Already a Hub for the Arts, New Brunswick Enters Its Jazz Age
This month’s cold snap did not deter the drummer Rudy Royston, a fixture on the New York jazz scene, from making his way to New Brunswick, where on a particularly frigid Thursday night, he could be found burning up the bandstand at Hotoke, a restaurant and lounge on George Street.
Mr. Royston had a hole in his schedule to fill, and fill it he did, his drumming a polyrhythmic whirlwind propelling a quartet through war horses like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Autumn Leaves.” Mr. Royston said he relished getting back to basics out of the glare of Manhattan.
“These gigs are foundation gigs,” he said, before launching into his set. “We play tunes, play the room, deal with management. They are at the root of jazz.”
But the larger significance of the set was that it was happening at all. The George Street of old, hollowed out by postwar suburbanization, was a dark and lonely place after 5 p.m., save for the odd prostitute prowling the stretch leading to Albany Street. The mere existence of a jazz room was something of a miracle.
After fits and starts, however, New Brunswick has now become a destination for jazz. The coming months will see established instrumentalists on Thursdays at Hotoke; singers on Wednesdays at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Albany Street; aspiring artists on Tuesdays at Tumulty’s Pub, a holdover from George Street’s bad old days; and a funk-fusion band on the first Friday of the month at Destination Dogs, on Paterson Street. Festivals and one-off concerts at museums, art galleries and the like will fill out the schedule as the year unfolds.
Historically, New Brunswick’s native sons have contributed to jazz, from the stride pianist James P. Johnson, a Jazz Age innovator, to the avant-garde bassist Mark Helias, who came out of Rutgers University’s groundbreaking jazz studies program in the 1970s.
But jazz as a commercial enterprise didn’t gain a toehold in New Brunswick until Johnson & Johnson built its new headquarters there. Opening in 1983, it spawned redevelopment, like the Hyatt lounge and other cultural hot spots catering to a new, wealthier crowd.
By the 1990s, those spots included theaters, like the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theater Company, and music spaces, like the Raritan River Club on Church Street, where the influential pianist Kenny Barron, then a Rutgers professor, offered full sets of solo playing rarely heard when he performed in Manhattan clubs. Another establishment with new owners, Steakhouse 85, now operates at the River Club’s former address.
Despite the general improvement in New Brunswick’s fortunes, the city’s night life suffered during the 2008 recession, according to Virginia DeBerry, a writer and local jazz enthusiast.
“Everybody’s pocket was strained,” she said. “Jazz just wasn’t happening in town.”
But the downturn had an upside. It spurred Ms. DeBerry, along with fellow enthusiasts Michael Tublin, a New Brunswick city employee, and Jim Lenihan, an engineer, to form the New Brunswick Jazz Project. In the spring of 2010, the three started knocking on doors, brokering deals with local businesses interested in hosting jazz. This year, the project, which once booked two shows a month, will book three or four a week.
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Special events have at times proved problematic. A driving rain put a damper on the New Brunswick component of last September’s Central Jersey Jazz Festival, an open-air show at Monument Square on Livingston Avenue, though 350 hardy souls bundled up to hear the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Financing for the festival required the cajoling of corporate executives. “We really had to go out and twist arms,” Mr. Lenihan said.
In the future, however, financing could prove easier. The Jazz Project was recently approved as a nonprofit institution.
And new bookings keep rolling in. In the coming weeks, Mark Gross, a saxophonist, and Winard Harper, a drummer, are scheduled to perform at Hotoke. The singers Lainie Cooke and Taeko have been booked at the Hyatt, and on Jan. 28, a special event there will feature the veteran guitarist Dave Stryker.
Even as the Jazz Project corrals such veterans, it features up-and-comers. The singer Vanessa Perea enjoyed early exposure at the Hyatt before landing engagements at Manhattan clubs, including five nights of late sets last August at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Watching a clutch of fans laughing and drinking after braving the cold to hear Mr. Royston, Daljit Bais, a co-owner of Hotoke, smiled and said he hoped the music would be playing at his spot for a long time. Mr. Tublin echoed the sentiment, noting the music’s bonding effect.
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