By Daniela Palacio
Former Governor Thomas H. Kean envisioned in 1997 a world-class performing arts center in the State of New Jersey. As the largest city in the state with a rich, diverse music and art history only 20 miles from New York City, Newark was the right home for Jersey’s crown jewel. It has been 25 years since the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) opened its doors at 1 Center Street. The institution has built a stellar reputation for presenting some of the greatest “must-see” artists, musicians, and performers globally, including those in the local Newark music community. The arts center has already made an indelible mark in Newark music history.
NJPAC has hosted luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, The Roots, Hezekiah Walker, Christian McBride, Johnny Mathis, and many more. In addition, the venue’s annual James Moody Jazz Festival celebrates the music genre with roots firmly grounded in the Black/African American experience.
NJPAC has also played host to a highly popular annual Kwaanza Festival. “It’s almost every kind of art you can think of. We have our finger in it.” said NJPAC Senior Advisor for Community Engagement Donna Walker-Kuhne. She continued, “And we’re always focused locally first; then as we expand, we look at the county, we look at multiple counties, to see how else can we build this up.”
More recently, NJPAC has launched multiple initiatives to support communities of color. To further ensure cultural diversity and community dialogue, NJPAC has continued working with its corporate partner PSEG on its film/forum initiative, PSEG True Diversity Film Series, a unique virtual forum focusing on social justice issues. Access is available to the public online to over 500 of the venue’s virtual events. On May 10, a virtual program with panelists Lucia Liu, Jamie Lew, and Yolanda Skeete addressed recent violence toward Asian Americans and detailed how anyone could be an ally.
In keeping with its community and arts education mission, NJPAC celebrated Juneteenth by hosting a standing-in solidarity panel, It’s About Reparations. Panelists explored racial inequities and provided sustainable actions for the public.
This summer there are a variety of arts courses for children to choose from such as Hip Hop Arts and Culture or Musical Theater. The City Verses virtual summer camp is a free program specifically for teen artists interested in the jazz and poetry. Participants will engage in projects and build strong connections with their peers and instructors virtually.
“The original idea of NJPAC was to build a kind of a great performing arts center that was not only in Newark, but was of Newark,” explained NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber. One example is the Jersey Fresh virtual series featuring Newark artists and others from throughout the Garden State. Hosted by NJPAC staffer and Newarker Kitab Rollins, the Thursday night performances burst with exciting and unforgettable moments.
“It’s not just promoting those artists and giving them a performance opportunity. It’s making sure we distribute content,” said NJPAC Executive Vice President and Executive Producer David Rodriguez. We distribute them around the country to dozens of other performing arts institutions. We create content for other people. The issue isn’t just creating a gig for young artists. It’s creating a career for young artists.”
Pivoting to virtual programs allowed NJPAC’s Women in Jazz program to expand its reach. “When we did our Women in Jazz program, we increased the numbers of people participating by over ten times,” explained Rodriguez. “But the interesting thing is Women in Jazz was first run by Geri Allen, and now our developing campus is named after her since her passing.” He continued, “The program, which instructs young women in the art and musicianship of jazz, is now led by MacArthur Genius Award winner, violinist Regina Carter. Women from seven countries and young people are tuning into Women in Jazz. Going virtual has a multiplying effect.”
The popular, summertime, outdoor, live music series, Sounds of the City commences live in-person again, after being virtual during last year’s global lockdown. The 2021 lineup includes hip hop icon Rakim, R&B diva and soulstress Syleena Johnson, gospel powerhouse Le’Andria Johnson, and the Grammy Award-winning reggae band Third World. NJPAC will implement additional safety protocols to ensure the safety of attendees.
Daniela Palacios is a resident reporter with the Newark News and Story Collaborative. Daniela also founded Para KIDS! @parakidsbooks, a bilingual children’s book company determined to help children become or remain bilingual.