When you think about all the talented names in the world of jazz that have come out of the Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble, nationally recognized names like trumpeter Terence Blanchard, vocalist Jeanie Bryson, trombonist Frank Lacy, saxophonist Harry Allen, pianist Eli Yamin, and bassist Dave Dreiwitz, as well as the city’s rich jazz legacy — James P. Johnson, Joe Pass and Mark Mullins were born there and spent their early years there — it makes sense that more than a few people in the Hub City would be passionate about jazz.
These days more people are enjoying jazz in New Brunswick than at any point in the city’s history, thanks to the efforts of three volunteer jazz fanatics who co-founded the not-for-profit New Brunswick Jazz Project. The New Brunswick Jazz Project, just a few steps shy of getting its 501(c)3 official non-profit status, was founded by author Virginia DeBerry of North Brunswick, James Lenihan of Somerset, and Michael Tublin of New Brunswick in 2009.
This April 9 marks the two-year anniversary of a risky experiment these three fanatics embarked on at Makeda’s, an Ethiopian restaurant on George Street. The trio has expanded its efforts since then to include a partitioned area of the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and other small venues in New Brunswick and Somerset.
The first official event for the New Brunswick Jazz Project was a book signing by author DeBerry at Makeda’s, accompanied by saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s small group, on April 9, 2010.
“We started talking about this in 2009,” DeBerry explains recently at the Hyatt Regency’s “jazz club,” an area separated from the main lobby by some sound absorbing floor to ceiling curtains.
“The genesis of the New Brunswick Jazz Project goes back to the North Star Bar where they used to have musicians from Mason Gross School of the Arts,” (the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble,) DeBerry says.
“Jazz here in town was very very spotty, and we were complaining about it,” she recalls. Lenihan and Tublin and DeBerry, all friends for many years, wondered what they could do to create a better jazz scene in the city’s precious few remaining nightclubs.
“We knew there were resources here,” DeBerry explains, “because years before we started this, we’d known each other from hanging out in a bunch of different New Brunswick establishments.”
All three had spent a fair amount of time and money at those establishments they now use to showcase small jazz groups, including Makeda’s and Tumulty’s on George Street.
Lenihan recalls: “The conversation was about jazz being irregular and not at a very high level, and the same musicians playing over and over. Then we talked about our connections with Mason Gross.”
“With a little bit of energy and a little bit of ‘what do we have to lose’ attitude, we approached Ralph Bowen, a jazz studies professor here at Rutgers. He said he would do the opening night at Makeda and supported us with advice,” Lenihan adds, noting Bowen steered the trio in the direction of good musicians, some of them recent alumni of the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble, including people like Chris Brown, Orrin Evans, Lee Hogan, and others.
“Now, every musician we book bring us another new talent,” DeBerry points out, as Lenihan and Tublin nod in agreement.
“We’re not complainers, so rather than just sit around and complain, we decided, ‘Why don’t we just do it,’” DeBerry adds. Appropriately, all three co-founders are self-employed people, so they know what it is to hustle a bit to get things done in a pinch.
DeBerry is a novelist who has written seven novels. Tublin is an independent commodities futures trader who has recently taken a part-time job with the city of New Brunswick as an assistant director of international programs, and Lenihan has an engineering business based in Middlesex Borough.
Already, the New Brunswick Jazz Project has presented an impressive array of name jazz acts, many of whom (fortunately) live in Newark or the Oranges. They include guitarist Dave Stryker, young lioness saxophonist Tia Fuller, pianist Arturo O’ Farrill, drummer Sylvia Cuenca, saxophonist Bruce Williams, and of course, instructor Bowen, himself a “name” in the jazz world from his time with OTB [Out of the Blue], a group that gained notoriety in the 1980s and ’90s.
“While we want to be like New York and bring in the same musicians that people go to see in New York, we realized the hours here had to be earlier than the set times in New York,” DeBerry explains, “so people could be home to watch the 11 o’ clock news.”
