For those who miss the old Trenton Jazz Festival held at the Waterfront Park for several summers, the Mercer County Parks Department has teamed up with the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation to create the Mercer County JazzFest on Saturday, July 8, at Mercer County Park in West Windsor.
High on the schedule is veteran professional guitarist, teacher, composer, and bandleader Jerry Topinka. He is also active in the Princeton-area jazz scene by way of handling the musical bookings at the Salt Creek Grille at Princeton Forrestal Village. Jazz lovers can also catch Topinka with a trio or quartet there on the third Saturday of each month.
“I started taking guitar lessons in 1954, when I was 10,” Topinka says at his home in Manalapan Township, near Freehold. “I knew I liked jazz, and I knew I liked (Emmy Award-winning jazz guitarist) Tony Mottola. I heard him play on the Perry Como Show. It was all pre-rock ‘n’ roll, and I liked what I heard.”
The Queens-born professional spent his first four years in Panama, where his father was stationed as a pilot with the Air Force. After returning to the New York and then to New Jersey, where his father worked at a Chevrolet dealership in Jersey City, Topinka studied guitar and began a career that included touring, providing studio work, and playing in television commercials for such products as Ford autos and Comet Cleanser.
Topinka says the Salt Creek connection started when he opened for Grammy Award-winning pianist David Benoit at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank in late 2006.
It was at the same time the Salt Creek Grille — with an original location in Rumson and another in California — was opening a new venue in Princeton and approached him for involvement.
“I was impressed with the room,” Topinka says, “and over the last few years, they’ve put up sound baffles and curtains behind the stage to further enhance the acoustics.”
About the musicianship at Salt Creek, Topinka lists Bucks County based) piano player Eric Mintel (who has performed at the White House), pianists Tom Adams and Keith Franklin and their quartets, and internationally known area-connected jazz saxophonist Richie Cole.
“They’re all top of the line players. I would say Salt Creek Grille is kind of like a jazz club in Manhattan, only you don’t have to drive into Manhattan to hear good music there.
“We’ve also recently had Gordon James and his quartet there and every few months or so, and we have Party of Three, a trio that plays pop tunes with an acoustic, folky feel to them.”
Rainbow Fresh, a bluesy soul-jazz group, has found a home at Salt Creek Grille as well.
“Most all of these people are local to the Philly-Trenton-Princeton corridor. I’ve been successful with these people, and if I’m not working myself, I always go out and check out their first or second gigs to make sure things are going good for the club and the musicians.”
As for the audience, Topinka says, “Sometimes jazz becomes the main attraction, but we recognize it is a restaurant, that people are there to talk and eat and have conversations. We’re trying to walk that fine line between allowing people to have conversations and enjoy the music at the same time.”
But the story is different for musicians. “I know the musicians are very grateful to the Salt Creek because it is one of a few venues along Route 1 that supports live music.”
Topinka credits Salt Creek’s owners, Hugh Priest and Tim McCune, with being supportive of his booking efforts.
About his early days, Topinka says in the 1970s he formed the group Chailo with vocalist Sal Catapano and his brother, Michael.
“We toured the country, sometimes on tour with people like Buddy Rich and later, Gloria Gaynor. We were kind of a white version of Earth, Wind and Fire. It was a six-piece band with a lot of harmonies by Sal and his brother, Mike, and a full horn section.”
“With Chailo we were all over the place. I would say I had two nights a month off. We were working everywhere. My heart was in jazz, no question, but we had a great time and we had gifted players. I would say we did it all. We knew 1,500 songs. We did songs by Yes, we did disco and pop tunes, we did Tower of Power, the whole spectrum,” he says.
After a fire in a nightclub in Keansburg ruined $100,000 worth of sound equipment, Topinka focused his efforts on building up his client base of guitar students at Freehold Music Center. After building up a roster of more than 1,500 students and 40 teachers who reported to him there, Topinka started the Monmouth Academy of Musical Arts off Route 520 in Marlboro. He sold that business in 2007 so he could concentrate on teaching at home and playing select gigs at good clubs.
Today Topinka, 73, is married to his third wife, Beth, an award-winning grammar school science teacher. He offers lessons out of his home, which he has equipped with a digital recording studio.
He has two children by previous marriages, both in their 40s. Daughter Jaime Topinka-Dancer is a dressage horseback rider based in Millstone. His son, Troy, is a recording engineer and live concert sound mixer, who worked with his father on the self-released album, “Summer Nights,” released in 2009 with a celebration at the Supper Club in Asbury Park.
For the Saturday afternoon at Mercer County Park in the park’s band shell, Topinka will be with his current group, Groove 13. It includes Trinidadian vocalist Kamuela Samar, drummer Pete Coralloid, 16-year-old prodigy bassist Cosmo Gallardo, and pianist Tom Adams, who has played with noted singers Mel Torme and Bette Midler.
They will share the stage with a bill of strong jazz artists. That includes headliner Joey DeFrancesco and the People. A Hammond B-3 organist who specializes in soul jazz, the Philadelphia-raised DeFrancesco has followed in the footsteps of his father, organist Papa John DeFrancesco, a popular draw at Philly-area jazz clubs in the 1970s through the 1990s.
Trenton-area saxophonist James Stewart and his quartet will play their own distinctive brand of traditional jazz, as will pianist Orrin Evans and his Captain Black Big Band, who have made several appearances at the Exit 0 Jazz Festival in Cape May. Jersey City-based drummer, composer and bandleader Winard Harper will lead his group, Jeli Posse, through an eclectic set that likely will include classic, Latin jazz, and modern jazz in the form of Harper’s own compositions.
Opening the Mercer County Jazz Festival at noon will be No WiFi, a five-piece band made up of Trenton-area high school juniors and seniors.
“I’ll have three guitars with me on stage,” Topinka says. “We’re going to be ready to really mix it up out there.”
Mercer County JazzFest, Mercer County Park, Route 535/Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. Saturday, July 8, noon to 8 p.m. $10 to $15. 800-298-4200 or www.sunnationalbankcenter.com.