Jersey’s Jammin’

The Garden State is fertile ground for a growing jazz scene.

Cecil’s Jazz Club in West Orange draws a regular rotation of prominent artists, many of them New Jersey-based. From left, Don Braden, Dave Stryker, Cecil Brooks III, (rear), Freddie Hendrix (seated), Kate Baker, Josh Thompson, Vic Juris (with guitar), Mel Davis and Bruce Williams.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Cephas Bowles does not mean to be evasive, but there is no way he is going to name the best jazz artists in New Jersey.

He’s prepared to offer a couple of reasons. For one thing, as president and CEO of WBGO-FM, the well-loved, Newark-based jazz station, Bowles knows a lot of Jersey musicians; he can’t afford to seem biased. “You’ll get me into a whole lot of trouble if I try to answer that,” he says. For another, asking him to identify jazz artists of consequence in New Jersey is a little like asking a Broadway director to rattle off important New York actors—the vastness of the field causes cereal-aisle syndrome. “You’d have to narrow it down to a town or area of New Jersey to get me to focus,” says Bowles, who lives in Dover.

New Jersey has long been a hotbed of jazz. In the 1940s, Newark was home to Savoy Records, the legendary label that launched the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It was also the birthplace of Sarah Vaughan and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Red Bank, of course, produced Count Basie. Legends including Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller routinely played at the Meadowbrook, the former dance hall in Cedar Grove.

Paterson, where the guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, 85, grew up, was another old-school pocket of jazz activity. “It was an education and an institution,” says Pizzarelli, a longtime Saddle River resident and still an active performer. He recalls listening to swing-era accordionist/keyboardist Joe Mooney—another Paterson native—at Sandy’s Hollywood Grill. “That was in the ’40s,” Pizzarelli says. “After Joe passed away it died down. I think it became a girlie place.” 

Bowles, a native of Newark, also has fond memories of that bygone era. “When I was a kid, we were always talking about jazz, jazz, jazz,” says Bowles. “We were surrounded by jazz people.”

Much of Jersey’s live jazz scene is a thing of the past, but the artistic descendants of those heyday players have returned to roost. Many choose to live in North Jersey; the reasons are obvious.

“Financially, it’s not possible for a lot of people to live in Manhattan,” says Jim Luce, co-owner of Light Sound Space (formerly Conservatory Piano and Hi Fi) in Rahway. “So New Jersey, in places, is now a microcosm of that sophisticated scene.” (Luce also produces a jazz piano concert series at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway and the annual Caramoor Jazz Festival in Katonah, New York.)

West Orange is a particular favorite among Jersey’s jazz denizens. The guitarists Dave Stryker, Vic Juris and Bob DeVos live there. The drummers Cecil Brooks III, Ali Jackson and Vince Ector do, too.

Pianists Renee Rosnes, Nat Adderley Jr. and Bill Charlap are residents. The producer Josh Thompson lives in West Orange, and so does the saxophonist Virginia Mayhew. Not all those names are familiar outside the jazz sphere, says the singer Kate Baker, Juris’s wife and the organizer of an annual September jazz festival presented with the Swiss Global Artistic Foundation at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange (this year’s lineup included locals Stryker, Juris, Baker, Adderley and Charlap). But among those in the know, “it’s a pretty amazing group of people to have all in one town,” she says.

Baker estimates that her musical neighbors started flocking to New Jersey earlier this decade after years in Manhattan. “It’s affordable here and the commute is easy,” she says. “It just sort of caught on and everyone came around the same time.” Now, West Orange “is the New York jazz scene. The community here is as strong as anything there.” 

Other significant jazz habitats include Montclair (home of pianist Geri Allen, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Christian McBride, Saturday Night Live trombonist Steve Turre, saxophonist Oliver Lake and the arranger Jim McNeely, among others) and Englewood and Teaneck, where jazz artists and educators have come together to form a local scene, according to Laura Hull, president of the 900-member New Jersey Jazz Society, formed in 1972 and based in Summit.

With so many performers in residence, it’s no surprise that a number of jazz clubs have opened in recent decades. 

