For decades central New Jersey jazz lovers flocked to hear legendary area pianist Barbara Trent play and sing standards. The performer connected with her fans — lovers of romance and memories — in ways that inspired them to seek her out after years and years.
“I’m taking a little sabbatical now,” says the 75-year-old musician. “I just ended a five-year stay at the Centre Bridge Inn (in New Hope, Pennsylvania). It’s a very nice place.”
Trent interrupts that sabbatical on Sunday, September 14, to perform during a “Brunch with Barbara” fundraiser for the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie.
“I like an old place,” she says, adding that the vibe of a space means as much to her as anything. She speaks of a psychic connection with her longtime fans and how she seems to know what they want to hear before they request it, or playing a favorite song of others only to see those people walk through the door while she’s playing it.
Music is a family tradition for Trent. Her father, William Trent, studied at Juilliard before settling in Harlem and performing in churches. About the uncanny similarity with the name of the acknowledged 17th century founder of the City of Trenton, Barbara Trent says her father’s family was from Richmond, Virginia, where the historical William Trent (son of the founding Trent) had a military career during the French and Indian War.
Barbara Trent says she has never pursued the genealogical trail, “It’s a mixed thing. I never tried to find out about it,” except at a family reunion once there was a diverse mixture of relatives calling themselves Trent. She also says she remembers her great-grandmother, a centenarian, telling her stories of life as a slave during the Civil War in Virginia.
The way her parents met is one of those stories that can only be told in an old song. Her mother was from Florence, South Carolina, and then moved to Grays Landing, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Her father was performing in Harlem and was playing piano in a church where Barbara Trent’s mother, Evelyn, happened to attend one Sunday while she was working as an au pair for a family.
“She met dad in church. He was studying music and was playing in one of the churches. He was a tall, handsome guy. Wherever he went, people loved him.”
They also loved his work. “My father was a great musician. Daddy would walk up and down the street whistling. When he would practice his classical music people would open their windows because they had never heard that kind of music before.”
“He would say to my mother, ‘Evelyn, I have to teach her to read because she plays everything by ear.’ And it was true. I had a lot of chords in my head. I would get a first grade (music) book and the notes were dancing on the page. Now, when I’m in the car and hear a song I’m able to play it when I come home.”
Barbara Trent grew up in Lambertville, where her mother went to live with Barbara’s godparents when Barbara was in second grade. Her father died at age 32 in 1948 after ulcer surgery. Her mother and her godparents died in 1971 in a tragic gas explosion under their house.
She had two brothers, Ray and John, and three sisters, Lillie, Lois and Ruth. John and Lois are deceased. “We’re all 70 now, can you believe it?” Trent says. As young girls the sisters sang together and called themselves the Trent Trio.
“I had music on both sides. My mother could sing, too. And Lois, what a voice she had. She never needed a microphone. You could hear her down the block and she had a beautiful voice.”
Trent adds that she never thought about making a career in music. “We just sang all the time, and our teachers would ask us to sing in assemblies,” she says, adding that the trio was hired from time to time to sing at events for the local Lions Club and Kiwanis.
Then Paul Whiteman — the big band leader with roots in Hunterdon County and Bucks County, and who insisted jazz should be orchestrated — once heard the Trent Trio and wanted at least one of the sisters to join his band, but mom said no. “You can’t blame her,” Trent says, “because she had a bad experience when she was younger.”
Trent started playing piano at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on Main Street in Lambertville. “I played there until I left for college, Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio, about halfway between Cincinnati and Columbus.” There she studied to become a teacher, but never graduated, gravitating instead back East, living with friends in Trenton in the early 1960s. In 1971, she was signing at Lanzi’s, the Trenton bistro that was a destination in South Trenton.
“I started singing with Richie Corbin,” she says. “He had a trio. Oh, he was a magnificent organist. His guitarist was the guy I ended up marrying, Bob Smith. I started singing with him mostly on weekends for 10 dollars a night.”
She already had a son, Scott, and three years later had another son, Guy, with Smith. The marriage lasted three years. “We get along all right, and I perform with him in a group. He’s always been nice to me. We were friends before. I always say you can love someone and not be able to live with them. I always say, ‘Who could live with me?’”
Today, she lives in Morrisville with her son Scott, 47, who provides music for two area churches. “I didn’t teach him a thing,” she says of her Scott’s musical ability. “I was listening one day and thought I forgot to turn the radio off and there was Scott on the piano stool in the next room playing these chords.”
Trent has traveled on the road long enough to be able to look back a distance. “I did exactly what I said I was gonna do. I stayed with my boys, and it’s been nearly 50 years. Thank God he gave me good boys. I kept them close, and they went to church until they were old enough to decide they didn’t want to go all the time.”
Other roads took her around the world. One night, the late Russian-born Trenton businessman Shelley Zeiger heard her play at the Blue Ram in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, and invited her to join a group heading to Moscow. The two-week trip turned out to be just after the Berlin Wall come down in 1989, when the Soviet Union was demolished. About 20 years ago, her sister Lillie was in Paris visiting friends and Barbara went along. “I played in a little club over there. It was so much fun. I still remember it vividly.”
For someone who is a full-time solo musician (in earlier years, she held a number of “day jobs”), she knows what she and her fans want and has no set list of the songs. “I just sit at the piano and start playing. I do jazz. I do a lot of pop things. I also have a great gospel repertoire. I never know what song I’m doing one from the next.”
The songs however have a common heart. “I love love songs. I’ve never felt like I didn’t have love in my life. When I see couples dance, I say, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be happy with the one you’re with.’ I’ll be a romantic until the day I die. I sing about love. I always sing about my father because he taught me how to play. I usually feel like he’s standing there on the left because I always had trouble with the bass. Sometimes I feel like I’m about to falter and I hear ‘A flat’ and I play it and it comes out right.”
She is looking for a new place with a piano where she can sing, but not just any place. “I can feel if I like a place as soon as I go in. I can feel the vibe about a place. I’m only four foot eleven. People think I’m taller but that’s because I sit straight at the piano.”
Her perceived height may also come from her music. “You let sadness go and that keeps you healthy. The music for me is like a healing agent. I plan on being around for another 30 years.”
Brunch with Barbara, fundraiser for the Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton, Sunday, September 14, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission in advance is $50. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.