New Jersey has always been an underrated hotbed of jazz music, with Garden State legends like Count Basie, Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Les Paul.
And for five decades, discerning fans have known that some of America’s best jazz can be found in the Morris County area.
“Morris County was and is the best of both worlds,” said Cydney Halpin, president of the Jersey Jazz Society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sunday with a concert at Saint Elizabeth University in Morris Township..
Headlining the show are two “living legends,” said Halpin: bassist Bill Crow and tenor saxophonist Houston Person. “Livability and hot jazz. That was our founding mentality.”
The best players of jazz’s early decades, of course, found regular gigs and fame in New York and Newark. But they also found more affordable living conditions farther west of the Hudson, Halpin said.
In the early 1970s, New Jersey jazz fans would gather at the Chester Inn to hear Chuck Slate’s traditional jazz band or at the Hillside Lounge, also in Chester, to see legendary musicians like cornetist “Wild Bill” Davison. , alto saxophonist Rudy Powell or guitarist Al Casey.
In October 1972 Jack Stine, Pluckemin liquor store owner and jazz enthusiast, spun these informal gatherings into regular gigs and the New Jersey Jazz Society was formed.
“The guys who started all of this were all top New York musicians hanging out at the Chester Inn,” Halpin said. “They didn’t live in Manhattan. They all lived here.”
The jams attracted a steady following thanks to Stine, “who was such a fan of jazz and had all the connections in town,” Halpin explained. “He brought the cats out of town to come and play here. A lot of them lived here because it was a dormitory community. Everybody could get to town, but lived here. And the Chester Inn became favorite spot.”
The jams were also “just the boozefest,” Halpin said. “When you listen to the old recordings, all you hear is the clink of ice cubes in glasses. It was one hell of a club thing.”
Years later, Stine produced a series of popular jazz concerts at Stanhope’s Waterloo Village. “People are telling stories about the Waterloo gigs and their eyes are fixed. It was like the holy grail of jazz.”
The Jazz Society’s new home in Madison
The Jersey Jazz Society then found a regular venue for its events at the Shanghai Jazz restaurant and nightclub in downtown Madison. Now they’ve taken up some sort of residency nearby at the Madison Community Arts Center, part of a mixed-use redevelopment complex in Madison that opened in 2018.
“We now do what we call our Jersey jazz Live gigs, which are usually Sunday affairs,” she said. “It’s a jewel of space.”
Madison Arts Center’s lineup has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but director John Pietrowski said they held two well-attended Jersey Jazz Company concerts and are looking forward to more concerts. Recent renovations include the installation of LED theatrical lighting.
“We’re looking for a whole variety of programming here and having jazz here suits us perfectly,” said Pietrowski, longtime artistic director of the former Playwrights Theater in Madison.
The longtime home of Playwright’s Theater at the closed Green Village Elementary School was razed in 2016 to make way for the Madison Place complex, which includes residential units above retail stores on the first floor.
The community center’s versatile space can be configured for intimate, “black box” style theatrical presentations or larger performances, including dance companies and the Madison-based New Jersey Baroque Orchestra. The tables can accommodate 70 people. A standard theater setup can accommodate up to 150 people and 100 more people on days when the glass wall of doors can be opened to the patio.
“It’s a good fit,” Halpin said. “We sold.”
Halpin said the MCAC space will also allow the company to host future multidisciplinary presentations.
“We can more easily do a real conference, jazz and dance, jazz and art,” she said. “We’ve also launched a new initiative that gives us the opportunity to showcase young performers. New Jersey is incredibly strong with young jazz music programs.”
For its 50th anniversary, the society returned to Saint Elizabeth, where the non-profit organization has held larger concerts in the past at the 500-seat Dolan Performance Hall.
Crow and Houston will be joined by two co-musical directors, Boonton saxophonist-flutist Don Braden and Princeton pianist Larry Fuller. The line-up also includes cornetist Warren Vaché Jr., drummer Jason Tieman, singer Lucy Wijnands, keyboardist Leonieke Scheuble, trumpeter Liam Sutcliffe, singer-songwriter Jimmy Waltman, bassist Sam AuBuchon and guitarist-songwriter Derick Campos.
Tickets for Sunday’s anniversary concert, which runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., are $35 for adults ($40 at the door) and $15 for students ($20 at the door). Tickets and other information can be found on the company’s website, www.njjs.org.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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