In northern New Jersey, “there are three top jazz clubs—Cecil’s, Trumpets and Shanghai Jazz,” says David Demsey, coordinator of the prestigious jazz studies program at William Paterson University in Wayne. Those three keep New York-caliber talent in regular rotation. For jazz lovers, they are among the Garden State’s greatest assets. 

Shanghai Jazz, in Madison, is one of Pizzarelli’s favorite places to play. “The owners run it beautifully, and there’s a great crowd. And you’re out of there at 9:30—it’s not like you’re playing four sets, like we used to, and then you can’t find your way home in the middle of the night,” he says. Other respected artists, such as Jersey City-based Russel Malong, also play the club regularly. Shanghai Jazz opened in 1995 and, unusual for a jazz venue, does not charge a cover but asks that patrons spring for dinner and drinks.  The club serves Chinese cuisine, or what co-owner Martha Chang of Madison calls, “the regional specialties of Asia.”

“The same acts you would pay $30 or $50 to see in New York—that you have to schlep to and pay tolls and pay parking— you see here for just the cost of dinner,” says Chang. “We want to make it accessible for people. And we want people in the area to be exposed to jazz. A lot of families with budding musicians come. For kids who are learning to play sax or another instrument, coming here puts the music in context.” 

At Trumpets in Montclair the vibe may be more club-like, consciously catering to more serious jazzheads: “I’m a musician; I’m not a club owner who plays an instrument,” says Enrico Granafei, co-owner since 1999 of the club, which opened in 1988. Granafei, a native of Italy with an undiluted accent, plays harmonica and guitar, regularly touring throughout Europe; he is also a composer. He and his wife, Kristine Massari, live in the same building as Trumpets.

But if New Jersey has the artists and the venues, it doesn’t always have the jazz fans needed to fuel a thriving scene.  “This place has struggled very much,” says Granafei of his Montclair club, which recently hosted Pizzarelli and regularly brings in Granafei’s musician friends, including Roney and Stryker.

Granafei thinks he knows why business is tough. “Some people consider jazz a music that belongs to an elite, so what I hear more and more is people who’ll come to Trumpets once a year, because it’s a special occasion,” he says. “This is not what I need to maintain the place. I need people coming all the time.”

No one knows that better than Cecil Brooks III, owner of Cecil’s Jazz Club and Restaurant in West Orange. Like Granafei, Brooks is a musician who happens to own a club. In the 1980s, he was the drummer in The Cosby Show band; when Cecil’s kicked off in 2003, Bill Cosby performed at the grand opening. Brooks has produced and played on more than 300 recordings on the Muse, High Note and Savant labels for well-known artists such as John Hicks, Arthur Blythe and Don Braden. His high-profile friends—the Grammy-winning saxophonist Kenny Garrett of Glen Ridge; the South Orange-based bassist John Lee, who organizes the annual “Giants of Jazz” festival there; and the Newark-bred hoofer superstar Savion Glover have all performed at Cecil’s.

But the marquee names haven’t brought Cecil’s, or its owner, a lot of glory. “I challenge anyone to rival who we get,” says Brooks. The club’s 17-piece big band plays Monday nights; on Tuesdays, there is a regular jam session hosted by Bruce Williams with New York metro-area musicians—“anybody who’s home and wants to play comes by,” he says.

At a picnic table behind the club, the big-band musicians trickle past; two of them will play in the house band at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard later in the evening. Several stop to give Brooks a backslap. “You the man,” says a bass-toting player in a beret heading for the club’s back door.
“We’re sputtering uphill,” Brooks says. “And the disappointing thing about saying something like that is that it causes people to think you’re doing something wrong.” He is pretty sure he is not: “People love jazz and appreciate the art form. But they don’t want to support it,” he says. “They don’t want to pay for it.”

He suspects that’s especially true in New Jersey. “I’m charging $7 on a Monday night to come out and hear this band. Sometimes we’ll get maybe four, five people plus me and the bartender,” he says. “I don’t want to sound negative or sour grapes, but people will spend money to see jazz in New York and not in New Jersey. What is that, the Jersey syndrome? What’s the difference between seeing Cecil here or seeing Cecil at the Blue Note for $35?”

