Not unlike the three co-founders of the New Brunswick Jazz Project, the four co-founders of REJS Productions all agreed there was a dearth of live jazz in the Trenton-Princeton corridor, and they decided to do something about it by producing their own shows.
Rich Jackson, raised on Birch Avenue in Princeton, where he still lives in his late mother and grandmother’s house, was getting together socially with Eric Thomas to just listen to records and appreciate music when the idea struck them both: join forces to present jazz artists in Trenton.
They then recruited two other jazz enthusiasts and launched REJS Entertainment. Their first few shows were held at the Big Easy in downtown Trenton, but after that club folded, they quickly found a new, bigger venue with the upstairs banquet room at Tavern on the Lake in Hightstown.
Now one Friday evening each month beginning at 7:30 p.m., patrons are greeted in the upstairs lounge at Tavern on the Lake by Jackson, Thomas, James Freeman, and Trenton’s own Jacque Howard.
One recent show featured West Orange-based blues and jazz guitarist Dave Stryker and his organ quartet, featuring Jared Gold on organ, McClenty Hunter on drums, and Monte Croft, vibes. The room was about half-filled, with plenty of tables and chairs strategically positioned for the best sight lines to the stage. The wood-paneled walls upstairs lend themselves to soaking up the extra sound and good acoustics. The sound was superb, and patrons enjoyed two long sets from Stryker and company. Drinks at the bar seemed reasonably priced. Cover charges are also consistent at the Jazz on the Lake series. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door.
Out near the fire escape and stairs in back, Jackson explains how REJS Entertainment got started.
“We’ve been doing this for three years now,” he says, noting after the Trenton club closed, the partners brought French jazz violinist Scott Tixier to Tavern on the Lake upstairs lounge in May, 2014. A month later they booked another show with Shamie Royston, a pianist, composer, and wife of Piscataway-based drummer Rudy Royston.
“We kind of lucked into this venue,” Jackson explained, “because Eric lives not too far from here. After the Big Easy closed, we all decided we just had to find a new venue.”
Jackson, a self-employed plumber-painter-carpenter, was teaching at the Granville Charter School on West State Street in Trenton with Eric Thomas and James Freeman. He taught there for six years after leaving a job as an auditor and accountant at the state’s Department of Community Affairs.
“This room is very good for us because it’s not out of the way for people from the Trenton or Princeton area and there’s really not a whole lot happening here, so it’s been working out well,” Jackson said, noting the four have been blessed with some sell-out shows and cursed by other shows that drew as few as 10 or 15 people. Sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes there are too many other events going on, and other times there are problems with name recognition with some performers.
Their first concert at the Big Easy was held in June, 2013. They found Scott Tixier on Facebook and had him came down from New York to perform an assembly program at the Parkway School in Ewing and then perform later that night at the Big Easy.
At Tavern on the Lake’s upstairs lounge since May, 2014, the REJS Entertainment partners have also presented shows led by violinist (and former Black Miss America) Sonia Robinson, New York-based pianist and composer Steven Feifke, pianist Tony Tixier (Scott’s twin brother), drummers Royston and Thomas Galliano (from Brooklyn), Plainfield-based trumpeter-flugelhornist Gordon James, and bassist Gregg August, who also performs with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
“Eric is a teacher and he knows a lot of jazz musicians,” Jackson says about the group’s division of work. “Jacque Howard does all the emceeing for the shows, and James calls the artists while I take care of the finances, set up the stage, and take care of the photography at each show. We all work well together.”
For Jackson, it has been a lot of hard work but worth the effort. Raised by his mother and grandmother, both domestics, Jackson says their work ethic carried over to him. Aside from his home handyman/ general contractor jobs, Jackson also officiates for high school basketball and track throughout Mercer County and officiates for Special Olympics.
“As a kid I excelled in sports, and I am still kind of a jock. My musical influences were gospel and R&B, and when I got to high school I got interested in Chicago, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and then when I got to college I became interested in jazz, because I met people from Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and everybody kind of traded music,” he says of his days at Delaware State University.
Both his mother and grandmother and a younger brother died within a few years of each other. “I have to say they were people I carried on in my heart, so it just made me stronger,” Jackson says. “My grandmother is the one who bought our house, and she would work mornings from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then come home, cooking breakfast for us and getting us off to school, then go to her day job from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then come home and cook dinner before going off to night work. I look at my life and realize how easy I have things, compared to what my grandmother went through.”
With 2016 approaching, REJS Entertainment has some ideas, such as hoping to present guitarist Mark Whitfield and Rwandan vocalist Somi in their Jazz on the Lake series, but the most positive development seems to be that their efforts have not gone unnoticed by the larger jazz communities in New York City and Philadelphia.
“Now we’re hearing from people and many of the artists are reaching out to us as well,” Jackson says.
Jazz at Tavern on The Lake, 101 North Main Street, Hightstown, upstairs lounge.
Upcoming shows include pianist Tony Tixier, Friday, November 20, and Jazz pianist and Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble alumnus Noah Haidu on Friday, December 18. $15 in advance, $20 at door. 609-712-8904, www.REJSJazz.com, or rejsjazz on Facebook.