Black Music in Newark: Past, Present, and Future

By Wayne Winborne Executive Director, Institute of Jazz Studies Rutgers University–Newark

Newark has one of the richest and deepest traditions of Black music anywhere in the world. The interplay between music and commerce has played a role in its growth from a Puritan theocratic colony founded in 1666 to its current status as a burgeoning region of social, cultural, and economic development. While Newark’s history is variegated with contributions from diverse communities, African Americans are a significant factor in the fabric of life here. Indeed, the history and growth of the Newark’s Black community and its music not only parallels, but is inextricably linked to the city’s development.

Newark had humble beginnings with four settlers building houses at what is now the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street, also known as the Four Corners, but in the early 1800s leather factories and breweries drove exponential growth. People flocked to Newark in search of economic opportunities and by 1922, Newark had 63 live theaters, 46 movie theaters, and an active nightlife. Its Four Corners was estimated to be the busiest intersection in the United States. Its population would continue this growth reaching a peak number of almost 450,000 just after World War Two.

During this same period, just a half century away from having been enslaved, striving African Americans left the south for jobs, opportunities, and escape from crushing oppression and discrimination. They migrated to cities like Newark and brought their cultural selves with them, adapting and incorporating everything they saw, heard, and experienced to reflect their new lives and possibilities, especially new urban harmonies, and rhythms. This is a profoundly important moment of cultural practice and adaptation, reflective of a people’s need to retain core components of their collective identity and their simultaneous grasp and mastery of the situation confronting them in a strange and new place. In this moment, African Americans would completely alter the artistic and cultural landscape of every city they inhabited, especially Newark where the major presence of breweries (27 before Prohibition) contributed to the number of bars (over 1,000 in the 1930s) and related spaces that provided employment opportunities for musicians. Additionally, rent parties featuring local and emerging talent thrived while larger venues such as the Mosque (now Symphony Hall), Skateland, and the Adams Theater presented stars like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington.

Further, the Black Church was equally if not more important to the music African Americans would create, nurture, and continually alter over the course of the 20th century. Gospel music in its various forms and iterations, southern blues, early jazz, ragtime, brass bands, dancehall, and vaudevillian popular music would all percolate in Black Newark consciousness. Thus, Black music in Newark would continue to evolve just as the city itself. These African-based music forms within the context of an American experience would emerge as jazz, rhythm and blues, early rock and roll, soul, funk, hip hop, and more.

Today, the music continues to reflect and refract the experiences of the people, especially the youth. Jersey club, hip hop, progressive jazz, Latin jazz, alternative rock, and all their hybrids can be heard in bars, cafes, restaurants, performance spaces, and outdoor venues around the city. Economic opportunities in the tech sector as well as new housing development are boosted and supported by a cross section of entrepreneurs, artists, students, professionals, new and longtime residents, and neighbors from surrounding communities. These opportunities exist side by side with challenges like those faced by African Americans over the last century. This potent mix of old and new, hope and despair, and secular and spiritual are essential to understanding and appreciating the music of and by Black people in the city of Newark. These contrasting factors will continually fuel the evolution of this great music, by a great people, in a great city.

Special thanks to Junius Williams and the Rise Up Newark project.