The way the band started sounds like something that writer Nicholas Sparks would have jotted down for one of his fantasy romance novels. Four guitarists are set to play at an open mike night at the Nassau Inn, but only two show up, Ellen and Frank. They play together, then continue to play together, and then, after 24 years of marriage, still continue to play together. It’s so hokey, but it’s got to be said — they have been making sweet, sweet music ever since they met.
Ellen and Frank Ruck are the original members of the Blue Jersey Band, appearing on the Town and Gown stage at Communiversity on Sunday, April 28, from 2:15 to 3 p.m.
Communiversity is the annual weekend where both the Princeton community and university join in a giant street party, featuring games, vendors, foods, dance, and, of course, music.
Some of that music is something homemade at the Rucks’ Princeton home. Walk in and you know it. Instead of keeping cats, the Rucks wrangle guitars. “We have a lot of guitars around the house, and they need a lot of attention,” says Ellen. “There is so much to practice. We practice individually, together, and then the band practices.” It is here where they hone their eclectic mix of swing and bluegrass, plus gypsy, jazz, and contra.
Their living room has a stage for practice and recording — speakers double as end tables. The only books on the book shelves are music books: Django Reinhardt, chord dictionaries, and anything about older songs. “We like to know the older tunes so we can perform requests. You need to know different genres of music, and you want to sound authentic when you play them. You want to be able to replicate what you hear. We have to adjust the music so that our three-person band stays true to the genre and the sound,” says Ellen.
Since Ellen serves at the band’s recording engineer, she is persnickety about how those tapes and the band sounds. “We tape and record our practices to make sure the sound is what we want.” She adds that they spend nearly every waking hour refining their sound and repertoire. Once asked to perform a German love song that she did not know, Ellen found someone to teach her the exact pronunciation so she could perform it to perfection.
In addition to being lead singer, second guitar, costume designer, and recording engineer, Ellen also manages and books the band. Paid bookings can be hard to come by and rarely account for the hours of rehearsal. “When we book something,” she says, “we are being paid for our practice.” The group has appeared at Albert Music Hall in Waretown, New England Folk Festival, Halo Pub Series, New Hope Arts Festival, and other venues and events, including Communiversity.
Originally from Long Island, Ellen started playing guitar at the age of 10 and teaching it by 16. The family home was filled with art and music. Her mother is an abstract painter, and her dad worked on the business side of filmmaking. He also played piano, was especially fond of Gershwin tunes, and was an avid art enthusiast. Ellen studied audiology in college and had a career in that field, but now she spends her time performing.
Frank Ruck, meanwhile, grew up in Sandy Hook, where his parents owned a bicycle shop. In elementary school he took guitar lessons and wanted to be a music teacher. While he started out as a piano major at Rowan University, he changed to a business program. Yet he still kept up with his guitar, and in the 1980s he won the NJ Traditional Styles Guitar Championship two times. He then traveled to Winfield, Kansas, to compete in the National Flat Picking Championship. If that were not enough finger-picking, for Frank’s 40th birthday, Ellen gave him a mandolin, and it was love at first sight; he now applies his flat picking wizardry to the more classical instrument.
Their coming to Princeton was out of convenience. Frank chose to live there because it was in the middle of the state, and he could easily visit family in northern and southern New Jersey. Ellen was living in East Windsor with a child and her mother, who suggested that the musical couple move in together. “We were renting a small duplex for many years in the tree street area, and the house across the street went up for sale,” says Ellen.
Both Frank Ruck and Mike Sutton (the bass player of the Blue Jersey Band) have day jobs. Ruck works in the IT department of University Medical Center, and Sutton works at Infragistics, a software company in Cranbury. Originally from Virginia, Sutton, who now lives in Trenton, started playing the accordion at age eight, moved to the guitar as a teenager, and discovered country and western music after college. He met Frank and Ellen while playing bass for a contra dancing session (think Darcy meeting Elizabeth in “Pride and Prejudice”).
Having mastered swing jazz, flat-picking, and bluegrass, the Rucks were excited to introduce a fourth genre to their repertory. After watching the film “Chocolat,” they fell in love with the music of Django Reinhardt, considered to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Reinhardt invented an entirely new jazz technique that has become a music tradition within French Gypsy jazz culture.
Blue Jersey Band improvises in Django style and mixes it with other genres. As Ellen Ruck explains, if they are playing a Bluegrass gig, they will mix in — first, a fiddle tune — and then a Django number. “You want to wow them,” she says. The band also interweaves various tempos to keep the audience interested. For example, they will go from Hoagie Carmichael’s “Lazy Summer” and then launch into “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It’s all kept together with strong, tight harmony.
For the last 10 summers, the couple has taken up residence at Ashokan Camp in Olive Bridge, New York, to attend workshops in contra, western, and swing. “We learn something new and different every day,” she says, recalling how, in a saxophone workshop, Frank learned how to improvise and adapted it to Gypsy and bluegrass improv. They now have the ability to play it all — a Django set, a bluegrass set, and a jazz set.
As for the way Frank met Ellen at the Nassau Inn’s open mike night, you might call it the musical precursor to eHarmony. It couldn’t have been scripted better. Their wedding was also at the Nassau Inn, and yes, they played at the reception.
Blue Jersey Band, Communiversity’s Town and Gown Stage, Nassau Street at Princeton University Gates, 2:15 to 3 p.m. Free. For more information on Communiversity: 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Pennington Farmer Market, Rosedale Mills, Pennington. Saturday, June 1, 10 a.m. to noon. Free.
Princeton Country Dancers Contra Dance, Suzanne Paterson Building, Monument Drive, Princeton. Wednesday, June 5, 8 to 10:30 p.m. $5 to $10.
West Windsor Farmer Market, Vaughn Drive and Princeton Junction Train Station, Saturday, June 15, 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Free.
Pennington Farmer Market, Rosedale Mills, Pennington. Saturday, July 6, 10 a.m. to noon. Free.
Halo Pub, Hulfish Street, Princeton. Saturday, July 13, 6 to 9 p.m. Free. www.bluejerseyband.com.