Before its present day moniker “Brick City”, Newark was fondly called “Swing City." “Swing City” refers to an era between 1925 and 1950 when Newark was host to a very vibrant nightlife.
The active nightlife of Newark’s yesteryear was recently the topic of a panel discussion at Rutgers Dana Library as part of the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival entitled “Jazz City: Newark’s Jazz Legacy, presented by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Moderated by Gary Walker, Music Director and Morning Jazz host of radio station WBGO in Newark; the members of the panel were trombonist Grachan Moncur III, saxophonist Leo Johnson and Barbara J. Kukla, author of “America’s Music: Jazz in Newark and “Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925 – 1950.”
During the 2 hour panel, Ms. Kukla and Mr. Walker revealed that Newark nightlife was a booming success because of the migration of the Black population from the southern states to the northern states in search of better employment opportunities. Most obtained factory jobs because Newark was a manufacturing hub. Those factory workers simply craved entertainment as a way of relaxing after a hard week of work. Newark’s location in close proximity to New York City was a boon for those musicians who traversed the Hudson River to their gigs; Newark offered cheaper living arrangements.
THE NEWARK SCENE
The nightlife offered to those weary workers were Monday Night Jams at one of the many neighborhood taverns; Sunday Matinees and of course, weekends at the taverns. Located in the Old Third Ward (now the Central Ward) were the residences of many of the musicians who enjoyed playing in their neighborhoods after their professional obligations in New York City. Leo Johnson explained that many musicians lived in the area such as Johnny Coles, Bill Doggett, Bobby Blue Bland and Jack McDuff. This area also included the doctors and lawyers and other “colored” professionals who practiced and made the Old Third Ward their home. Hence between the blue collar workers and professionals, the economic picture of “Swing City” was a prosperous one.
The panel also noted the importance of the Hammond B3 Organ during Newark’s Jazz era. The tavern owners loved the organ, because they could downsize a full band to a mere trio. The rich and full sound of the organ could replace a bass player, and as Grachan Moncur added, the club owners felt “money spends” and those that were doing the spending – “the hustlers, night people- were into the organ”; the organ was better for their business. The instrument drew in organists such as Rhoda Scott from Paris, where she lived at the time, and Larry Young of Newark, to such clubs as The Cadillac Club, The Key Club, Sparky J’s and The Playbill.
WILL NEWARK SWING AGAIN?
The panel discussed if contemporary Newark could possibly replicate the excitement and prosperity of a bygone era. Gary Walker stated that Newark has the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, WBGO radio has a Jazz for Teens program, children’s concerts which include Dorthann Kirk’s (widow of the late saxophonist/flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk) 21 year old program, which has just received a transportation grant, of which she feels greatly encouraged about the status of jazz in Newark. However, Ms. Kirk is candid about the fact that the younger parents of today are not “into jazz” and therefore not exposing their children to the music. The competition that comes from media – TV, video games, and the fact that perhaps they are involved in other Saturday activities and because music programs are not offered in schools, are hindrances to jazz exposure.
Barbara J. Kukla’s opinion is that because Newark is no longer a manufacturing city, that “Swing City” can never be replicated, and in her book, “America’s Music, Jazz in Newark” she acknowledges that “with the gentrification of downtown Newark in full swing, new jazz spots are gradually emerging.”
Recently, a few jazz clubs have been established in Downtown Newark: De’Borah’s Jazz Cafe on Green Street, and Duke’s Southern Table on Clinton Street. The Priory Restaurant already established, located in St. Joseph’s features an ongoing jazz series. Bethany Baptist Church offers Jazz Vespers on the first Saturday of each month. These venues are encouraging in rejuvenating America’s original music’s status in Newark, and promote a positive view of the city.
Finally, Co-presenter of the panel discussion, Vincent Pelote, Interim Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies asserts that Newark’s jazz future “looks pretty good. Jazz and Newark go hand in hand”.
Jacqueline Butterfield is a jazz enthusiast, Arts and Culture correspondent and a member of The Citizens Campaign's Newark City Storytellers Bureau, dedicated to telling the stories of citizen leadership and showcasing civic innovation.