NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Mike Bond was so emotional he could barely say the words.
After playing a set on the piano for the New Brunswick Jazz Project, he calmed down for a few minutes and prepared for the big moment. He started by singing a jazz standard called “A Beautiful Friendship,” a tune he practiced all week, even though it had long been the anthem of his relationship. Then he performed an original indie-folk song he wrote for his girlfriend, Stephanie.
It was time. Mike called Stephanie on stage at New Brunswick’s Hyatt Regency and spoke about her and their future. Fifty or so friends, family members and jazz-heads looked on.
Stephanie spent the past four days and nights preparing for a class she was about to teach. No sunlight and plenty of stress left her with little desire to leave the house on that night in June 2014. But as Mike gushed, she was glad that she had decided to dress up.
“I only have four more words to ask you,” Mike said after his speech.
“I know what they are!” Stephanie shouted, uncontrollably.
The up-and-coming musician got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. They cried and embraced as the audience cheered. And then they celebrated in the city and with the friends who had nurtured their relationship from the start.
The New Brunswick Jazz Project turns seven years old this week. At least 1,500 musicians have played more than 1,000 shows for the nonprofit founded by three friends. With four shows each week and a revolving door of top-tier acts, Virginia DeBerry, Jimmy Lenihan and Michael Tublin have, by most accounts, succeeded in bringing jazz back to the Hub City.
But they’ve done something else along the way.
In addition to “countless hookups,” quite a few long-term romances have sparked in the dimly lit barrooms and restaurants that have hosted the Jazz Project. Virginia pegs the number at 10. So far, the nonprofit has played a notable role in one proposal, at least three weddings and an untold number of anniversary celebrations.
In fact, the three co-founders each met or got close to their significant others through the Jazz Project.
“It is kind of bizarre,” Virginia told TAPinto New Brunswick. “That people feel that we are a part of their life in that way is remarkable.”
So it was natural for Mike Bond to pop the question while playing a Jazz Project event. He and Stephanie had spent many evenings there, getting to know their neighbors and each other. Furthermore, musicians he met through the group helped to elevate his own career.
“This proposal was how it was meant to happen,” he later said.
The myth that New Brunswick shuts down when Rutgers University lets out always bugged Virginia. What about the professionals who live and work here? But it wasn’t until a local joint canceled its weekly live jazz shows one summer that she decided to prove that notion wrong.
Virginia, Jimmy and Michael were friends from the city’s bar and music scene. They wanted to build a jazz scene in a city that had mostly been without one.
“It happened sporadically over the years,” Virginia said, “but nobody had been consistent with it.”
Stephanie and Mike's wedding cake paid tribute to their jazz-fueled proposal.
So the trio solicited help from a Rutgers music professor and in 2010 launched the New Brunswick Jazz Project. They started with bimonthly shows at Makeda, the Ethiopian restaurant on George Street that closed two years ago. The music was from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s—be-bop, hard-bop and straight-ahead jazz styles—and most of the musicians were professionals.
They committed to the project for one year. If it flopped, oh well. That attitude was key, Virginia recalled, because many nights consisted of the band, the bartender and the three friends.
As time went on, the Jazz Project gained institutional support from organizations like New Brunswick City Market, the New Brunswick Cultural Center and Mayor Jim Cahill, Virginia said. Individual donors contributed money. The Jazz Project became a nonprofit and began applying for grants.
The group also raised its profile. The New York Times wrote a story on the effort, labeling the Hub City a “destination for jazz,” after hearing the buzz from big-name musicians. Those artists also made trips down. And some who got their starts here, like the singer Vanessa Perea—who played with Mike Bond the night he proposed—gained widespread recognition.
Regular attendees and musicians, meanwhile, made friends.
“The welcoming atmosphere was part of this cosmopolitan, sophisticated feeling,” recalled Susan Todd, who began dating Michael, a co-founder, after hanging out at Jazz Project events. “They welcomed new people very warmly and introduced them to others.”
Without a cover charge or a train trip, the shows were more accessible to New Brunswick residents, Virginia said. The music brought people of different classes, races and backgrounds together, regulars said.
“It’s our family,” Michael, who works for the city, said, “and it’s our own community.”
A Lovely Tune
Kristin Sprows never wanted to get married. Never mind to a musician.
She was single when she moved to New Brunswick and eager to take on life by herself. She went to movies and restaurants alone. And around May 2010, she attended her first solo New Brunswick Jazz Project night.
Enchanted by the vibe and the music, she kept coming. Soon enough, she befriended the three co-founders and her fellow patrons.
In early 2011, she was sitting at the bar in Makeda when a guy with an upright bass hopped on stage. She had always liked the bass—she played an electric one in high school—and there was something about this particular bassist.
When he came to the bar for a glass of water, Kristin asked him for his number. Maybe they could get a martini at Clydz after the show. The man, Tom DiCarlo, obliged but didn’t call or text.
Kristin and Tom
They kept running into each other at Jazz Project events over the next few months. She chatted him up. Nothing happened.
Eventually, at a Memorial Day barbecue thrown by some jazz-heads, she falsely told Tom that she was about to move to Union City, where he lived. He agreed to soon go apartment-hunting with her.
“The apartments were like a dream. There was no way I could ever afford them,” Kristin recalled. “By the end of the night, I’m sweating, red in the face and nervous. And I ask him out on an official date.”
Another Jazz Project couple was born.
Within three months, Kristin knew Tom was the one. He knew in six. They tied the knot last September.
“I don’t know if I would have been able to see him again after that first night if it were anywhere other than the Jazz Project,” she said. “I will never be able to thank them for what they’ve done.”
Not one but three men awaited Amelia Spaulding on her wedding day in 2012 at Kirkpatrick Chapel. Her husband-to-be, Greg Savad, was hanging out with Jimmy Lenihan and Michael Tublin, two co-founders of the New Brunswick Jazz Project.
They wore fake mustaches, an ode to Greg and his facial hair. They had all become close friends while Amelia and Greg were dating. It was no surprise, she said, considering how much time they spent together listening to jazz.
When it came time to share their vows, Greg delivered his in the form of a haiku. He mentioned how they hit a Jazz Project show on their first date. He also name-dropped Lee Hogans, a trumpeter and a regular in the city’s jazz scene.
Michael Tublin, Virginia DeBerry and Jimmy Lenihan.
“We’re sitting in Kirkpatrick Chapel, hearing the Jazz Project being mentioned,” Virginia recalled. “It was amazing.”
What’s more amazing is how the love has spread.
Jimmy took his girlfriend to a Jazz Project event on their first date three years ago. They now live together and attend shows every week.
Michael met his girlfriend, a stranger who lived near him but now lives with him, at jazz night.
Virginia got to know her guy, a musician, after he played a few gigs in New Brunswick. They got serious about a year later. “This is the thing,” she said. “This is the thing.”
Yet none of the founders planned for so much romance to blossom on the scene. They attributed it to the sense of community they built. Indeed, that point gains credence from how they’ve mourned their dead, like a former municipal court judge, Ronald Wright, a Jazz Project regular whom the group named an award after.
But there’s also something about the music and the atmosphere that captures starry-eyed couples, they said.
Amelia recalled her first date with Greg as the best she ever had. After eating sushi and watching a Rutgers men’s basketball game, they shuffled over to Makeda. She wore heels and sipped a gin and tonic. People nearby bopped their heads as the musicians grooved.
“There really is something magical, cool and sexy to say that your romance started and continues through something like that,” she said. “Jazz is just a special style of music.”
Maybe it’s that simple.