New Brunswick Jazz Project Encourages Rebirth of Local Jazz Scene

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – For the past five years, the New Brunswick Jazz Project’s mission has been to revive a style of music that – according to co-founders Jimmy Lenihan and Virginia DeBerry – people have proclaimed periodically dead for the better part of five decades. These claims are unfortunately not without merit. According to Neilsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, jazz albums sold the least of all genres, with only five million total units moved all year, a low number when compared to Adele’s latest album 25, which sold three million copies in its first week.

With the numbers stacked against them, Lenihan and DeBerry, along with their third partner Michael Tublin began coming up with a practical way to make jazz music appealing again; by bringing it back to the people, says DeBerry, and making its events free. “One of the problems is that jazz has become this ‘elite’ music; something you go see once a year on a trip to New York…a night like that can cost $200; it becomes prohibitive.”

In early 2010, the trio began hosting jazz performances twice a month under the New Brunswick Jazz Project moniker, using their good social standing to gain footing with host venues such as the Hyatt Regency, and Due Mari. “New Brunswick already had such an active cultural scene,” said DeBerry, “the idea that they didn’t have jazz seemed somehow wrong.”

The Project invited traveling players in along tour stops between New York and Philadelphia. And while things appeared promising from the outset, DeBerry asserted that attendance would occasionally leave something to be desired, “there were nights where it was us, the band, and the bartender, but the music was so great we believed it would happen if we could remain consistent.”

The founders also sat with Mason Gross professor and renowned saxophonist Ralph Bowen to discuss infusing youth into the Project. They found that many of the Mason Gross jazz students wanted to create something of a jazz scene but had trouble booking shows for themselves, often getting the cold shoulder from venues due to their inexperience. “There was no place for them to perform,” DeBerry said, “to see what being a working jazz musician was like…it wasn’t something they were learning in school,” she continued. “It is critical to give young musicians a place to play.”

Professor Bowen set guidelines, according to Lenihan, “in terms of what the musicians expected in terms of pay and in terms of being treated with respect,” he continued, “and because we knew the club owners, we were able to approach them.” Working between the clubs and their own bank accounts, the founders were able to compensate their new student acts, affectionately dubbed, the ‘Emerging Artists.’

“Live music is its own reward,” said Lenihan, “and people don’t know they’re missing it unless they experience artists giving their all and audiences participating and enjoying.” To help bolster promotion, the Jazz Project started a mailing list and a Facebook page. “We used social media to get the word out any way we could.”

Additionally, since many of their performers were underage students, one of the biggest wins for the Project was to get two well-known local bars – Tumulty’s and the Garden State Ale House – to host bi-weekly all-ages Emerging Artists performances. The result: people from all walks of life now come out to see jazz music. “One of the most rewarding things about our performances is that,” according to DeBerry, “we have the most consistently diverse audience of any cultural institution in New Brunswick.”

This success has allowed the Jazz Project to branch out further. They now host live music four nights a week and have become an official Non-Profit Organization. They also help curate the Central Jersey Jazz Festival, an annual, three-day, three-city celebration of the music. “This past year saw about 10,000 attendees over the three days for this free festival,” said DeBerry. New Brunswick’s festival day also garnered sponsorship from Robert Wood Johnson medical center, one of the Project’s biggest endorsements. “It took us time to build our organization and our name,” insisted Lenihan, “now we’re in good position to hopefully receive funding from various commercial sponsors.”

As the New Brunswick Jazz Project continues to look toward the future, they hope to sustain their model far beyond the years of their three founders by building a staff, visiting other cities, and perhaps one day handing it off to the next generation of jazz enthusiasts. We’d like to have broadened our reach and yet also deepened our roots,” said DeBerry. But the big picture – a revival of the genre on the whole – is also never far from the mind of its founders. When asked where the Project will be in five years, Lenihan offered the hope that, “New Brunswick is now recognized as part of the rebirth of the popularity of jazz.”

For more information on the New Brunswick Jazz Project and to check out show listings, or to make a donation, please visit http://nbjp.org