NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city will celebrate two distinct grooves of music this month, with hip hop and jazz events planned for Saturday, September 23 and Saturday, September 30.
The latter is part of the inaugural Middlesex County Jazz Festival, held across four days and nights in Edison (Thursday 9/28), Perth Amboy (Friday 9/29), New Brunswick (Saturday 9/30), Metuchen (Saturday 9/30) and Woodbridge (Sunday 10/1).
Up first, on September 23, a coalition of hip hop performers and fans will toast the art form’s 50th birthday at Barca City, 47 Easton Avenue from 9 pm to 1 am.
The Hip Hop 50 New Brunswick (HH50NB) Kickstarter page states that the event will include performances and presentations on the four original elements of hip hop: DJ’ing, MC’ing, breakdance and graffiti.
The pioneering techniques of hip hop are said to originate on August 11, 1973, during a back-to-school party in a Bronx, NY apartment complex.
The occasion has been celebrated all year long across the globe, with the Hub City now on deck.
“As Hip Hop has evolved,” the HH50NB event page notes, “current and past generations have lost touch with the original elements and initiatives of the culture.
“As artists, organizers, students, teachers and participants of this way of life, we find it of paramount importance to remind all people of Hip Hop’s original goals, direction, and vision.”
To finance the programming and performances, the HH50NB committee, which includes the event’s MC Silent Knight, Ras Ujimma, Henny Hardaway, and GSL, raised over $3,000 from 75+ unique supporters via the Kickstarter campaign launched in early August.
There’s always been a hip hop scene in New Brunswick, though it’s perhaps been more underground and decentralized than the city’s robust and chronicled history with rock and roll.
Hip hop in New Brunswick “goes back really far,” Silent Knight told this newspaper in 2021. “But a lot of it, I’m not sure if it’s undocumented, not really underappreciated, but underreported or undershared.”
Silent Knight has been a fixture in this city’s hip hop scene since the early 2000’s in various partnerships and groups, including the hip hop-rock fusion act The Band Called Fuse.
One notable venue for hip hop was the former Old Bay Restaurant on Church Street, now the Blackthorn Restaurant.
A recurring show called Lyrical Graffiti began there in 2003, run by a friend of Silent Knight’s named Nabil West.
“That was a DJ and other featured acts, everything from pioneer legends in hip hop to up and comers,” Silent Knight said.
When he first appeared in the New Brunswick scene in the early 2000’s, coming down from his hometown of New York City, Silent Knight found a nurturing environment.
“I would be performing with different people that I knew, and some bigger names too that were putting us under their wings,” he said in 2021.
“There’s stuff like, ‘What? This person, that person was in New Brunswick?’ And they were performing in places like Harvest Moon, and Old Bay, and Court Tavern too and some other spots.”
The HH50NB event is set for 9 pm at Barca City on Easton Avenue. Eloh Kush and DJ Absurd are also among the night’s performers.
Then next Saturday, September 30, the inaugural Middlesex County Jazz Festival swings into New Brunswick.
The four-day festival kicks off two nights prior in Edison, on Thursday, September 28, and is in Perth Amboy the following night, Friday the 29th.
New Brunswick’s set is from 1-5:30 pm on Saturday, September 30, in front of the NB Performing Arts Center at 11 Livingston Avenue.
The New Brunswick Jazz Project Brass starts at 1 pm, followed by the Conrad Herwig Latin Side All Stars at 2:15 pm. The Nat Adderley Jr. Quartet headlines at 4 pm.
With Metuchen slated to begin at 6 pm the same evening, the festival’s press release notes that “New Brunswick Jazz fans can hop on the NJ Transit train that leaves New Brunswick at 5:49 p.m. and arrive in Metuchen just in time to catch the next show.”
Woodbridge draws the Sunday, October 1 shift, from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“Each town has created programming that combines hometown favorites with regional jazz greats,” the press release noted.
Equidistant between hot spots of New York and Philadelphia, and Trenton, North Jersey and Asbury Park, New Brunswick’s intrinsic moxie has attracted musicians to its web for generations.
And New Brunswick has long been a hub for jazz.
In a 2017 interview with New Jersey Stage about the city’s music history, journalist Bob Makin noted that before becoming known for its rock and roll, “New Brunswick always was a jazz town.”
“At one point, it had about 20 jazz venues, all of which eventually closed,” Makin said then.
One of the former venues from New Brunswick’s jazz heyday was the Rainbow Inn.
The Rainbow Inn was the site of an August 28, 1950 performance by legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker.
“Jazz is huge in Hub City once again thanks to the tireless efforts of the New Brunswick Jazz Project, which holds many free concerts each month in the city’s many acclaimed restaurants,” Makin said in 2017.
Elsewhere, Rutgers-Newark is home to the Institute of Jazz Studies, “the world’s foremost jazz archives and research library.”
Among its possessions are the music and papers of the New Brunswick-born pianist James P. Johnson, who notably composed “The Charleston.”
That epochal song of the Roaring Twenties has its own milestone, 100th birthday later this year: it premiered on October 29, 1923 at the New Colonial Theatre in Manhattan.
Other trophies at the Rutgers-Newark jazz institute are manuscripts from Louis Armstrong, and a Martin C trumpet owned by Miles Davis.
When and where: Hip Hop 50 New Brunswick, Saturday, September 23 at Barca City, 47 Easton Avenue, 9 pm; Middlesex County Jazz Festival, Saturday, September 30 outside New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, 1pm – 5:30 pm
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.