Barbara J. Kukla, Dave Braham and Don Williams at the West Orange Public Library
West Orange Public Library
West Orange, NJ
February 9, 2014
The focal point of a recent event at the West Orange Public Library was Barbara J. Kukla's recently published book, America's Music: Jazz In Newark. The author, a former writer and editor for the Newark Star-Ledger, was joined by keyboardist Dave Braham and drummer Don Williams, both of whom are featured in the volume. Prior to the program's onset, it was clear that Kukla was interested in eliminating boundaries between her and the audience. She warmly greeted individuals as they entered the room, asked where they came from, and inquired about their interest in her work.
While Braham and Williams were assembling their instruments, Kukla warmed up by offering brief, somewhat casual remarks about her writing, jazz in Newark, and her introduction to the music. Once the musicians were ready and the program's starting time had arrived, she began to work in earnest. The spirit of jazz resonated in Kukla's improvised remarks, which touched on numerous topics in the book without reading or quoting from it.
Kukla's words and ideas required real concentration and commitment on the part of the listener. She's a busy, effusive speaker, full of rewarding digressions, and doesn't hesitate to take the long route to make a point. Kukla has any number of stories to tell, and leaves a trail of names, places, dates, and impressions along the way. For example, a question from the audience about the location of Newark jazz clubs in the 1950s and 60s prompted a detailed geography lesson. Although it was primarily her show, Kukla welcomed and played off of spur-of-the-moment comments from Braham and Williams. A longtime Newark area resident, Williams grew up with several of the book's subjects and their families.
At various points in the program, Kukla paused and asked Braham and Williams to perform. The selections included items from the Great American Songbook, as well as "Broadway" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." At one point, an inspired Braham didn't wait for an invitationhe spontaneously started playing and Williams joined in. To Braham's credit, it didn't feel like an interruption, but rather an extension of Kukla's remarks.
Apart from her knowledge of and involvement in Newark's jazz scene, both past and present, Kukla displayed a passion for the social and political fabric of the city. She offered fervent, knowledgeable opinions about the challenges of raising the quality of public education, as well as the importance of supporting capable, hard working teachers and administratorslike Braham, who has taught elementary school music for twenty years. Kukla's remarks on these subjects were not unlike a long, tenacious jazz solo which leaves the listener exhausted, enlightened, and possibly transformed, by the experience.