Rich and Darla Tarpinian of Lawrenceville have taken a corporate approach to presenting jazz in Hopewell. How’s that?

Both are employed by large corporations – he works in computer infrastructure with Bristol-Myers Squibb, she is a data product manager with AT&T in Bedminster – and pursue their jazz careers on weekends as an avocation. But in the next few years, many full-time, nationally touring musicians may come to appreciate their carefully thought out plan for presenting live jazz inside the Hopewell Valley Bistro’s Starlight Room. The Tarpinians are well-aware of the struggles full-time jazz musicians face. Within the next year, they could be on their way to putting Hopewell Valley Bistro on the jazz map, joining other area hotspots like the Cornerstone in Metuchen, Shanghai Jazz in Madison, and Cecil’s in West Orange, all of which have burst upon the scene in recent years.

In 2001 the Tarpinians approached Hopewell Valley Bistro owners Susie and Paul Molnar with their idea for bringing jazz to the venue. "When we came to Susie Molnar with our idea for jazz, we had a concept of what we wanted to do. We came across this place because our former drummer lived here in Hopewell," Tarpinian says. "We came down and met the owner one day and checked out the main room and saw it wasn’t being used, so we talked to Susie about the ideas we had for jazz in that room, including how it should look, how it should sound and feel. She liked our concept – to give it a supper club feel," he says. "We knew it would be good for us, we thought it would be good for Susie and the area, and so we put a plan together and gave it a name, ‘the Bistro Blueprint,’ because we wanted her to know how serious we were about wanting to do this right." The first jazz performance took place on Mother’s Day, 2001, with a trio that included Rich on guitar and Darla on vocals and bass.

Tarpinian is originally from upper New York State, but his love for jazz and classical music goes back many years, he says. "I just sort of followed the job path, and it kind of dumped me in New Jersey," he says in a phone interview from the bistro, "and here I found a good home and a good wife." He moved to Plainsboro in 1984. Darla came to New Jersey to take a job here in 1992. They met in 1995 at the Presbyterian Church in Plainsboro.

"I had a background in classical guitar and Darla was in various choral and gospel groups in Cincinnati," Tarpinian says. "We both had a liking for jazz, and we decided to go in that direction." They began working together as a jazz duo because she needed an accompanist, he says, and their duo quickly morphed into a trio, then a quartet, and now the current quintet, which also includes Joe Bezek on alto sax, Jim May on guitar, and David Stier on drums. Since 2003 the Darla Rich Quintet has had a steady performance slot at the bistro every other Saturday night. They alternate with Tony Mennella and the Matinee Trio.

The Tarpinians’ "corporate" approach, complete with contingency and a five-year plan, has paid off handsomely so far, mostly because the owners of the restaurant have been tolerant of the vagaries of presenting live music. For example, says Tarpinian, club owners often don’t recognize in the beginning that they have to be prepared with deep pockets to tough it out through slower times. Dips in business are inevitable, especially nowadays, with video stores all over the place, five new movies coming out each weekend, and the advent of the Internet. Lots of people would rather just stay home. Given that the Tarpinians started presenting jazz at the bistro in May, 2001, few people wanted to go out for anything at night for several months after 9/11. Molnar’s love for the music pulled the club through some tough times.

Tarpinian says he and Darla make a good team as presenters. "We’re both pretty organized, and Darla can throw stuff together pretty quickly, and she always gets the music listings in the papers." So far, the shows have been well-attended, especially earlier this year and in 2004.

The capacity of the room, which has a parquet dance floor, is 90. Tables are laid out in such fashion as to provide optimum views of the stage area. The idea from the outset, Tarpinian says, was to provide a comfortable venue for musicians, diners, and dancers. At no point should the music be overbearing.

Late last year, the Starlight Room hosted saxophonist Harry Allen and his Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Sextet. Saddle River-based seven-string guitar master Bucky Pizzarelli performs on Friday, June 10, and the Matinee Trio with Tony Mennella performs on Saturday, June 11. Later this year pianist John Bunch will perform with his trio. Area pianist Karen Zumbrunn has also performed at the Starlight Room.

John "Bucky" Pizzarelli, a well-preserved 78-year-old, was raised in left-leaning Paterson. He began playing guitar as an eight-year-old, inspired and taught by uncles who played. The poet and activist Allen Ginsberg was his classmate, and Pizzarelli took English classes with Ginsberg’s father, Louis, also a poet, prior to his time teaching at Rutgers College in New Brunswick.

Pizzarelli’s playing can be heard on all the early recordings of Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian. He played on Roberta Flack’s smash hit, a rendering of Ewan McColl’s folk song, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." He can be heard on Ray Charles’ original "Georgia On My Mind." He can even be heard on the Delphis’ novelty record, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," circa 1960. He toured for years with the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra and later with Benny Goodman, and has performed or recorded with jazz legends such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Zoot Sims, and Ray Brown. He has appeared at Carnegie Hall, at jazz festivals around the world, and several times at the White House. He is also featured on several movie soundtracks, most recently Woody Allen’s "Sweet and Lowdown."

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and into the new millennium, Pizzarelli has recorded for a jazz label in Florida called Arbors Records. All of the Arbors titles can be ordered via mail order or through the company’s website. Pizzarelli’s latest album, released this winter on Arbors, is called "Flashes." "It’s a collection of Great American Songbook tunes as well as some of my reminiscences from 60-plus years of guitar playing," Pizzarelli says in a phone interview from his Saddle River home.

At his June 10 performance at the bistro, he will be joined by top New York area musicians, Jerry Bruno, long-time associate on bass, and Bobby Shaken on drums, as the Bucky Pizzarelli Trio. For the Pizzarelli event, the bistro will provide a fixed price menu that will include appetizer, soup/salad, entree,dessert, coffee or tea, and the entertainment. There will be community seating for parties less than six.

Given that he has been playing mostly jazz guitar for more than 60 years, how does he maintain his enthusiasm for performing and recording? Pizzarelli says he takes a lot of joy in finding obscure little songs like "April Kisses." "I’m always searching for new material to learn," he says, adding that he practices guitar and works on new material "every day, no matter what."

"All good musicians are always looking for some little gem that’s just sitting around, and it’s probably right under your nose. It’s never a thing that comes flying out of the sky and hits you in the head," he says. "It’s always something that is just right under your nose! Those are always the best tunes."

Bucky Pizzarelli Trio, Friday, June 10, 8 to 10:30 p.m.; the Matinee Trio with Tony Menella, Saturday, June 11, 7 p.m. The Starlight Room, Hopewell Valley Bistro, 15 East Broad Street, Hopewell. $39, includes full dinner and show. Call 609-466-9889 for reservations. For more information visit www.hopewellvalleybistro.com.

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