Editor’s Note: U.S. 1 continues its search for the band to perform at the second annual U.S. 1 Breakdown Party, Friday, October 6, the grand finale of the Greater Princeton Chamber of Commerce Trade Fair at the Westin Forrestal. The public is invited – save the date. We like to call it Princeton’s biggest cocktail party!
Onstage at New Hope’s Havana restaurant and club a few Saturdays ago, a band cooked. Not rice and beans (which Havana needs to make more of), but music. In front was a tall, gangly guy, a black fedora on his head. The keyboardist and drummer played with emotion, if not intensity, in support of the saxophonist. The scene could look like any scene in any club in any city. But the three band members were a bit different: Tom Zmuda on saxes, Joel Nygren on keyboards, and Tommy Heutmaker on drums are kids.
When you see the trio, known as Thursday Night Jazz, for the first time, it dawns on you just how young they are. Nygren, Zmuda, and Heutmaker are about to enter Ewing High School as freshmen. All three are 14 years old.
Hmm – 14-year-old jazz musicians. And they look like 14-year-olds. But that’s not meant to be a shot at their competence. It’s just that Thursday Night Jazz is truly happy to be in the position they are in, and it shows up there on the bandstand. "The good thing about them," says Zmuda’s mom, Charissa, "is that they’re not yet jaded."
Not yet. But in the music industry it doesn’t take one very long. Although being a musician is considered a great gig to most of us, those in the industry often aren’t too happy with it. There is too much going on off the bandstand to keep one’s intentions pure for long.
So the members of Thursday Night Jazz are enjoying their youth as men and musicians. Although the guys say there is no leader in the band, saxophonist Tom Zmuda, because of the instrument he plays and his appearance – he is the most mature-looking band member – is the de facto frontman.
Unique for a working saxophonist, and even more unique for one who is 14, Zmuda plays tenor, alto, and soprano sax. Reedmen will tell you that the soprano saxophone is the hardest to play in the sax family. It takes concentration and focus as well as a precise way of physically attacking the instrument’s notes to control this smaller sax sibling.
But Zmuda, who, along with his bandmates, seemed tentative and unwilling to assert dominance over tunes from the jazz greats at Havana, sounded best when he played smooth jazz on the soprano. It’s not that the band didn’t sound good before; it’s just that the trio changed from sounding like three good high school musicians to a trio of pros when the repertoire changed.
Jazz purists – and even some smooth jazz musicians – will tell you that smooth jazz is not really jazz. In an absolute, technical sense, this is true. But musicians such as Grover Washington Jr., who created the genre, and bands such as the Rippingtons, Pieces of a Dream, Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright, Down to the Bone, Rick Braun, and Lee Ritenour do display true musicianship. What many of these musicians play is instrumental pop or R&B, but the improvisational skills and swing of a jazz musician are sometimes there too.
It was two encounters with saxophonist Marion Meadows, one of the most widely heard musicians in the smooth jazz field – one in 2005, the other earlier this month, at Philadelphia’s venerable Zanzibar Blue – that has shaped Tom Zmuda, his father, Jan, says. Meadows often surfaces on terrestrial, satellite, and Internet smooth jazz venues. Tom Zmuda simply says that Meadows is his idol.
Both times young Zmuda saw Meadows, Meadows spoke with Zmuda pere and fils after one of his sets. Meadows had some sage advice for the younger player – always work on your tone. The advice was heeded; when the group played Meadows’ "Sweet Grapes," Zmuda, perhaps imagining himself at the same place as Meadows, played with fire and control.
Zmuda has definite plans to continue his life as a musician after he graduates from high school. "I want to make music my career," he says. That’s an easy sell for the Ewing High guidance counselor.
Not yet jaded. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Thursday Night Jazz. For information about the band contact Jan Zmuda at 609-883-3488. Website forthcoming; www.thursdaynightjazz.com. Upcoming gigs:
Thursday, August 31. Capital City Market, East State Street between Warren & Broad streets, Trenton, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free.
Sunday, September 24. Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness Benefit in Princeton, 1:45 to 3 p.m. For details visit www.merceralliance.org.
Sunday, October 22. Benefit for the Bucks County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Doylestown, PA, 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. This year marks the 15th anniversary of this "Pumpkinfest" event. $5. For more information visit www.bccadd.org.
Saturday, November 4. Bucks County NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Trevose, PA, 6 to 10 p.m. Philadelphia mayor John Street will be a guest speaker, and PA governor Ed Rendell and his opponent in the upcoming election, Lynn Swann, are also expected to attend. 215-337-9683.