New Brunswick is officially nicknamed “The Hub City” in a nod to its easy access to transportation, complete with a bustling train station and a short driving distance to the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways.
But over the next two weekends, it may as well go by a different name: “The Jazz City.”
On Saturday, the city’s Crossroads Theatre will conjure the spirits of Billie Holiday and Langston Hughes in a tribute to the music and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance at Boyd Park along the Raritan River.
And a week after that — Sept. 13 — the Central Jersey Jazz Festival will come to Livingston Avenue, highlighted by a performance by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz legend John Coltrane.
Both events are part of the Hub City Sounds Summer Series, a string of free weekend shows that aim to champion one of the city’s other trademarks: its reputation as an entertainment hub, home to the Rutgers University arts program, a fabled rock music scene, and a thriving theater district. This is the third straight year the New Brunswick Cultural Center, a nonprofit focused on bolstering the city’s arts, has hosted the series.
“The goal is to bring art to everyone in this city and to make people aware of all the arts opportunities in New Brunswick,” says Jill Eisner, a consultant for the organization. “We give people a sample for free.”
Last month’s events featured gospel music, rock ‘n’ roll played by children, and an evening of dance. Later this month, there will be a celebration of Hispanic heritage (Sept. 14); a festival featuring rock bands that got their start in the city, headlined by indie faves Screaming Females and hosted by comedian Chris Gethard (Sept. 20); an ’80s-styled dance party featuring electronic dance music, or EDM (Sept. 21); and a kids’ day, spearheaded by a performance from the American Repertory Ballet (Sept. 27).
But the next two events are tied together by jazz. The show this Saturday will by hosted by Crossroads, an African-American drama company in downtown New Brunswick that won the Tony Award for top regional theater in 1999.
The performance will be a teaser of sorts for the company’s upcoming production, “Letters From Zora,” a one-woman show about famed black writer Zora Neale Hurston that will run from Oct. 9-26. Vanessa Bell Calloway — star of the Showtime TV drama “Shameless” — will portray Hurston, using letters that the author actually wrote. The theater got permission from Hurston’s estate to use them.
“There are a lot of shows about Zora,” explains Marshall Jones, Crossroads’ producing artistic director. “She was such a dynamic woman. What separates this from other shows is it’s literally her letters. You get her voice. They’re funny, they’re engaging, they’re pretty saucy.”
Calloway, the show’s star, won’t be at Saturday’s teaser. Instead, this event will attempt to recreate the sounds and atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance, the artistic movement that saw black musicians, writers, actors, and artists produce a bevy of significant works in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s. Hurston moved there in 1925 and produced a literary magazine called “Fire!!” with fellow authors Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. She went on to write her most famed work, the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in 1937.
Jones says it’s an important time to revisit the movement as Harlem’s demographics continue shifting to include more young, white residents.
“In the ’20s and ’30s, that was really the first time in American history that there was such a concentrated African-American cultural and artistic voice,” he says. “The center was right in Harlem. There were great artists, musicians, poets, literary figures. They all lived there and worked there. And as a result, the community had a very unique and special bond.”
Jones says Saturday’s show will “give our audiences a sense of the time period.”
It will feature singer Leah Joy, a Piscataway native, who has performed at the legendary amateur night at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater. Joy — who also put on a one-woman show at Crossroads last year — will sing “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy & Bess, as well as other classics, like “Stormy Weather” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”
Another New Jersey singer, Carolann Brevard, will perform songs made popular by jazz legend Billie Holiday, including “God Bless The Child,” “Lover Man,” and “Good Morning Heartache.”
And Gary Edison, a New Jersey poet and spoken word artist, will recite pieces by Hughes — accompanied by a violinist.
One hope, Jones says, is that younger members of the audience will learn something new.
“Kids may know the Stevie Wonder song ‘Sir Duke,’” he explains. “But do they know what Duke he is talking about? Someone who is royalty in England? No, it’s Duke Ellington. Take out yours phones. Google Duke Ellington. It’s a great way to introduce music to a new generation.”
A week later, a new generation of jazz artists will play in New Brunswick as the city hosts the second leg of the three-day Central Jersey Jazz Festival. Performers include the Josh Evans Sextet; the Jazzmeia Horn Quartet (led by 23-year-old Horn, who won the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition in Newark last year); and the Ravi Coltrane Quartet. The New Brunswick District Jazz Band, a group of 25 students, will play in between and artists from the city’s Alpha Art Gallery will paint what the event looks like — the crowd, the audience, the scene.
The festival actually begins Friday in Flemington, with the Bernie Worrell Orchestra (led by Worrell, a Plainfield native who played keyboards in Parliament-Funkadelic); the Winard Harper Sextet, Warren Vache & Harry Allen; and Emily Asher’s Garden Party. The third day of the festival is Sunday in Somerville, with the T.S. Monk Sextet; saxophonist Houston Person; singer Brianna Thomas; pianist Emmet Cohen; and student group the Jazz House Kids.
Helping organize Saturday’s event is the New Brunswick Jazz Project, a collective formed by three fans in 2010 who were bothered that the city didn’t have live jazz consistently.
“It’s such a cool town,” explains Michael Tublin, a 50-year-old city employee who formed the collective with Jimmy Lenihan and Virginia DeBerry. “But you can’t be cool without having jazz.”
The three turned to Ralph Bowen, a world-renowned sax player who is also a music professor at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in the city. Together, they started organizing shows. It started with a few a month. Now, there are two or three a week throughout the city — including a Thursday set at Ethiopian restaurant Makeda that Tublin says draws musicians who typically play top clubs in New York.
In all, the collective has hosted about 700 shows in the last four years or so.
“We make no money out of it,” Tublin says. “We’re a no-profit trying to become a nonprofit. But there’s so much joy.”
An added bonus to the jazz festival coming to New Brunswick next Saturday? It’s held on the same day that the Rutgers football team plays its first game as a member of the Big Ten Conference, hosting PennState at Rutgers Stadium across the river in Piscataway.
“That’s extra exciting,” says Eisner of the New Brunswick CulturalCenter. “Think of all those people coming out of the game. We can show them we’re an arts city. We’re a place to see the arts.”