America's Music: Jazz In Newark

David A. Orthmann By

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America's Music: Jazz In Newark
Barbara J. Kukla
324 pages
ISBN: #978-0-9768130-3-3
Swing City Press

Every jazz fan has a story about how the music became an important part of their life. For some the point of entry was taking up a musical instrument. Others fell under the music's spell after hearing a family member's or neighbor's jazz records. And there are those whose exposure to sounds intended as an aphrodisiac led to a lifelong love affair with the music.

Barbara J. Kukla's introduction to jazz occurred in 1960s when, as reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, she began to frequent area jazz clubs. Kukla subsequently wrote an article on vocalist Miss Rhapsody (AKA Viola Wells), a mainstay of Newark's jazz scene who introduced the young journalist to many of the city's musicians.

Kukla's recently published book, America's Music: Jazz In Newark, approaches the subject from multiple perspectives, extends its reach from the 1920s to the present, and expresses concern for the future. While portraits of dozens of musicians and singers—some famous, others destined to remain local legends—comprise the bulk of the volume, Kukla expresses a keen interest in the economic and sociological realities that pervade the music. In what amounts to a people's history of jazz in New Jersey's most populated city, she incorporates neighborhoods, venues and families, shines a light on the efforts of jazz advocates such as promoters, club owners and journalists, and gives voice to the testimony of individual jazz fans.

Kukla introduces musicians not often heard outside of the Newark area, such as Rudy Walker, Leo Johnson, and Dave Braham, in addition to the celebrated figures Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter and James Moody. Instead of offering a critical guide Kukla tells the stories of the dead and the living in ways that encompass their personal circumstances and humanity, as well as the music.

Another one of Kukla's strengths is capturing instances in which denizens of the jazz scene support one another and the community at large. Some examples include veteran musicians encouraging talented, underage players and singers to sit in and gain valuable experience—even at the risk of getting venues busted for violating liquor laws; the staging of benefit concerts for local causes, including one in 2010 featuring the Newark Songbirds to raise money for the beleaguered Newark Public Library; the loyalty of Newark area jazz fans, who often showed up en masse when their local heroes landed gigs in Harlem; and the all- important mentoring of younger musicians and singers by their elders, in the ways of the music, self-promotion and, recently, finding work in a shrinking market.

It's been decades since theatres and ballrooms regularly hosted name bands, clubs routinely held jam sessions that attracted major talents like Charlie Parker, and—most importantly—scores of bars and taverns nurtured home grown talent. In an arc that spans the book's length Kukla traces the gradual decline of the scene, and recognizes the noble efforts of individuals and institutions who work at keeping live jazz available to the public.

Early on in the volume Kukla notes that, in the early days of television, tavern owners began to utilize TV sets as an easy, inexpensive alternative to booking live music. When jazz began to outgrow its roots in popular entertainment and took on more of a sophisticated, art-for-art's sake character, the easier-to- follow sounds of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll snatched large sections of the audience. Kukla's portraits of two jazzmen, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and organist Larry Young, touch on the difficulties in finding work and sustaining a following for musicians who follow their own muse.

A chapter entitled The Jazz Clubs chronicles the heyday and eventual shuttering of two beloved venues, The Key Club and Sparky J's; accounts for the relatively recent rise and fall of Skipper's Plane Street Pub; and explains the difficulties in keeping alive a Friday night jazz series at The Priory. Another important chapter, Jazz Vespers: Honoring the Lord in Song, elucidates the struggles and rewards of presenting secular music in sacred locations.

Though Kulka wisely refrains from making predictions about the future of jazz in Newark, she notes the success stories, keeps an eye on recent developments, and tracks the pockets of activity in venues in and near the city. Throughout the book she keeps firsthand impressions to a bare minimum, yet it's easy to surmise that direct contact with the music, musicians, jazz advocates, and fans has had a profound effect on her life. In offering a rich, detailed, lucidly written history of Newark's jazz, Kukla reinforces a truism that—even in an age dominated by recordings and performance videos—most dyed-in- the-wool jazz fans hold dear: Hearing live music by local musicians and singers on their home turf is one of life's peak experiences—something that we don't want to lose.

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