New Brunswick Jazz Project Planning Swinging Shindig for 15th Anniversary

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A 20-something in a hoodie is be-bop-bopping to the music, his head gently nodding to the bounce of the drums.

A few tables over, a gray-haired gentleman polishing off his Pabst Blue Ribbon can’t take his eyes off the band.

Nearby, a woman gives a hearty “Whoa!” at the conclusion of a blistering sax solo.

It was just another Thursday night on George Street, where world-class jazz players and the fans who love their music have been gathering for years.

The New Brunswick Jazz Project has found a home each Tuesday and Thursday night for the past several years in this low-lit bottom-floor dining room-turned-jazz club at Tavern on George.

Before that, the project had stops in so many New Brunswick restaurants that eventually went under that founders Virginia DeBerry, Jimmy Lenihan, and Michael Tublin struggled to name them all.

Economic downturns and a pandemic have sounded sour notes, and there’s a constant interchange of musicians, and yet the project has transformed New Brunswick of all places into a vibrant and vital jazz music scene.

The founders say it would be only right to throw a swinging shindig to mark the Jazz Project’s 15th anniversary, so they invite you to put on your zoot suits, slip on your wingtips, and come dance the night away. They’ve hand-picked Swingadelic to play the anniversary show on Friday, April 12, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

“We thought about bringing some of the musicians who have played here in the past, but a lot of them aren’t in the area anymore,” DeBerry said. “So, we decided we wanted it to be spirited and fun and Swingadelic is a swing band like you would have seen in the Forties. They’re a great band and they will have a singer. They have professional groupies that follow them who are professional swing dancers.”

The New Brunswick Jazz Project was born out of a common love of jazz shared by DeBerry, Lenihan, and Tublin, and a desire to see live music in their city. But it’s been their friendship that has kept the project going strong through the inevitable ups and downs, not to mention the never-ending search for funding and support.

Their friendship extends beyond the four walls of this quaint, ad-hoc jazz club. When DeBerry’s mom passed away in 2013, Lenihan and Tublin flew to Buffalo for the funeral. When Lenihan’s father died, DeBerry and Tublin flew to Ireland. When DeBerry had fractured her fibula and tibia in three places, Tublin and Lenihan brought her groceries.

“We are joined at the hearts and the hips,” is how DeBerry puts it.

By now, word has gotten around that the musicians who travel from New York to play with the New Brunswick Jazz Project know they will be treated right. They get paid up front and there will be a dinner waiting for them come break time.

But imagine in the beginning, when they were just trying to get this thing off the ground.

A funny thing happened, Tublin recalls. It was 2015 and the Jazz Project had taken up temporary residence at the now-defunct Makeda Ethiopian restaurant on George Street. The players are playing, the audience sucking back beers, and in walks Conrad Herwig.

“He’s probably one of the 10 best jazz trombonists in the world,” Tublin said. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, Conrad Herwig just walked in to hang out.’ Then, he sat in.”

So, on this recent night, it’s the Akiko Tsuruga Quartet playing. Tsuruga is on the organ, Winard Harper on the drums, Charlie Sigler on guitar, and Jerry Weldon on sax (Weldon and DeBerry, who met through the Jazz Project, are married).

Soaking it all in at a table mere feet from the quartet is Simon Thomas, a Rutgers professor, with his wife, Nebahat Tokati, and their friends. Thomas also likes coming on Tuesday nights, when emerging artists take the stage, or in this case, the space at the front of the room.

“Charlie was one of those kids who used to play on Tuesdays,” Thomas said with pride. “So, we saw him as a baby. Now, he’s one of the best.”

Story By: Chuck O'Donnell
Photo By: Michael Tublin