Give ‘em jazz! By Donna Walker-Kuhne In honor of International Jazz Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, which culminates with International Jazz Day on April 30, 2017. Throughout the month, there have been events across the country dedicated to sharing the history, tradition, vibrancy and vitality of jazz. International Jazz Day, first established by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011, brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics, and jazz enthusiasts on all continents to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact. This year, the global music festival will be held on International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba.

In honor of this important commemoration, I want to share the fun I’ve had learning how to cultivate, grow, engage and expand community-based audiences for jazz in Newark, New Jersey. Newark is well known for fostering some of the world’s greatest jazz artists, including the First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald and saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter.

More than five years ago, when John Schreiber first arrived as President and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), one of his initiatives was to create a Jazz Festival, which was named for the late, Newark-raised,jazz saxophonist James Moody. While the festival’s concert series featured big names in jazz, such as NPR Jazz Night in America host and bassist Christian McBride, and Grammy-award winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves,  I started hearing from community jazz-enthusiasts that they also enjoyed seeing performances in smaller, more intimate settings than the 3,000-seat NJPAC auditorium.

Based on these conversations, I thought it would be a good idea to establish a Jazz Advisory Committee at NJPAC, with prominent advertising executive Kay Lucas and internationally-renowned drummer and percussionist Lenny White as honorary co-chairs. Supported by the marketing department, the committee was comprised of 12 individuals with a shared passion for jazz, a commitment to help expand the outreach of NJPAC’s jazz programs to diverse audiences, and the willingness to assist in the development of programs responsive to the community’s concerns. The Jazz Advisory Committee also functioned as a resource for social media promotion to encourage their network of contacts and friends to support  jazz at NJPAC and in the community.

We asked advisory committee member James Austin Jr., who is a jazz musician and composer, to curate and promote participation in jazz jam sessions involving local, Newark-based musicians and students of jazz. The first year of the NJPAC Jazz Jams began with a single jazz concert at NJPAC’s restaurant Nico Kitchen Bar+ Grill, following a Tony Bennett event.  There was a great turnout for the showcase of young jazz musicians. The second year, the jam sessions were held in various locations throughout Newark, including clubs and galleries.  This year, we partnered with Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, which manages Clements’ Place, a beautiful lounge built in honor of the late,preeminent historian and jazz lover Dr. Clement Price.  This intimate venue holds about 100 people. Since last August, the monthly NJPAC Jazz Jams have packed the place.  Thanks to the generosity of the university’s Institute of Jazz Studies, the jam sessions are free to the public, and Clement’s Place provides snacks and drinks, including complimentary beer from Harlem Brewing.

This is another example of listening to the community and then, to the best of your ability responding to their requests. In this case, on behalf of NJPAC, we forged a partnership with local jazz musicians, business and community leaders, and established an advisory committee. Through the Jazz Advisory Committee, the partnership expanded to include clubs, galleries and Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies. In addition to increased ticket sales for the jazz festival, a wonderful, and unexpected by product of NJPAC Jazz Jams, has been the mentoring of young, jazz musicians, which helps keep the tradition of jazz alive, and the establishment of a showcase that cultivates a career-building, loyal following.

What I absolutely love about each NJPAC Jazz Jams event is the diversity it generates—it’s an incredible multicultural and multigenerational gathering of audiences and musicians—from Newarkers who love jazz ( and they get there early to ensure a good seat) and the party crowd in their 20s and 30s, to a Latino audience representing Newark’s Ironbound community and Asian students checking out what’s cool.  Recently, there was even a group celebrating a 60th birthday and boy did they celebrate! Because NJPAC has radio station WBGO-FM as a partner in promotion for all things jazz, even traditional jazz lovers from throughout the Newark metropolitan area are drawn to NJPAC Jazz Jams.

It never ceases to amaze me how art and culture are the common denominator for people who want to have a good time!  When I see the broad array of smiling faces and bobbing heads enjoying the performances of up-and-coming jazz talent, I say to myself, “This is what the arts can do.” The arts rise above differences so that together we can all enjoy its beauty and transcendent power.  Cheers to Jazz Appreciation Month and International Jazz Day– let’s keep on jamming together!


TAGS: Jazz, International Jazz Day, NJPAC Jazz Jams, jazz festival, UNESCO, Rutgers University, Nico Kitchen Bar+Grill, Tony Bennett, Institute of Jazz Studies, Harlem Brewing, Clement’s Place, Jazz Night in America, Wayne Shorter, Ella Fitzgerald, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves, Lenny White, Kay Lucas, James Austin, Jr.