It’s hard to believe that a barn in the distant reaches of Hopewell Township is one of the hotbeds of jazz in central New Jersey, but it’s true.
On a Sunday afternoon in late October, the warm, sophisticated strains of the Jim Ridl Quartet contrasted with the surrounding rural agrarian ambiance of the farmhome of well-known former Princeton professor Maitland Jones Jr. Ridl, the multitalented pianist and composer, was joined by classy, intellectual trumpeter Terell Stafford and the father/son rhythm section of John Benitez on bass and Francis Benitez on drums.
More than 50 people, most of them from the Princeton area, most of them affluent, upper-middle class jazz fans — you could tell by the assortment of upscale vehicles that ringed the Jones barn — packed the surprisingly large but still intimate spot for two sets of the best the Ridl quartet had to offer.
Several times a year, Jones and Mary Wisnovsky — who have been friends since the 1960s — host Princeton Jazz Nights, a series of concerts for jazz fans. Their landmark 50th show will happen sometime in early 2012.
The original premise of the concerts was simple: the duo wanted to bring jazz, principally on weekends, to fellow jazz lovers in the Princeton area and to give some of the New York musicians they had befriended on their frequent trips to Manhattan jazz clubs some laid-back rural gigs on otherwise “dead” nights. Among musicians who have appeared at Princeton Jazz Nights are Bill Charlap, Joanne Brackeen, Rufus Reid, Mulgrew Miller, Fred Hersch, Cyrus Chestnut, Orrin Evans, Michele Rosewoman, Jacky Terrasson, Kenny Washington, Carlos Enriquez, and Ron Carter.
The next concert takes place Sunday, December 4, at 4 p.m. The Craig Handy Trio, with Handy on saxophones, Ralph Peterson on drums, and Boris Kozlov on bass, will appear at another home venue in Princeton; Wisnovsky and Jones report that there are still tickets — at $50 apiece — available for the show. See end for ticket information.
“It’s an idea I’ve had for years and years and years,” says Jones, “and with the jazz business being so difficult, and with Princeton being so full of big living rooms with Steinways in them, I thought it might be possible to have musicians to come the hour, hour and a half from New York to play here. I had that idea for a long time. It’s just that I had been too chicken to act on the idea.”
Wisnovsky says she and Jones began talking about bringing musicians from the city down for house concerts. It was not unheard of — many have been held for folk music, for example. But they decided to change that.
“Finally, one day — I guess we figured we were running out of time or something — we just asked (pianist) Bill Charlap if he thought it would be a good idea, and he said yes,” Jones says.
“Beginning years ago, at first separately, we had had the opportunity to establish these relationships with musicians in the city, and we could invite them to come down to Princeton,” says Wisnovsky. “So part of it was a follow-up, it made it easier for us to invite them.”
From that notion has arisen a mailing list of more than 300 people and a level of popularity that sometimes results in the shows promoted by Jones and Wisnovsky having to make a waiting list because they can’t accommodate all of the interest.
Wisnovsky and her husband, Joe, Jones and his wife, Susan, and their families, were neighbors in Princeton Borough and soon found that they had similar Ivy League backgrounds and that they shared a deep, abiding love of jazz. “We started out as friends and neighbors before starting out with Jazz Nights,” says Wisnovsky.
Jones, now 74, is a man with an eclectic background and set of interests. Professionally, he is known for being an experimental organic chemist who has published more than 225 scholarly articles as well as several textbooks and other treatises on chemistry. He is also quite the amateur jazz historian. “I’m not a musician,” says Jones, “but since I was a kid I’ve always spent a lot of time in jazz clubs.” As a Yale undergraduate and graduate student, Jones says: “I used to go see Monk, Mingus, and others in New York clubs. In the middle years I did less of it, with little children, trying to be a chemist running a research lab, there’s not a lot of time to go to New York and listen to jazz. But things change. Kids grow up, and it becomes possible again. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I started going back to New York more often.”
His reworked barn/concert hall is a testament to the innovative genius of architecture. Jones bought the complex in Hopewell Township in the mid-2000s and moved from Princeton Borough. There is a farmhouse as well as a barn on the property, but you’re not going to see any horses, cows, pigs, sheep, or goats in the barn. Redesigned by Jones’ son, Maitland III, an architect, the venue is open, airy, and surprisingly comfortable.
After Jones retired from his Princeton position four years ago and took on another faculty position at New York University. He says a reason he went to NYU was that it put him a lot closer to the jazz clubs of lower Manhattan. With his move to Hopewell he had the intention of converting the place to a jazz facility on his mind.
“By accident we found this barn in Hopewell,” he says. “My son essentially built a modern house inside this shell of the barn. From the beginning, a major part of the agenda was to have space for musical events. When we started, there was no piano there, but his early drawings of the space even show where the piano would be. I’d say he delivered completely.”
Wisnovsky is a Princeton native who grew up on Mercer Street near Albert Einstein, whom she knew as a small child. Hers was a musical family; her mother, the former Louise Culver, was a concert pianist and piano teacher, as are her two younger sisters. Her father, Robert Strunsky, was an executive for the CBS network. She took singing lessons throughout her childhood until attending Barnard College in the late 1950s. Though Wisnovsky stopped taking lessons, she kept singing, appearing periodically in New York jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note as a self-described “semi-professional” vocalist. “I had plenty of opportunity to hear great jazz musicians,” she says. “Mait and I didn’t know each other then, but we were probably at some of the same jazz clubs at the same time.”
In the mid-1960s she married and she and Joe moved to Princeton, where they raised their two sons. Professionally, Wisnovsky has been involved in the nonprofit sector throughout Princeton, including Princeton University Art Museum, McCarter Theater, and the Institute for Advanced Study, and she recently retired as the executive director of Friends of the Princeton Public Library.
“It’s been a full life,” she says. “The wonderful thing about this partnership with Mait is that it allows us the opportunity to enjoy the type of music we both love as well as providing opportunities to those who love it as well. We have a core of very loyal constituents.”
Jazz Nights Princeton, private home in Princeton, Sunday, December 4, 4 p.m. “Three for All” featuring Craig Handy on saxophones, Ralph Peterson on drums, and Boris Kozlov on bass. $50. For reservations E-mail Mary Wisnovsky at firstname.lastname@example.org or Maitland Jones at email@example.com. For more information visit www.jazznightsprinceton.com.