By Eric Preisler
The campus-community effort Trenton Makes Music, which documents the contribution of the Trenton, N.J., community to the music industry, started on Wednesday, Sept. 21, with the project’s first of four free public events.
Wednesday’s event featured guest speakers Denyse Leslie, a Presbyterian elder, business consultant and local historian; Daniel Spalding, New Jersey Capital Philharmonic music director and conductor; Arthur Finkle, former cantor and local historian; and Professor Craig Hayes, gospel musician and radio host.
The idea was dreamed up by journalism associate professor Kim Pearson and music associate professor Teresa Nakra.
“The whole project is about documenting the largely undocumented history of music in Trenton,” Pearson said. Her hopes were to bring people with a common history together, including scholars, experts, musicians and artists.
Part of what has made Trenton’s music history different than other cities was its integration of music education and performance at such a young age, according to Pearson.
“Even if you were a minor you could get permission to play in some of the local bars and clubs,” she said.
This led to teenagers gaining professional music experience from other musicians and learning genres like jazz and classical music before they were even old enough to order drinks from the bars in which they were playing. Considering Trenton’s small size, the city’s schools have better formal music education compared to most other places, and so Trenton audiences can be more critical toward artists than audiences in New York City and Philadelphia, according to Pearson.
Getting her musical career started by singing and receiving violin lessons from experts working within Trenton’s schools, Sarah Dash, a singer-songwriter from Trenton and a founding member of Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles, performed at the event. Dash has also performed with the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper and Laura Nyro, among many other famous musicians within the industry.
Even today, Trenton High School continues to produce great musicians. Dash said the school recently partnered with VH1, which has been providing the students with instruments.
“Everyone is born with a rhythm in the body,” Dash said, and she hopes that these events “encourage a much greater art movement.” Dash also felt that the event was “a useful vehicle for anyone interested in Trenton.”
In addition to enjoying Dash’s moving voice, Todd McCrary, an African American studies and liberal learning professor at the College, liked listening to the guest speakers.
“I could tell they were experts in their field and gained a lot of information,” McCrary said.
McCrary said a notable experience was hearing Finkle read excerpts from the “Book of Ezra” about blowing the ram’s horn, following a vision in Ezra’s head of how it would sound.
Pearson was pleased with the informed conversations by the guest speakers, as well as the receptiveness and captivation of the audience. She said that there was “a great cross-cultural conversation” and that she was “struck by the diversity of the audience.”
“My hope is that… it begins to create a platform for conversations across generations, across cultures,” Pearson said.
Those who wish to support the Trenton community and learn more about its musical history can attend the Trenton Makes Music events over the course of the fall semester, which will be held in Mayo Concert Hall.