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How Newark became one of the greatest jazz cities in the world | Music | The Guardian

How Newark became one of the greatest jazz cities in the world | Music | The Guardian


How Newark became one of the greatest jazz cities in the world
History has defined the New Jersey city as a hub for a host of jazz musicians from Sarah Vaughan to Christian McBride, and it remains a vibrant destination for fans of the genre
Tammy La Gorce

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Dianne Reeves with Christian McBride. Photograph: New Jersey Performing Arts Center
A year before he died in 1977, the blind jazz genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk inspired an impromptu parade in Newark, New Jersey. One minute he was playing the downtown club Sparky J’s. The next he was leading his band, pied-piper-like, across the street to the Key Club, a different nightspot, while still making music on one of the three saxes he was known to play in unison and in harmony.
“It was legendary,” said Junius Williams, a Newark author and educator who also saw Dizzy Gillespie at Sparky J’s back in the day.
It was also kind of prescient. In 2016, Newark is one nonstop, ongoing, jazz parade: Wynton Marsalis, the Robert Glasper Experiment, Dianne Reeves, Phil Perry, David Sanborn and Anjelique Kidjo have been in and out town for shows. Dorthaan Kirk, the widow of Rahsaan who goes by the nickname “Newark’s first lady of jazz”, has hosted longtime greats including Freddy Cole, Jon Faddis and Rufus Reid at a pair of local series she organizes (both of them running through 2017, one of them free). And by the end of the year, a new, intimate club called Clement’s Place connected to the city’s renowned Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark will have attracted the TS Monk Sextet and the soul-threaded and Eubie Blake Award-winning Houston Person Quartet.
Behind all the action is a celebration of the city’s birthday – 2016 marks Newark’s 350th year – that, together with the TD James Moody jazz festival, an annual celebration of jazz running through the end of November, has revived its reputation as a serious jazz town.
The Grammy-winning bassist and bandleader Christian McBride, who is performing at Moody Fest on 18 November alongside Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette and the James Brown Alumni Band at the city’s most thriving jazz venue, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, saw it coming.
“Newark’s place in jazz history includes Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, James Moody, Woody Shaw and Larry Young, among others. That coupled with its modern-day vibrancy makes Newark one of the greatest jazz cities in the world,” McBride said in early November from Europe, where he was touring.
He is especially qualified to say so. McBride first played in Newark as a young performer 26 years ago and, since 2012, has been NJPAC’s jazz adviser; he also hosts the NPR show Jazz Night in America, a co-production with Lincoln Center and WBGO-FM, the only full-time jazz format station broadcast in New York and New Jersey. On 20 November he will be among the judges of what John Schreiber, founder of the Moody festival and NJPAC’s president and CEO, called one of the centerpieces of a monthlong event: the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition.
“Jazz singing is bred in the bone. And Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald were kind of No 1 and No 2 in terms of the great individual voices of jazz singing,” Schreiber said. “Sarah Vaughan was an authentic Newark girl – she went to high school here and lived a lot of her life here. And so I said, ‘OK, what can we do to honor Sarah?’”
That was five years ago, when Schreiber signed on with NJPAC after decades of producing and curating festivals including Newport Jazz and JVC Jazz.
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Sharon Jones will play the TD James Moody jazz festival in Newark later in November. Photograph: New Jersey Performing Arts Center
The result is the upcoming competition in which five finalists, whittled from a pool of hundreds around the world who sent online auditions to Newark this spring, perform before McBride and four fellow jazz-luminary judges – Dianne Reeves among them – plus a packed NJPAC house.
The winner is announced at the end of the night and walks away with a recording contract, a $5,000 prize and a slot to perform at the Montreal Jazz Fest next summer.
“She also has a right to say she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. And then all of a sudden she has some stature with the public,” Schreiber said.
Jazz stature comes in a couple of shapes around Newark. There is the kind earned through sheer chops, like winning the vocal competition or commanding a massive audience during one of the organ jams held sporadically at Symphony Hall, a historic jazz venue not far from NJPAC. There is the kind Dorthaan Kirk has acquired through knowing everyone from Jimmy Heath to Gregory Porter and attracting them to town for her jazz series. (One is Dorthaan’s Place, a jazz brunch at NJPAC; the other is Jazz Vespers at Bethany Baptist church. Both are monthly, Bethany is free.)
There is also a kind of stature bestowed through scholarship. The night before the Sarah Vaughan competition, for example, McBride’s Trio will play The Divine One, a concert at NJPAC honoring Vaughan that includes a film about her life and a panel discussion hosted by the longtime jazz producer Todd Barkan, also artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Like a lot of the smartest jazz events around town, it’s being sponsored by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark.
The jazz institute, founded in 1952, is the most extensive jazz archive and library in the US. It includes more than 150,000 recordings and 6,000 books, and treasures such as Miles Davis’s trumpet and Curly Russell’s bass. Before Ken Burns made his 10-part, Emmy-nominated mini-series Jazz in 2000, he spent a year exploring the institute’s trove of recordings. Forest Whitaker visited the archives in 2011 for research on a film about Louis Armstrong, And Michael K Smith spent some time browsing there after his role as Chalky White on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire got him interested 20s- and 30s-era jazz.
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Carrie Jackson performing at Clement’s Place. Photograph: Ed Berger
Earlier this year, the Jazz Institute entered the club business with Clement’s Place, a 75-seat venue done up in jazz memorabilia on the ground floor of a historical neoclassical Newark skyscraper. Minus the whiffs of cigar smoke and seal-fresh whiskey (Clement’s pours beer and wine only), it’s a throwback to the tight-knit jazz communities documented in the archives.
“I didn’t expect it, but I love running the bar,” said Wayne Winbourne, the institute’s executive director. Clement’s is named for Dr Clement A Price, a beloved Rutgers-Newark professor and devoted jazz fan who died suddenly in 2014. “We’re open to the community, so we’re seeing a cross-section of folks from Newark who are bringing real energy and dynamism.”
They’re bringing it to monthly jam sessions organized in cooperation with NJPAC as part of the 350th birthday celebration, and they’re bringing it to more subdued events such as a series of curated listening sessions Winbourne says he is “sprinkling in” at Clement’s once or twice a month, between shows and jams. There’s already been listening sessions on very early Louis Armstrong and Harry “Sweets” Edison.
“We’ve got incredible experts on staff who are just extremely knowledgeable,” said Winbourne. “Sometimes we get 10 people, sometimes we get 30. But we’ll have a drink, then we’ll play a cut. Then we’ll have another drink, and play another cut. It’s another way for us to bring the archives to the public, to draw upon the expertise of our staff and to engage the community. We’re tapping into an opportunity there.”
There’s also an opportunity, because of the institute’s reputation “and because I know folks”, said Winbourne, to draw artists who might otherwise skip Newark when playing across the river in New York.
“We have the Lance Bryant Quartet coming in later this year – he played with Lionel Hampton – and a concert coming up with the flutist Elise Wood. And I’m hoping to get Steve Wilson and Luis Bonilla in here,” said Winbourne.
He may not have to try too hard: “There’s a jazz atmosphere now that’s so intimate, where we all feel so connected,” Winbourne said. “I think all of us here in Newark are looking at the rise of something special, something people are going to be talking about a long time.”


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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