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Annual jazz festival celebrates emerging, veteran musicians in Hub City

While most New Brunswick dwellers recognize Hub City’s jazz scene as established and flourishing, many might not realize how attractive the city is for rising and veteran jazz musicians alike.

Both upcoming and established jazz acts — specifically the Alexis Morrast Quartet, Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group and the Sean Jones Quartet — performed their own take on America’s original music genre Saturday afternoon on Livingston Avenue in Downtown New Brunswick.

After kicking off the three-day event in Flemington Friday night, the third annual Central Jersey Jazz Festival held its second day in New Brunswick on Saturday, showcasing performances from aspiring artists to experienced veterans who played with legends like Miles Davis, before completing the festival in Somerville on Sunday.

The New Brunswick jazz scene and related musical acts have the most culturally diverse audience base of any performances in Hub City, said Virginia DeBerry, co-founder of the New Brunswick Jazz Project.

“It needs to be something that people have access to,” DeBerry said. “Jazz was originally the people’s music. You could go to any city in America 40 or 50 years ago and there was always a little jazz joint, always — (But) now that’s pretty much dried up.”

It’s important for musicians to put themselves out there during every performance in order to discover weak points, learn from them and improve for the next time, said Alexis Morrast, a Plainfield Academy for The Arts and Advance Studies first-year student and member of the Alexis Morrast Quartet.

“At lot of people say gospel and jazz go hand-in-hand,” she said. “My family (is) gospel-based, and when I started going to the Plainfield Academy … they had a jazz program. Once I got in there, it’s been great from there on out. It’s something I really find joy in.”

Only 14 years old, the Plainfield, New Jersey, resident received a scholarship for the jazz program at Mason Gross School of the Arts after attending a summer program at the school.

Morrast always feels happy when she performs in front of a crowd because she feels like the audience appreciates her “gift” of music, whether she is singing on Livingston Avenue or inside the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, she said.

“A performance is a performance no matter where you go,” she said. “You just have to give it your all, and you have to keep it at your ‘A’ game with a smile on your face, no matter what’s going on. You gotta rock the show.”

There have been significant changes in the musical landscape throughout the last 50 to 100 years, but the interest in jazz and capabilities of jazz musicians continues to improve steadily every year, said Dave Liebman, soprano saxophonist and bandleader for Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group.

After one year spent with early jazz fusion group Ten Wheel Drive, Liebman began performing saxophone and flute with Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s drummer, before being hired by legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom he was featured on three albums.

“I’m very privileged, (and) I was lucky I was chosen,” he said. “I’ve had breaks very early in my life. I don’t take it lightly — I have a responsibility. If you’re recognized, that means somebody up there likes me.”

Even though Liebman continues to perform partially because he still needs to make a living, he said he feels obligated to continue supporting the music genre that served him so well throughout his career.

Liebman has confidence in aspiring jazz musicians because they tend to be smarter than the average person, and they are capable of making things happen, he said.

Even though the American music industry began to move away from its only original art form in favor of more generic pop and rock ‘n’ roll acts in the late 80s, Liebman — a teacher himself — attributes today’s growing interest in jazz to greater opportunities to music education.

“It was always a niche, and it was a small niche,” he said. “Now it’s worldwide, which is a good thing. There’s more interest in it (now) than there was ever before, there’s just less opportunity to perform it.”

In addition to taking jazz seriously and engaging in extensive practice, it is critically important for jazz musicians to be realistic and find a way to survive and make a living, Liebman said.

“We all have to dance with the devil, but it’s a matter of how much you want that dance to go on,” he said. “It’s a matter of perseverance. Sacrifice as little as you can from what you believe in.”

In order for jazz to live on, it has to grow and change as it always has, DeBerry said.

“We are happy to have young people who already (have) a sense of what this music is about. You can’t make that happen,” she said. “Jazz came to (Morrast) and became her’s. She could’ve chosen anything, but I think jazz chooses you.”

Since 2010, the New Brunswick Jazz Project has been bringing budding talent and renowned jazz musicians to local venues like the Hyatt Regency, Due Mari and Tumulty’s Pub every week.

Being in a community where the arts are important made it comfortable for the organization to get started in New Brunswick, DeBerry said. Also having Rutgers in the vicinity creates further cultural expansion.

“Jazz is America’s original art form. This is the music that we created,” DeBerry said. “It came from the blues, it is not something that was brought here from Europe or some place else — this is our music.”

Listen to "Inside Beat Radio" from 2 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on Rutgers Radio – 88.7 WRSU-FM New Brunswick and online at WRSU.org for more arts and entertainment news.

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