Brooks would like to change that mind-set. He is not alone. Virginia DeBerry of North Brunswick and two friends, Michael Tublin and James Lenihan, launched the New Brunswick Jazz Project in 2010 in hopes of fostering a live jazz scene in central Jersey. “We’re regular hanger-outers in New Brunswick, and we were missing the kind of entertainment we wanted as grownups,” DeBerry says. “So the idea was, if we build it, they will come.” 

And come they have, if not in droves. The Jazz Project started out by booking jazz twice a month at various New Brunswick venues, including the restaurant Makeda. “Now we’re bringing people in three to five times a week,” DeBerry says. Those people include pianist Arturo O’Farrill, as well as Juris and Baker. Originally, “Jimmy, Mike and I would be the only people in the room,” DeBerry adds. Now they average audiences of 50 and are fielding 25 to 50 requests per week from musicians looking to perform.

In addition to the New Jersey Jazz Society, which publishes the Jersey Jazz Journal, a monthly magazine that boasts subscribers as far away as Holland, other regional jazz associations are doing their parts to organize shows and educate would-be club-goers and listeners. These groups include the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation, the Tri-State Jazz Society, the Cape May Traditional Jazz Society and the Somers Point Jazz Society. A few new venues, like Chico’s House of Jazz in Asbury Park, have also popped up.

Some jazz-minded organizations are training an eye squarely on the future: The New Jersey Performing Arts Center and WBGO are partners in Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens, which introduces 75 New Jersey high school musicians to professional players and gives performances once a week each year from September through May. And Montclair’s Jazz House Kids, launched in 2002 by the jazz singer Melissa Walker, wife of McBride, brings together professional musicians and kids of all ages for educational workshops and instruction; Grammy winners including Pat Metheny, Esperanza Spalding and Chick Corea have been guests.

Formal jazz studies programs like William Paterson’s, maybe the most renowned of the eight jazz-studies programs at New Jersey colleges and universities, also try to make the best of the area’s abundant jazz talent.

“We have a reputation for teaching jazz the way it was taught in the old mentorship era,” says Demsey, recalling how the saxophonist Bill Evans got his start. Evans was a William Paterson senior in the 1950s, when he got a call from Miles Davis to come join his band. “Every kid who grows up a jazz player around the country dreams of being taken under the wing of a major New York jazz musician,” Demsey says. “In the old days, up to as recently as the 1980s, that was how you cut your teeth.” Since 1973, when William Paterson started offering its program under the direction of Thad Jones, the internationally renowned trumpeter and arranger, its instructors have remained true to that ideal, availing students of marquee-name connections, Demsey says. “We’re doing our best to approximate that apprentice system, because it’s not happening as much anymore.”

In a perfectly jazz-friendly world, it might. But for now, those who want to advance the music are improvising and scheming alternatives. WBGO is launching a second digital channel, dedicated exclusively to the music of emerging artists. “Some of our older listeners will call and say, ‘I just paid an arm and a leg to put my kid through Juilliard or William Paterson. Now he’s performing, and people ought to hear the music,’” Bowles says. The new HD stream for digital radios at 88.3FM, HD-2, is their chance.

“Jazz is an art form that is uniquely American, and—this is really important—we’re dedicated to people in the metropolitan area hearing it from here in Newark, a city with a proud jazz history,” says Bowles. “We could become a rock ’n’ roll station and make much more money. But are we going to wake up one day and reformat? No. We’re not going to change. We’re committed.”
That’s music to the ears of McBride, one of the most recorded bassists of the last 20 years and a WBGO fan. “The fact that New York is the biggest city in the country and its jazz station is in New Jersey—think about that,” McBride says. “They know where their home is, and I love that about them.” 

Not that McBride ever worries that the genre he’s devoted his life to is going anywhere. “I think I have a pretty pragmatic viewpoint about the future of jazz,” he says. “It survived the British Invasion, disco and hip-hop, and that’s all you need to know. It’s too strong for us to ever worry about it not being here.”

Still, “the music shouldn’t be struggling 12 miles from Manhattan, with all these people living literally five minutes from here,” says Brooks from the back patio at Cecil’s. “If New Jersey could build this up more, create more cachet for itself, that would be a great day.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

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