonberg. The couple’s friend, Peter Prohaska, a minister with the Church of Spiritual Humanism, officiated.
But rather than traditional vows (“We both find vows kind of trite,” Mr. Papper said), he serenaded his bride, and the crowd, with a sea shanty, “This Is the Girl That Done Me in,” that he had written for her when she was out of town and he was lonely.
Then Ms. Skonberg took the mike. “I love the idea that you be completely inseparable even if you’re apart,” she said. “I’m either here beside you, or on my way home to you.” She then broke into the song, “Love,” from the animated Disney film “Robin Hood.”
Rather than a formal dinner, the couple kept the atmosphere loose, allowing their 225 guests to roam freely from the culture center to the (blessedly) air-conditioned bar, Spreadhouse, across the street, which they had rented for the event.
Rainbow-hued tents lined the parking lot outside, where the guests — men in seersucker suits and fedoras, women in sequined dresses — were greeted by a spread of food from some of the couple’s favorite Lower East Side haunts.
Throughout the night, guests were invited to perform at their leisure. Later, they jammed to the music of Sergio Mendoza Y La Orkesta, a psychedelic mambo rock band from Tucson.
“Bria’s my hero,” Mr. Papper said. “You never hear a complaint from her, no matter how daunting a tour might be.” And when it comes to their shared love of the arts, musical and otherwise, he said, “There’s nobody I’d rather share it with, no one I have more pleasure learning about it and experiencing it with than with Bria.”