They have played with Wynton Marsalis and at major benefits attended by the Governor, and they have a recurring gig at Havana in New Hope — and they’re only 14 years old.
A couple of years ago, a trio of 12-year-olds from Ewing decided that they were going to become rock stars. But cooler heads prevailed, especially when they realized that drums, keyboards, and sax usually don’t survive in rock without bass and guitar.
So they became a jazz band. Drummer Tommy Heutmaker, keyboardist Joel Nygren, and saxophonist Tom Zmuda — all now 14 — known as Thursday Night Jazz, play music from many different styles and subgenres of jazz, ranging from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane to Grover Washington Jr., Spyro Gyra and Dave Koz. “We just decided to start playing one day,” says Heutmaker. “But we didn’t have the right instruments to play rock. So we started playing jazz instead.”
Thursday Night Jazz is the winner of U.S. 1’s second annual band contest and will provide the entertainment at the U.S.1 Breakdown Party at the Greater Princeton Chamber of Commerce Trade Fair, Friday, October 6, 3 to 5 p.m., at the Westin Hotel in Princeton Forrestal Village. The trade fair features dozens of exhibitors and is attended annually by several hundred working professionals and corporate decisionmakers. It is open to the public.
At a pancake breakfast at Parkway School in Ewing, according to Jan Zmuda, Tom’s father, they were “discovered” by Commerce Bank executive Merrill Howe, who invited them to perform at Commerce’s branch in Ewing.
Since then, the trio has performed at several benefits such as the Lawrence Neighborhood Service Center Awards Gala in fall, 2005, where they played with Wynton Marsalis, and the inaugural benefit for the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, held September 24 at the home of publishing executive Timothy M. Andrews — the guests included Governor Corzine, Trenton mayor Doug Palmer, and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman. Other area appearances include several Trenton 2Nite performances in downtown Trenton and the Mercer County Chamber Luncheon on August 17. The band also has recurring gigs at Havana in New Hope and the Trenton Country Club.
Zmuda, the frontman for Thursday Night Jazz, says it was the trio’s band teacher at Fisher Middle School, Bob Apgar, who first began teaching them about jazz. All three are now freshmen at Ewing High School. The guys say they have been friends a long time, most of their 14-year-old lives, which, to them, is a long time. They also say the connection helps them as musicians.
The name is simple: the trio practiced a lot of Thursdays during their first year together. Now, however, it’s hard for them to even practice on any nights they’re not gigging. Both Zmuda and Nygren play soccer for Ewing High. Heutmaker plays club hockey in Ewing, and Nygren also plays keyboards for the worship band at the Princeton Presbyterian Church, which the family attends.
The three also play saxophone in Ewing High’s marching band. This means that in addition to their gigs, they have to spend at least one afternoon or evening a week at their school’s football games.
Zmuda and Nygren were the first to play together. Friends at Antheil Elementary, the two had been playing in the school’s music program since third grade. Zmuda wanted to play saxophone, so he took the road quite often traveled by saxophonists — he started playing what musicians know as the “misery stick,” the clarinet. “I started playing clarinet in third grade so I would get the chance to play saxophone in fifth grade,” Zmuda says.
Nygren had been playing piano since he was in fourth grade, because his older sister had been playing. He and Nygren got together two years ago around Christmas season to play a sax-keyboard duo at a family holiday gathering. “We were only planning to play a couple of songs,” says Nygren. Both Nygren and Zmuda enjoyed playing together, as well as the reaction they got from listeners.
They decided to ask Heutmaker to join in. “We knew Tommy played drums, and he was a cool guy,” Zmuda says. That settled it. The band then came together to prepare for a talent show in Ewing, then played for Commerce Bank — and were off and running.
.Jan Zmuda operates an environmental consulting business out of his home. His wife, Charissa, is an executive at Educational Testing Service on Rosedale Road. It’s Jan Zmuda who has been serving as the band’s manager, public relations man, booking agent, and chief roadie. According to the older Zmuda, it’s also his role to shield the kids from a lot of the bad influences and pettiness that often surrounds musicians and the music industry.
Nygren’s father, Tom, is executive director of Aluka, a project located on Alexander Street in Princeton that aims to create a sustainable digital library of scholarly resources from and about the developing world, especially West Africa. Nygren’s mother, Janet, is a homemaker. She says that her son has been affected positively by his experience as a musician. “It’s been great for us to watch his progress as a musician and as a person,” she says. “I am not sure if it has made him more outgoing but I have seen that his sense of responsibility has increased, and he has a matured noticeably.”
Heutmaker’s dad, Mike, is an electrical engineer, and his mother, Pam, is a homemaker.
Part of the maturity Janet Nygren, and all of the trio’s parents see in the musicians is their willingness to perform at charitable functions. Tom Zmuda says that he enjoys these gigs more than most any other.
The musicians are quite astonished at the amount of work and publicity they have been getting. Heutmaker, the quietest, most reticent of the three, is enjoying his life as a musician. “I get to go a lot of places and do a lot of things I would never be able to do if I weren’t a musician,” he says.
Heutmaker says he has not yet cultivated a taste for specific jazz drummers. Nygren is a fan of keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Joel. Especially Billy Joel. “I like the way he writes his songs, and I like his style.” Zmuda is fond of saxophonist Marion Meadows, whom he has met, as well as saxists Eric Marienthal, and traditional players such as John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt.
Thursday Night Jazz has not yet begun to compose its own music but Nygren says he is hopeful that the band will do so, and, indeed, that it will stay together long enough for its compositional skills to develop to that level. “I hope that one day we can perform our own music,” he says. “It’s going to take a little time, of course, but I’m sure we’ll be able to produce as much music as we want to.”
Since all three musicians play saxophone in the Ewing High band, Zmuda says that helps their musical and emotional communication when they are onstage. “We all understand and know how it is for each other. Joel and Tommy know how hard it is to play saxophone, Joel and I know how tough it is to play drums, and Tommy and I know how hard it is to play piano.”
Even though the members of Thursday Night Jazz are not rock musicians, they are sort of rock stars in their own circles. Since they just began attending Ewing High, they are not that well-known at their new school. But among their former classmates at Fisher, they are quite the talk of the town. “A lot of people in our class know who we are,” Nygren said. “It’s cool.”
Thursday Night Jazz, Friday, October 6, 3 to 5 p.m., U.S. 1 Breakdown Party at the Greater Princeton Chamber of Commerce Trade Fair, Westin Hotel, Princeton Forrestal Village. Live music, gourmet food tastings, cash bar. 609-452-7000.