When the three co-founders of the New Brunswick Jazz Project (NBJP) decided to do something about the city’s lack of a jazz scene and began presenting in April, 2010, they had simple goals: try it for a year and commit to putting on two shows a month. Now, having recently celebrated their fifth year of making music together, Virginia DeBerry, Jim Lenihan, and Mike Tublin say they got more than they envisioned.
Tublin, a Franklin Township-raised commodities trader and part-time City of New Brunswick employee, says, “The high point for me is just to see how far we’ve come, from three people who didn’t know anything about the music business to where we are now.” He adds that the new project has presented many prestigious, recognized jazz musicians — Arturo O’ Farrill, Dave Stryker, Conrad Herwig, Ralph Peterson, Ralph Bowen, and others who tour internationally — and that others now sit in unannounced. “By this point, I’m guessing we’re close to having presented over 700 shows, and for the most part, they’re free. That’s the beauty of it: world class jazz, in your backyard, for free.”
Lenihan, an Ireland-born engineer, says he got his taste of jazz in Dublin where “even Irish traditional singers would sing songs by Fats Waller or Hoagy Carmichael.” In the 1980s, when he was in his 30s, he moved to New Brunswick and started venturing into New York to the Blue Note jazz club. There, he first heard [keyboardist] Chick Corea and [bassist] Christian McBride. “At that point, it was all over for me, all the other rock and blues influences just fell into a focal point for me. I loved jazz because of the talent of the musicians and the freedom they had to improvise.”
Buffalo-raised DeBerry repeats the refrain. “Our initial intention was to bring a little jazz to New Brunswick. We had no idea we’d be at the level we are at now, that wasn’t even a dream back then,” says the successful novelist, fashion industry executive, and high school English teacher who first came to New Brunswick in 1992 from New York City.
She adds that getting sponsors on board was a turning point, but the foundation was laid when “the musicians acknowledged us, felt it was important, and got the positive word out about what was happening here.”
Also important was what honorary artistic advisor and saxophonist Ralph Bowen said: Getting musicians to play would not be a problem, but getting a certain level of musician, those who have record contracts and an international touring base, required sponsorship.
DeBerry, who often serves as an MC for project shows, has fond memories of a vibrant music scene in Buffalo in the 1960s. Her mother was an opera and church singer who also sang with her own pop group, the Velvetones, so she was raised with a lot of good music there, where, with long Buffalo winters, listening to music is an indoor sport. “An interest and involvement in the arts was something that was encouraged in my family,” she says.
About today’s jazz and her interest in promoting it, she says, “It used to be, every town you went to, there was a jazz joint. In the last 15 or 20 years, jazz has almost become relegated to something that happens at a festival once a year, or is something that happens at a club in New York, where you have to go to a Vanguard or a BlueNote and plop down all this money to see jazz. That’s not how it was intended. It was supposed to be people’s music, happening where the people were, and once it became clear that’s what we were doing, the musicians were completely on board with us and what our mission was.”
As indicated above, music is not the only art form in DeBerry’s life. She spent 10 years as high school English teacher in Buffalo then moved to New York City to work in the fashion industry for 10 years. During that time she also began writing a novel with Donna Grant, her best friend, and attracted the attention of a literary agent, who got them a deal with Warner Books in 1990. “Exposures,” their first novel, sold just over 20,000 copies, but she later had widespread success with second novel, “Trying to Sleep in the Bed You Made,” about two black girls and a young black boy from Queens growing up in the 1970s. Selling in excess of 800,000 copies in hard and soft cover, it was the best-selling hardcover book among African-American authors in 1997-’98. It is still in print (now in its sixth edition), an audio book, and still brings the author fan mail.
DeBerry says the book came at a point in the publishing world when “publishers realized black people read books, and they’ll read books about themselves. So publishers were interested in books by black authors about black people. Our books are not about being black. They’re about life. They just happen to have characters who are black.” The duo’s other successful novels are “Far From the Tree” and “Better Than I Know Myself.”
“Clearly, I don’t pick things that are easy to do,” she says, noting how she has added the jazz promoter hat to her resume in the last five years. “I can reach a point where I have maximum interest in something. I don’t want to say I get bored, and I don’t want to say I’m a dilettante, because I taught school for 10 years and then I worked in fashion for 10 years, but I pick things that appeal to me in some way. Everything I decided to do because I really felt compelled to do it has turned out well. It’s been successful enough to be self-sustaining, and I haven’t gotten rich doing anything, but I don’t know what else you can want out of life than that, and I know I’m not going to get rich doing this, but that’s okay,” she says.
Pressed for insights about how novel writing and jazz connect, DeBerry says those reading a good novel and those listening to good jazz are taken on a journey. Both are very creative and incredibly difficult.
“One of the things I like about fiction is what I like about jazz: you sign up for it and you just aren’t ever really sure where it’s going to go, and you get close to the end and it may be somewhere completely different, but there is the freedom to improvise and take each of the characters on their separate journeys, which is the same thing that jazz musicians do when performing a piece, they all come back together again and the story is told.”
“I find that kind of creativity — that isn’t completely linear — that takes you to a place you didn’t know where you were going, and then brings you back, I find that appealing as a reader. As a writer I wanted to write stories that carried the reader on that kind of journey. As a professional jazz appreciator, listening to this music for so many years, I have enjoyed that same kind of experience in music.”
Remembering that musicians are professionals who also need to make a living, Tublin, Lenihan, and DeBerry freely admit they can’t pay what New York City jazz clubs can pay, but since sponsors have come aboard, like Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Devco, and others, they can offer decent pay and food from the restaurants such as Hotoke, Tumulty’s, and the Hyatt Hotel, where performances take place.
As Tublin says, the project is “a place where the musicians can work stuff out; we make sure they’re well fed and we do as much as we can to help because we know the pay isn’t the top; we’re roadies, we’ll park your car, if you need us to find equipment for you, we’ll do that. Basically what we want the musicians to do is plug in and play.”
Something seems to be working, and Lenihan adds, “It was nice to be recognized with an article in The New York Times” (“Already A Hub for the Arts, New Brunswick Enters Its Jazz Age,” January 17).
At the recent anniversary party at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the event turned into something that looked back and forward, including the NBJP debut of a 13-year-old vocalist from the area, Alexis Morrast, who, according to Lenihan, “blew the crowd away.”
She’ll be back, along with hundreds of others over the next several years.
Trumpeter Lee Hogans and his quartet, Hotoke, 350 George Street. Thursday, May 28, 8 to 11 p.m. No cover charge.
Peter Park, solo guitar, Due Mari, 78 Albany Street. Friday, May 29, 6:30 to 9 p.m. No cover charge.
Pianist Chris DeVito and his group, Tumulty’s Pub, 361 George Street. Tuesday, June 2, 8 to 11 p.m.
Cocomama Quartet, Hotoke. Thursday, June 4, 8 to 11 p.m. No cover charge.
Misha Josephs, solo guitar and vocals, Due Mari. Friday June, 5, 6:30 to 9 p.m. No cover charge. www.nbjp.org.