It seems like all the talk surrounding Newark, New Jersey, is bad news — high crime rate, budget woes or its failing schools. But before the Second World War, it was an industrial powerhouse and a cultural hub. Musicians like Fats Waller and Sarah Vaughan got their start in the Brick City, and Duke Ellington once called it “the best place to listen to black music.” Today, that musical legacy is on the rebound, and should get a big bounce with a new jazz festival taking place this week, drawing attention to Newark’s burgeoning music scene.
The TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, co-sponsored by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and WBGO radio, was created to honor the memory of the late, legendary jazz saxophonist and longtime Newark resident James Moody, and to bring jazz music to new audiences. NJPAC President John Schreiber says part of the reason for the festival is to help revitalize the city’s urban core.
“Newark has been challenged in many ways economically, over the last forty years,” he said, “and I see a jazz festival as a way to celebrate our past but also, hopefully, reset the page for an even brighter jazz future.”
The festival also aims to make jazz accessible to everyone. Many of its events are free for the public, with venues including local jazz clubs, an office building and a Baptist church.
Among the performances is a jazz musical presented to all Newark fourth graders, based upon a book by author Mary Pope Osborne about a young Louis Armstrong. “We feel like this is a stimulant for children to want to learn more about jazz music and their own potential for performing on stage, as musicians, in whatever capacity appeals to them,” she said.
The Democracy of Jazz festival continues through the weekend with concerts by performers including George Benson, Christian McBride and The Manhattan Transfer. On Sunday, playing off the popularity of American Idol, judges will choose the winner in the inaugural Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Organizers are hoping to make this festival an annual event that puts Newark back on the region’s cultural map.