When I think of my earliest exposure to jazz, I remember Saturday afternoons at the shore. It was me—probably 12 or 13 years old—with my parents, sitting on bar stools in a favorite bayside spot. I felt so grown-up. I sipped a soda, my folks enjoyed their adult beverages and together we listened to the musicians playing.
I doubt that I knew it was jazz at the time. But I knew it was strong, rhythmic, heartfelt music. And I really liked it.
Dictionary.com defines jazz as: “Music originating in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century and developing through various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromasticism to atonality.”
And, if all those complicated words made you dizzy, I’ll toss out the dictionary’s slang definition, which refers to jazz as “liveliness; spirit; excitement.”
Jazz is all those things. And, although its origins are in traditional and tribal music from other parts of the world, jazz truly is America’s music. For more than 100 years, America has relied on jazz to help tell its stories.
That is a BIG DEAL.
In the same way that we show respect for other elements of the past and our heritage, it is critically important to keep strong this jazz connection, both historically and in the present, and to continue to create ways for young musicians and audiences to learn about jazz and its enduring significance.
So, this is where an organization like the South Jersey Jazz Society comes in.
I have been covering arts and culture in New Jersey for a long time, and, though I had heard of the organization, I knew little beyond what the name tells you. So, I got on the phone with a couple of the SJJS board members, President Nick Regine and Artistic Director Joe Donofrio, and what follows is what I learned.
What is now the SJJS started in 2004, but the organization had its real beginning before that. Back in the 1980s, Regine was working as Director of Community Education and Recreation for Somers Point. He was truly a Nick-of-All-Trades, handling a variety of community-based activities–adult education, senior citizens’ activities, before-and-after-school programs, sports programs and more.
He was also the development officer for the Foundation for Education, an organization that raised money to support arts programs in the Somers Point Public Schools. Among other events, the foundation put on music festivals, such as an opera dinner, acapella events and a single-day jazz fest.
Regine likens that one-day festival to your annual family Thanksgiving dinner. “You know how you plan for weeks, clean the house, cook for days and then, boom! Dinner’s done in an hour and a half.”
That’s how it was with the jazz festival. “We would spend months putting this together,” Regine said, “and then it would all be over in a day. So, we wanted to make it more than just a one-off event.”
When Regine was ready to retire in 2004, he spearheaded the transition that led to the creation of the Somers Point Jazz Society, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to presenting a year-round calendar of jazz performances and educational activities in and around Somers Point. This included a summer and winter jazz series, standalone concerts and jazz artist initiatives.
In 2013, the Somers Point Jazz Society became the South Jersey Jazz Society, and expanded its outreach to include Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean Counties.
Throughout this time, the SJJS has maintained its support for jazz education. As part of The Education Initiative and in partnership with several local organizations and businesses, SJJS provides a range of educational opportunities–with workshops, lectures, jazz appreciation programs, assemblies and master classes–for both students and adults.
Four or five years ago, SJJS instituted a scholarship program named for local businessman Bob Simon, one of the group’s major supporters. Each year, the SJJS reaches out to music teachers and band leaders in all the middle and high schools in the four counties, looking for aspiring musicians to apply for the scholarship.
“The young musician who is awarded the scholarship is partnered, one-on-one, with a prominent jazz educator,” Regine said. “It’s a remarkable opportunity. We are thrilled to offer it and to honor Bob Simon, a longtime friend who left us too soon.”
I also wanted to hear about upcoming performances, so Regine turned over the conversation to Donofrio, who, Regine added, “is a six-time Grammy Award-winning music producer.”
The summer series is made up of four shows from June through September, each on the second Tuesday of the month at Clancey’s By The Bay in Somers Point. This year’s theme is “Remembering Club Harlem.”
“This is the second time we have done a tribute to (Atlantic City’s) Club Harlem,” Donofrio said. “It was a popular club for many years, and spawned many great jazz artists.”
The first concert of the series featured Newark-native Madame Pat Tandy. While her earliest musical influence was the gospel music she heard at church, Tandy later went on to study jazz with former Duke Ellington bassist, Professor Aaron Bell, and to graduate with a degree in Music Education. Tandy’s strong and soulful voice and lusty style makes for a dynamic show whenever she performs.
On July 11, legendary drummer, composer and educator Mike Clark brings his all-star trio to Somers Point. Clark has played with jazz greats like Chet Baker, Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw and Vince Guaraldi, just to name a few. For this appearance, he’ll be joined by Vic Juris on guitar and Jerry Z on organ.
“This trio will knock your socks off,” said Donofrio.
In August, it will be the multi-dimensional vocalist Giacomo Gates, performing with pianist John di Martino and bassist Ed Howard. The performance will likely feature selections from Gates’s April 2017 release, “What Time Is It?”
Wrapping up the series in September is tenor sax player Eric Alexander. Rather than try to sum up Alexander’s style, I’ll just pull a quote about the sources of his inspiration from his website bio:
“The people I listened to in college are still the cats influencing me today. The legacy left by Bird and all the bebop pioneers, that language and that feel—that’s the bread and butter of everything I do.”
And, come October, it will be time again for the Jazz Festival.
Regine and Donofrio weren’t able to disclose too much about this year’s event. “We aren’t ready yet to let the cat out of the bag.” But they told me the dates, October 12-15, and said that there will be three venues and 10-12 shows.
“What we have here is unique,” comments Donofrio. “Although this is a small geographic area, it has a vibrant jazz scene.”
In the dozen years since the South Jersey Jazz Society got its start, it has continued to grow and flourish and now boasts a base of more than 300 paid members.
“We are extremely proud of this special thing we’ve cultivated,” he said.
For more information on the South Jersey Jazz Society and their upcoming performances, visit http://southjerseyjazz.org.