Walk down any block in Jersey City and you’re bound to hear the sound of music—bass pounding from a car passing, bells ringing from the church on the corner, a lone saxophone crying out along the avenue.
But listen closer and you might hear something else. Is that the sound of a blues band jamming in a cupcake shop? Classical musicians putting on a live performance of Vivaldi in the furniture store?
Jersey City may not (yet) be home to an elaborate music venue like NJPAC or Lincoln Center, but it hasn’t stopped our music scene from growing exponentially over the past few years. Jazz and drum beats flow out of Grassroots Community Space and The Art House downtown. The mic is open and ready at Moore’s Lounge uptown.
Unable to be contained in one spot, the world-class musicians of our city have instead permeated the streets, looking for any church, store, or café to fill with their sweet sounds. From hip hop to chamber music, Jersey City has it all—and it’s all over town.
While the visual arts have held solid ground in Jersey City for quite a while, the music scene was slower to take root. When Madrid-born Rebeca Vallejo arrived here 12 years ago, she says the scene was all but nonexistent as far as she could see. But as the jazz-flamenco vocalist/composer got to know her surroundings and her fellow artists, she realized there was a movement afoot.
“It’s evolved,” she says. “There’s a much stronger appearance of music everywhere. People are taking the lead on events.”
Unintentionally, Vallejo has become one of those people. In the interest of sharing her own genre of music with local residents, she recently collaborated with Beth Achenbach to take the lead on a special event close to her heart. A spin-off of Achenbach’s famed “Ladies on the Mic” series, a show last summer featured jazz and World musicians, spotlighting the incredible assortment of musical genres in the city.
“I think that there is a lot of potential for appreciation of this type of music in Jersey City,” says Vallejo. “Not everybody is just into rock.”
Indeed, the monthly series has already proved that the city is a tapestry of musical tastes. In response to the interest displayed by various rock, hip hop, and R&B acts, Achenbach coordinated a special event, Ladies that Rock, last fall to celebrate artists beyond the typical poetry and spoken word offering of Ladies on the Mic.
But those tastes don’t always extend throughout the neighborhood. Ladies on the Mic was suspended for a few months last year due to residents’ complaints about the fact that Made With Love, the bakery café which hosts the series, was holding live entertainment in its space. Although an entertainment ordinance has since been passed, in every section of town and every genre of music, the main struggle for Jersey City musicians seems to be finding a place to share their flavor with the masses.
“It’s definitely an issue,” says Achenbach. “It’d be cool if a few venues popped up where there could be a little thriving for both the business and the musician.”
Vallejo, who has performed at various spots in Jersey City, including Bar Majestic, Groove on Grove, and the steps of City Hall, agrees that finding the right place to play is the biggest concern. It’s especially important for folks like Vallejo who make their livings as musicians. But she maintains a positive outlook about the JC music scene.
“It’s doing nothing but growing,” she says. “It makes me have faith.”
Pocketful of mixtapes, heart full of dreams
While some are hard at work trying to create venues for music, other musicians are making their own scene wherever they happen to be. Take D. Jackson, a young, up-and-comer with hip hop swag, who set up shop in the middle of Newport Mall one day this summer.
“I’m just doing what I can and letting people hear me,” says Jackson of his guerilla marketing campaign. “I love how I sound in the mall, the acoustics are dope.”
The young singer’s love story with music is a familiar one—his singing career started in the church choir and he began to take his music seriously after a rousing audience response at a high-school talent show. But his trek to stardom since then has been one of pure Jersey City determination.
The 23-year-old has been independently promoting himself for nearly two years, popping up at New Jersey shopping centers and on the streets of New York City to croon at passersby with a pocketful of mixtapes. But while the strategy has been successful for him thus far, what he would like to see is more unity among Jersey City artists.
“There’s a lot of talent in Jersey City,” he says. “I wanna see people supporting each other instead of hating on the next person. We gotta work together.”
It’s an approach that Junior Metra is familiar with—the musica urbana artist promotes his mix of Spanish rap, reggaeton, and mambo by collaborating with local DJs and doing cross promotion with other artists on his independent label. Although he began rapping in the Dominican Republic, Metra said he started taking his music seriously in Jersey City because here, the possibilities seemed endless.
“Jersey City is like a path,” he says. “You’ve got different cultures, different people, but everybody’s intertwined.”
And, like D. Jackson, he isn’t waiting for someone to come along and promote his music for him. Instead of having his mixtapes lost at sea in a music store, he’s learned to bring them directly to the bodegas and the barber shops to reach his audience, which includes both Spanish and English speakers.
“Music speaks for itself,” says Metra.
Take it outside—or inside
The tenacious desire to bring music directly to the people isn’t confined to only one genre. In Jersey City, even classical musicians are taking it to the streets. Violist Amelia Hollander Ames never had any gigs here in her hometown until she created them for herself—and some fellow musicians—by founding Con Vivo Music. The collective brings chamber music to the nooks and crannies of Jersey City by playing free concerts everywhere from farmers markets and community centers to churches and local stores.
“There hasn’t been chamber music here,” she says. “I just really love it and I strongly believe that even if they don’t know it yet, people are hungry for it.”
The value in chamber music, according to Ames, is its portability. With simple equipment, they are able to bring historically masterful works to life as well as incredible pieces by living composers, some of whom live right next door to us here in Jersey City.
“Chamber musicians are so far outside of the mainstream,” she says. “We just realize we have to do it ourselves.”
One of Ames’s favorite places to play with Con Vivo Music is at Kanibal Home because the small home furnishings store is an unexpected venue full of “wonderful distractions.” But wherever they play in Jersey City, Ames says it is the people who make the music scene in Jersey City so beautiful.
“The audience is so amazing here,” she says. “Whenever we play it’s really a two-way thing, it’s not just the performers on stage. There’s such a great energy here. I can’t really put my finger on why, but that’s what makes it so rewarding.”
A space for sound
Despite eager musicians and enthusiastic crowds, there simply aren’t enough venues to display the musical cornucopia that Jersey City has to offer. But there is one venue that almost everybody agrees is the ultimate place to play in town right now—Groove on Grove.
The free weekly outdoor music series takes place at Grove Street Plaza throughout the warmer months. But what are music lovers to do when things get a little colder in Chilltown?
Beth Achenbach suggests that maybe the auditorium in Jersey City Museum should be opened up for music shows. Junior Metra, on the other hand, is hoping that the Boys and Girls Club will be opened for concert use as a great way to not only showcase music but also to provide a musical outlet for the city’s youth.
“One place run by the right people could make all the difference in the Jersey City music scene,” says Achenbach. But, in the meantime, she—like many other city residents—is just happy that so many musicians have taken it upon themselves to bring their music to the masses wherever they can find the space.
“One of the cool things is there’s so much going on in different places,” she says. “It’s kind of a good thing that you can’t decide where to go.”
It’s undeniable that music is everywhere in Jersey City, you just have to know where to find it.—JCM
Resources Con Vivo Music
Groove on Grove
Ladies on the Mic
Facebook Group: Ladies on the Mic
The Landmark Loews Jersey City Theatre
54 Journal Sq.