Using their website and an ever-growing E-mail list, as well as word-of-mouth advertising, DeBerry, Lenihan, and Tublin have put on some memorable shows. They now have a steady pipeline of musicians who are aware of the scene New Brunswick Jazz Project has created in the Hub City, and they want to get in and perform.
Lenihan graduated from the University of Limerick in 1983 and came to the U.S. in 1986 to marry his American girlfriend, who attended Rutgers and worked for the Daily Targum. He became a jazz fan in his teens in Ireland around the same time he discovered rock ’n’ roll and blues.
DeBerry was raised in Buffalo, New York, and lived in New York City in the 1980s before moving to Somerset in 1992. Since then the former English teacher has enjoyed a successful career as a novelist.
Tublin, an oil futures trader, also works from home and was raised in the Somerset section of Franklin Township. He attended Fairleigh Dickinson College and moved to New Brunswick eight years ago after a divorce. He is the father of two children.
“Really, the three of us are married to each other,” Tublin says, in jest, “we may live in separate houses, but we all have keys to each other’s houses.”
Tublin points out that each of them brings different strengths to the New Brunswick Jazz Project. That’s what makes it work.
“We try to attend every event and we try to attend every event together. We find that makes a huge difference to the venue, to the musicians, and to the audience,” Tublin adds.
“We thank all of our musicians in our E-mails, because we know they work at a lower rate for us than they do for other places,” DeBerry says, while Lenihan adds, “We might get away with paying them less money, but we make sure that the venues treat them well and the musicians get fed and get a good set break. That goes a long way toward fulfilling our relationships with the musicians.”
One thing that separated the New Brunswick Jazz Project from other ill-fated arts ventures was the level of commitment the three brought to their idea.
“We agreed we were going to try this out for a full year,” says DeBerry, because all three knew from past experience where club owners would bail out of a project after as little as five or six weeks.
“We started in April and that summer was lean,” Lenihan recalls, “at the end of that first summer, there were times when it was just the three of us at the bar and four musicians on stage.”
“Now we stand at the end of the bar today and realize, with the right talent and right promotion, people will come out and support this music,” he adds.
Now the group enjoys healthy crowds for most of its events at the Hyatt, Makeda’s, and other area venues, all posted on its website, www.nbjp.org.
Asked about the challenges and successes over the last two years, Tublin answers, “the biggest challenge has been trying to get the word out about the shows. We want to get more word out and we want to get more people out.”
Lenihan adds: “It’s more than making jazz appealing to the younger generation, jazz is not elitist, it’s fun, and it’s the quintessential American art form. We want to get that message out, too.”
The satisfaction for all three of them comes, Lenihan adds, when “artists who maybe are not that well known play to the nth degree. Then we all go ‘Yeah!! This is what it’s all about!’”
New Brunswick Jazz
The Joe Magnarelli Group, Hyatt Hotel, 2 Albany Street, New Brunswick. Trumpeter Joe Mags featuring Ralph Bowen on tenor sax, Akiko Tsuruga on organ, and Dan Monihan on drums. Wednesday, April 4, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover.
Winard Harper and Jeli Posse, Makeda, 338 George Street, New Brunswick. Drummer Winard Harper and his band. Thursday, April 5, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover, $5 minimum.
The Stryker Slagle Band, Hyatt Hotel. Guitarist Dave Stryker, saxophonist Steve Slagle, and their band. Wednesday, April 11, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover.
The Ralph Bowen Quartet, Makeda. Saxophonist and his quartet. Thursday, April 12, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover, $5 minimum.
Todd Bashore All Star Jam, Makeda. Saxophonist Bashore leads NBJP’s second birthday bash. Saturday, April 14, 9 p.m. No cover, $5 minimum.
The Brandon Wright Group, Hyatt Hotel. Saxophonist and his group. Wednesday, April 18, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover.
The Ed Cherry Group, Makeda. Guitarist and his group. Thursday, April 19, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover, $5 minimum.
The Orrin Evans Quartet, Makeda. Pianist and his quartet. Thursday, April 26, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. No cover, $5 minimum.