Jazz is in the air in central New Jersey, thanks in part to two individuals who are taking things into their own hands.
At the Kerney Campus of Mercer County Community College’s Trenton campus, Winifred Howard is the program manager for the college’s JazzOn2 radio. Its mission: serve as a voice for Trenton’s jazz heritage. Fittingly Howard’s operations are at the college’s downtown Kerney Campus.
Howard, 61, has been with WWFM radio for 17 years, but the last several years have been devoted to jazz, something that she says is part of Trenton’s past and present.
The station that Howard uses is all new school: no reel-to-reel tape deck, no CD changer. This effort is about new technology: HD (high definition) digital signals that bounce off satellites and subscription service (Pandora, Sirius, XM). “You can also listen to JazzOn2 on-line or on your smartphone,” says Howard.
“HD radio is in all the new cars now,” Howard says. “Seven years ago we went HD, when our engineer found out it was multi-cast capable, that our transmitter can broadcast more than one signal. Now you can break up your bandwidth into more than one frequency. We’re pretty much an all-digital format,” Howard says, adding that the software she uses on her laptop computer is “Digital Audio Delivery,” produced by Enco, a company located near Detroit.
Howard says, “I always loved radio. When we were growing up radio was the predominant force. It just inspired me.” She got started at WWFM after taking classes at MCCC in 1982, and her story is similar to many others in broadcasting: she volunteered long enough until she was able to get on the air.
That experience is another part of JazzOn2’s vision and the project hopes to encourage participating MCCC students to stay in school and keep music alive. “Many teens play in jazz band in high school, then put away their instrument and leave behind the creation of music for the rest of their lives. By providing the students with positive role models — successful adults from music, academia, and other professional positions — we want to encourage the students to stick with education and to stick with music,” says the project’s website.
After the jazz project started in 2008, the 2010 move to Trenton made sense. “We wanted to have a presence on the Trenton campus,” where she can send programming changes to a computer at the main MCCC campus.
Her abiding musical interests are jazz and the blues, focusing her jazz tastes on the fabled era between World War II and the 1960s. When asked for her personal jazz Mount Rushmore, she says, “It would have to be the entire mountain range,” but that three obvious candidates would be Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis.
The three musicians — and numerous others — are fingertips away in the studio. Along with the analog equipment at the MCCC studios, WWFM keeps music on LPs. “We get a lot of donated records,” she says. “We have several musicians who have a studio at home. They send us their music via File Transfer Protocol, and we download it. It’s really neat.”
The transition from records and tapes to a digital format has taken more time and energy than expected, Howard says. “The challenge is trying to find people in the community who really love the music. and teaching them about radio.” She adds that often on Saturdays she is in the studio training new radio hosts.
JazzOn2 promotes the music as well as the Trenton community. “We try to introduce people to jazz, because a lot of people when they think of jazz they think of ‘smooth jazz,’ There are people in this business who have a passion for this music, celebrate the history of the music, and give jazz a forum, because a lot of jazz stations are going by the wayside. When we started we had someone who just played Dixieland jazz, and we had shows all the way up to contemporary jazz. We do jazz, blues and gospel. We do straight-ahead jazz and contemporary jazz,” she says.
“Trenton was a jazz hub. The music scene is growing,” she says, mentioning the Candlelight Lounge, an active live jazz location in Trenton. “A number of places are doing regular monthly shows, which is nice.”
Despite its regional focus, the station extends beyond that border. “We have listeners from all over the world. It’s always interesting to see where are listeners are from,” Howard says. In addition to West Windsor (where listeners can find the station at WWFM 89.1 HD2), the project’s digital signal is also broadcast from Toms River, Cape May, Pen Argyl in the Poconos, and in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Listeners can also find the station on the web at www.jazzon2.org.
“Our satellite is used to receive content from other services, like National Public Radio, and to deliver our radio content to our transmitters in other areas, like Steamboat Springs,” she says. “We bring in some of the NPR programming. We want to preserve jazz, and open our airwaves to new music. And give a voice to new performers. We are community radio and our vehicle is jazz.”
Howard’s interest in Trenton comes naturally: she was born in city to a millworker father and a heath care worker mother. She now lives in Hamilton.
“I believe Trenton is poised for a renaissance,” she says, the only paid staff member of the jazz station (the others are volunteers). “We want to help any way we can, on the public information side, on the community affairs side and with music.”
At the Candlelight
A few blocks away on Passaic Street, Larry Hilton presides over a weekly labor of love: the Saturday afternoon jazz sessions at the Candlelight Lounge — where guest performers and area musicians provide a jazz oasis for creators and aficionados.
