Tonight, I’m doing dinner and drinks at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ. I remember stumbling on this best kept secret while in the area a few years ago, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. The venue is typically busiest on Friday and Saturday nights, but snagging a reservation during the week means the space is less crowded, with more seating options closer to center stage.
The story of how this hidden gem got started is quite interesting. Owners David Niu and Martha Chang opened Shanghai to the public in the summer of 1995 and, over the next twenty-five years, have seen their labor of love hit the list of “Top 100 Jazz Clubs in the World” (Downbeat Magazine), and garner a host of accolades from The New York Times, Star Ledger and Zagat. In 2017, Thomas Donohoe took over as proprietor, leveraging his expertise in the hospitality industry to further enhance the space and dining experience, while positioning it for continued success in the next quarter century.
In addition to the outstanding Asian fusion cuisine, one of the things I love most about Shanghai is the exposure I get to musicians I wouldn’t ordinarily bump into. Touching stage tonight is Madison, NJ resident Jerry Vezza, an accomplished pianist, band leader and musical consultant who has rubbed shoulders with such icons as Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck and Harry Connick, Jr. While most (myself included) would probably think his collaboration with these heavy hitters is limited only to their music, Jerry has also made a name for himself as a concert piano technician. And his versatility doesn’t end there!
Jerry performs tonight with Hal Slapin on bass and Pete McDonald on drums. If you’re like me and have never seen him perform live, here’s a snippet of Jerry and his quartet performing at Shanghai a few years ago with Grover Kemble. Boy am I in for a treat!!
Been to any cool jazz spots you’ve fallen in love with? Shoot me a note and share yours.
I first fell in love with jazz in the mid-90s with that first CD I bought at a flea market. I hadn’t been introduced to the legends yet. As a teenager, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker weren’t even on my radar. I was into more contemporary stuff like Kenny G and Dave Koz. I was one of those kids who always had a cassette in the stereo. I’d tune the radio to the only station in Philly that had Sunday jazz brunch – live from Zanzibar Blue. You could hear plates and glasses clanking in the background. People laughing; bits of conversation. Then applause as someone took the stage. There have been many; Grover Washington, Jr., Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Chuck Mangione. And even though I was listening over the airwaves and not seated at one of those quaint tables, there was a sense that I was still very much a part of the experience.
Jazz has this uncanny ability to be different things to different people. For me, it gave me the chance to dream, to realize there was more to life than what existed inside the four walls of my childhood home. It helped me realize it’s okay to march to the beat of a different drum, whether one has a choice in the matter or not. So, listening to those Sunday morning brunch sessions at Zanzibar when I should’ve been studying was my way of flipping the bird to the status quo (who needs algebra anyway?).
I’m grown now with kids and a job and bills. Dreaming these days often takes a back seat to necessity. I spend so much time in the rat race that I often forget to take a step back and chill out. But when I do, nothing takes me back to that safe space like the music. It might be Eric Darius’s “On A Mission” while I’m cleaning the house or Kyle Eastwood’s “Songs from the Chateau” while I’m cooking dinner. Every once in a while I might just pause for a minute and let the music wash over me. Before I know it, I’m a teenager again on the floor of my bedroom, cassette loaded, finger on the record button.