Two weeks ago, New Jersey City University held a two-day jazz festival. The event, which featured Jersey City percussion hero Winard Harper, the unclassifiable, frequently brilliant Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet, and many other artists, was distinguished by its excellent lineup of attractions. Its location was just as noteworthy. NJCU didn’t throw their party on campus. Instead, the University took over the Brightside, the Bright Street bar and grill that has hosted film festivals, comedy shows, and plenty of live music.
It was the latest indication that the University — an institution that has sometimes felt all too remote from the flow of cultural life in Jersey City — wants to be part of the neighborhood. The NJCU music program has recently gotten serious about providing the city with entertaining events, and this Friday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m., they’ll be opening the doors to The Margaret Williams Theater (2039 Kennedy Blvd.) for a concert by the Pop/R&B Ensemble. This time, they’re asking us to come to them, but they’re not charging for the show. All you’ve got to do is register here.
There are a few good reasons for people in the arts community to support and attend this concert and others like it. We’re a stronger scene when our local University is part of it. More importantly, there’s some impressive untapped vocal talent at NJCU, and it ought to be recognized. The Pop/R&B Ensemble concert features a self-selected group of students in the Music Business program — the semester-end show is the culmination of the class — but some of these young musicians can absolutely sing and play. Professor Jason Teborek, the musical director and teacher of the class, and vocal coach John DiPinto, are presenting a loose, hungry group of students who are ready for their showcase.
Also, it’s not a holiday show. Oh, they’re doing “This Christmas” and a few other seasonal numbers; there’s no getting through December without a collision with the standards. But most of this twenty-song concert is devoted to renditions of excellent modern pop-soul compositions, including Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold” and Beyoncé’s irresistible “Love on Top.” The older material on the setlist feels fresh nonetheless: R&B numbers by DeBarge, Mary J. Blige, Anita Baker, and other gospel-grounded soul singers whose repertoires continue to influence the course of contemporary music. There’s a Kool & The Gang song, too; we’re in Jersey City, after all.
The mid-December show is a reminder of something we all know instinctively, but sometimes forget. Pop and R&B might seem effortless, but that magic is enhanced by people in the entertainment industry. For every star, there are hundreds of people behind the scenes who, driven by their love of music, are there to amplify the star’s wattage. Many of those supporters have real talent of their own. Most of these students in the NJCU music business are training for careers behind the scenes: they’ll work in A&R, publicity, management, and show-running. Nevertheless, they know music. When they get the spotlight on them, they know exactly what to do. This Friday night, they’ll show you.