“I’ve been involved 20 years,” says the 69-year-old Hilton. “I don’t know how it started. I came in on it. Bill Powell is a friend of mine. He used to be the owner of the Candlelight. I knew him from going to it. I coordinate the jazz now.”
Hilton produces a list of musicians that he’ll present over the next several months. Included are Trenton saxophonist James Stewart, Trenton-born (now Philadelphia based and nationally known) pianist Orrin Evans, New York saxophonist Darryl Yokley, and others (see list below).
“The musicians come from New York and Philadelphia, people who work in the main jazz clubs. That’s what (the Candlelight audiences) want to hear. They want to hear the people they read about in the paper and heard about on the radio. This keeps people from having to go to New York or Philadelphia. It is very costly to come go to New York. You got the turnpike fares, gas, tunnel, and parking,” he says.
Hilton explains that the selection process comes from a few different ways. Some musicians he has heard during visits to New York (curtailed by a few recent health problems). Patrons also make recommendations. “Most of the guys I know, so I call them up and ask them if they want to work. It’s kind of difficult because New York is so far and it costs so much for theme to get here. Philadelphia is not as bad.”
The arrangements are simple. “We pay everybody the same thing, a flat fee. They play from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A lot of time the guys have other gigs. In New York they don’t start to 10 p.m. That gives them time to get back.”
The formula seems to work, and Hilton says he has a waiting list. “People call me up and want to play there.” The reason is artistic rather than financial. “They can come and play what they want to play: just straight up jazz. They like the atmosphere. They don’t like playing at famous clubs sometimes, that’s because of the management, the atmosphere. Here they eat. It’s free food.”
The free food is the Candlelight’s hot buffet during its jazz presentation. Admission is a $10 bar minimum. The Candlelight can accommodate 90, and Hilton says that attendance is good with a balanced mixed race audience with people coming from central New Jersey, Bucks County, the shore, and Atlantic City.
Hilton, like the other “jazz disciples” at the lounge, volunteers. “It’s to promote the positive side of Trenton. I like jazz. My friends come there, they like jazz. They support it. We’re helping musicians, keeping them working.”
The Candlelight’s current owner, EC Bradley, supports it too. “EC has owned it about seven years. He’s from Trenton. He carries on the tradition. Doing jazz is a losing cause financially. But he likes it. If you went to hear the same group in Philly you pay a cover charge, high priced drinks, travel cost, parking. In New York you pay for parking. What you pay for drinks in Trenton, you get food,” says Hilton.
Hilton’s roots are also in Trenton. The son of a cook at the Lawrenceville School and a housewife mother, Hilton attended Trenton Central High School, studied electronics at Trenton Junior College, and then worked for the State of New Jersey IT department for 35 years before retiring.
He says that his connection to the music at the Candlelight is also connected to the alto sax that he played in junior and senior high school — noting that he took lessons from well-known area sax player and public school teacher Tommy Grice.
“I played with bands — over on Willow Street, East Trenton, the Sahara Club, the Cordial Inn. We played with a jazz organist. And played what was in the clubs at the time, rhythm and blues type of thing mostly. But when we played for ourselves we played avant-garde, like Ornette Coleman. We were into the way-out stuff,” says Hilton, adding later, “Guys today can play very well, but a lot of it just sounds alike. The teachers kind of took the spontaneity out of it like it was in the 1960s. The same is true in art.”
Hilton’s opinion on art has some weight. He has run his Bellevue Gallery of Fine Arts (named after the street where he lives) for decades and was involved with the New Jersey State Museum as an active member of the Friends of the Museum and the Minority Arts Assembly.
“I want to make life better for the people around me,” he says thinking about how small things can make a difference to a person and a community. “You don’t realize it until you look back. My parents had exposed me to a lot of stuff. The supported me on saxophone. My mother was a reader so we had books.”
So on Saturdays Hilton does his part, takes his seat at the Candlelight Lounge, listens, watches the crowd, plans, and keeps the flame burning in Trenton.
Jazz at the Candlelight Lounge, 24 Passaic Street, Trenton, Saturdays, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., no cover ($10 minimum). jazztrenton.com.
Saturdays at the
January 17: Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans.
January 24: New York saxophonist Darryl Yokley.
January 31: New York saxophonist John David Simon.
February 7: Newark jazz vocalist Lady CiCi.
February 14: Philadelphia sax and drum playing Landham Brothers.
February 21: Philadelphia drummer Chris Beck.
February 28: Philadelphia drummer Vince Ector.
March 7: Newark vocalist Carrie Jackson.
March 14: North Brunswick trumpeter Lee Hogans.
March 21: Trenton guitarist Bob Smith.