NEWARK, NJ — At a time when public discourse too often deteriorates into talking past, rather than listening to one another, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and Rutgers University – Newark are teaming up to re-tune our ears to the rhythms of authentic communication. With a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they are drawing upon Newark’s legacies as a jazz capital and poetry incubator to amplify voices too often drowned out and retrain us to listen sympathetically.
We want—we need—to hear the diverse voices of Newark telling their truths through the arts.
The joint project, titled, City Verses: Elevating Voices Through Jazz and Poetry, will tap NJPAC’s prowess as a premier presenter of jazz music and Rutgers-Newark’s nationally prominent creative writing program, as well as the assets of its renowned Institute of Jazz Studies, the world’s most comprehensive archive of jazz materials. Through the mediums of jazz and poetry—as well as their fusion: jazz-poetry—this collaboration will catalyze the creation of new work by Greater Newark poets and musicians, students at high schools and universities, families, and teachers, while presenting performances of these symbiotic art forms in schools, libraries, parks, and NJPAC’s stages.
“We’re leveraging shared strengths and the voices of our community,” said NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber. “And that goes well beyond our two anchor institutions. In partnership with the Newark Public Library and Newark Public Schools, we’re going to bolster the infrastructure for jazz and poetry education, performance, and appreciation in our city. We know that together we can foster a strong and sustainable ecosystem for these art forms that celebrates the past while cultivating the enormous talent we have in Greater Newark to secure an even more promising future.”
“We want—we need—to hear the diverse voices of Newark telling their truths through the arts,” said Rutgers University – Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “So often in the past and even today, Newark’s story has been told from the perspective and in the voices of people on the outside looking in. We see City Verses as not being about ‘giving’ voice, but about amplifying voices of new generations of Newarkers who we know have something to say and from whom we have a lot to learn. We need to hear them better, so we can become better and more empathetic listeners—and consequently, better selves and better citizens of our diverse democracy. And there are no better mediums for that than jazz and poetry.”
"In an era when some have used language to divide and alienate, art forms like jazz and poetry reclaim the power of language towards greater unity and understanding," said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. "We are excited by the potential of City Verses as a model for how meaningful collaboration between artists, scholars, and communities can promote creativity, civic wellbeing, and cultural equity."
City Verses will create a set of intergenerational, educational programs that celebrate and expand upon jazz’s rich, historical interaction with poetry; engage a new generation of up and coming professionals, poets, jazz musicians, archivists and humanists in curriculum building; create new and unexpected opportunities for the public to engage with these art forms; strengthen community ties through the arts and humanities; and amplify the authentic voices of the people of Greater Newark, a city with a diverse and ever-expanding cultural legacy. Elements of City Verses programming will include:
- An educational curriculum and residency program pairing Rutgers-Newark MFA creative writing students with jazz musicians to instruct youth and adult audiences in the history and practice of jazz poetry
- A traveling assembly program featuring jazz musicians and poets co-creating jazz poetry that will be deployed in a variety of educational and community settings
- Free community programs in Newark Public Libraries, including poetry workshops led by Rutgers-Newark MFA students and Jazz and Poetry in the Stacks
- University curriculum and future dual enrollment opportunities in jazz poetry, engaging university faculty, NJPAC artists, Institute of Jazz Studies archivists, and the Newark City of Learning Collaborative
- An annual, celebratory mainstage performance at NJPAC during National Poetry Month that brings together an array of jazz musicians, poets and participants of related community initiatives
Newark’s eminent legacy of jazz and poetry are foundational in the planned program elements. Newark played a formative role throughout the 20th century in both nurturing a number of notable jazz figures – including Sarah Vaughan, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Woody Shaw, Larry Young, Wayne Shorter, James Moody, Graham Moncur III, Andy Bey, Tyrone Washington and others – and providing a home for a network of African American-focused clubs that were crucial to the development of African American musicians and jazz. Newark has a similarly rich history with poetry, and poetry in relation to jazz, reaching back to these clubs where poets frequently joined jazz musicians on stage, working together to enliven their respective art forms through collaboration. Indeed, one of Newark’s most celebrated poets, Amiri Baraka, wrote Blues People: Negro Music in White America, a seminal work on the contributions of African Americans to jazz, blues and American culture generally.
Historical currents such as these are among the reasons why Newark is home to the world’s most comprehensive archive of jazz materials, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, founded in 1952 by legendary jazz scholar and collector Marshall Stearns and stewarded since 1967 by Rutgers under the leadership of multiple Grammy-winning jazz writer Dan Morgenstern and his successor today, Wayne Winborne.
Today, the jazz and poetry scene in Newark endures, from monthly jazz jam sessions curated by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Clement’s Place on the Rutgers-Newark campus and the city-wide TD James Moody Jazz Festival to the Dodge Poetry Festival at NJPAC and open mic poetry nights at arts spaces around town. These efforts, by and large, are those of a relatively small group of devotees. Through this project, the partners will marshal their collective platforms and reach to increase exposure to jazz and poetry and facilitate a unique, community-oriented dialogue that ensures that jazz and poetry remain a vital part of Newark’s vernacular.
Collaborating on City Verses will be designated arts leads for this project: Rigoberto González, Director of the Rutgers-Newark MFA in Creative Writing Program, and Mark Gross, Director of Jazz Instruction for NJPAC. NJPAC Jazz Advisor Christian McBride and members of NJPAC’s arts education department will also play central roles in the project.
A formal launch event for City Verses is planned for January 2020, with programming to begin in the spring.