Bigger and More Varied, Riverview Jazz Festival Returns for its Third Year

Montreal is home to the biggest jazz festival in the world. Like most good things, however, it started small: in its first planned year, it didn’t even launch. A few decades later, it’s huge, bold, and bossy enough to take over the city for several days every summer. The characters behind our own Riverview Jazz Festival aren’t dreaming quite that huge — at the moment, anyway. Nevertheless, with each return, the festival gets larger and more varied. What began three years ago as a modest undertaking at Riverview Fisk Park in the Heights is now spreading out all over town with a full week of events. Riverview Jazz Festival 2015 features a full day of music at Riverview Fisk Park on Saturday, June 6 — and another concert (billed as a Dixieland picnic) in the park on the following afternoon, with affiliated shows happening at the Brightside Tavern (June 1), the Corkscrew Bar and Grill (June 2), Razza Pizza (June 3), Madame Claude Cafe (June 4), and the Reservoir, the Statuary, and Moore’s Lounge (all on June 5 which is also JC Fridays).

Is there an appetite for all this jazz? Bryan Beninghove (pictured below) is betting that there is. The musician and co-organizer sees Hudson County as a sleeping giant — a place loaded with talented jazz players in need of a place to blow. Beninghove’s vision of jazz is a democratic and inclusive one, and his current groups demonstrate the breadth of his interests, and his musical flexibility, too. Manouche Bag, led by Mattias Gustafsson, also the owner of Madame Claude Cafe, (Beninghove contributes saxophone, melodica, and a genial presence) performs in the French gypsy style. Beninghove’s Hangmen, an eclectic outfit, draws from guitar rock, surf music, and film soundtracks as well as jazz. The Hangmen will perform at Riverview Fisk Park for the main event on June 6; Manouche Bag will play at their customary home — Madame Claude Cafe — on June 4. Beninghove is, as everybody who knows him will tell you, in constant creative overdrive, but he was kind enough to give us a few minutes to discuss a festival that is rapidly becoming a local institution. Maybe not Montreal sized. Yet.

Bryan Beninghove, RJO Co-Founder on sax at the 2013 Riverview Jazz Festival (center)

Bryan Beninghove, RJO Co-Founder on sax at the 2013 Riverview Jazz Festival (center)

A surprising number of great jazz musicians live in the Jersey suburbs, but hardly ever play in New Jersey. Have you found that to be true for Jersey City too? Are there lots of really good jazz players living here, but who don’t play locally? Is it part of the Riverview Jazz Festival mission to give those musicians an outlet?

Yes, very true. There are so many great musicians who live in the area and have to find refuge elsewhere to make a living. 2015 Riverview Jazz Festival artist Tony Malaby is a perfect example. He has lived here for years, but I don’t know if he has ever played in Jersey City. Europe to make money and NYC to play — that’s the formula.

There are gigs in Jersey City, but for the most part, they tend to pay at the amateur level — so that’s what you get. It’s hard for professional musicians to compete with amateurs who play for free and pack the club with all their friends. I’d like to see the pros back in the game. We have this enormous well of talent and we should tap it. That’s what Riverview Jazz is trying to do.

How did you select the artists for this year’s Festival?

Our main goal was to provide a little something for everyone. The last thing we want to be is exclusionary. We want to expose the audience to a wide-range of musical styles that those ordinarily classified in the jazz idiom. It’s not just one type of music.

For example, this year we have Jazz House Kids (amazing young musicians steeped in the jazz tradition), Malaby (a champion of NYC’s free music scene), Dave Stryker (a hard bop guitarist and WBGO fave), PVD & John Robinson (hip-hop with jazz overtones performed by an eight piece band), Swamp Cabbage (a gritty blues & New Orleans inspired duo), Beninghove’s Hangmen (instrumental surf-noir with a hard-rocking mentality), and Chino Pons & Grupo Irek (Cuba-son, Mambo). And we’re following it up with the Dixieland Picnic the next day. So everyone in your extended family is going to find something they like.

Will Tatz, RJO Co-Founder at the 2014 Riverview Jazz Festival (center)

Will Tatz, RJO Co-Founder at the 2014 Riverview Jazz Festival (center)

You’re one of the three people organizing Riverview Jazz — tell us about the other two! Are Bob Boudreau and Will Tatz jazz musicians, too?  How did you three get together in the first place? 

Well, it started two years ago when Will Tatz (pictured above), who was then my neighbor, got a few bands to play at Riverview Fisk Park. I ended up playing Mr. Wizard there, doing sound, playing in a few bands, procuring equipment and whatnot. It was a small little shindig, but we saw the potential. I then enlisted another neighborhood friend and music lover Bob Boudreau (pictured below). From there we started creating alliances with local businesses and organizations to bring great music to the area. RiverviewJazz.Org (RJO) is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and we have lots of great ideas for future events.

Both Will and Bob are amateur musicians of varying degrees and both are super involved in the community (Riverview Neighborhood Association, Washington Park Association, Farms In The Heights). All three of us lived in the Heights until I moved to Bayonne, but I still teach and work all over Jersey City.

Bob Boudreau, RJO Co-Founder at the 2014 Riverview Jazz Festival (left)

Bob Boudreau, RJO Co-Founder at the 2014 Riverview Jazz Festival (left)

Riverview Jazz has grown fast. Does the pace you’ve set ever worry you? Are you going to try to expand the Festival every year? 

Our goal with the expansion is to highlight the venues that support live music on a weekly basis. We want to let everyone know that there’s great music being made every night, around the corner, and these places and these musicians need your support.

This year we’ve managed to make it a week-long event on a shoe-string budget, but we hope as our organizational pockets grow, we’ll be able to do bigger and better things each year. We’re also excited that this year’s expansion includes a beer garden at Saturday’s festival!

You’ve been making music in Jersey City for more than a decade now. Do you feel that it’s changed for the better for local musicians?

I’ve been in Jersey City since the Subway Series [1997]. It’s incredible how much it has changed. I do miss the old artist vibe of the 111 and Uncle Joe’s days, but time marches forward. As far as whether the changes are good for local musicians — we’ll see. There’s definitely an influx of money, so we’ll have to see how that filters out. I am very excited to see new venues popping up, and that’s happening all over, not just downtown.

Riverview Jazz Festival 2014

Riverview Jazz Festival 2014

What’s new with the Hangmen and Manouche Bag? Have the groups evolved since the last Riverview Jazz Festival? Any new recordings coming out? Any chance of a Manouche Bag album?

Beninghove’s Hangmen has been recording constantly. We have almost 3 full albums on back log now & are currently writing a new all-surf album. We are looking forward to our new release Pineapples and Ashtrays to drop late summer/early fall, as well as our Zeppelin tribute album.

Manouche Bag is like a truck that just keeps rolling. We’re now up to 6 years [playing] every Thursday to a full house at Madame Claude Cafe. We stay busy this time of year with weddings and private work. We’re planning on finally getting into the studio this summer.

The Riverview Jazz Festival begins on June 1 and concludes on June 7, with the main event happening Saturday, June 6, from noon-7 pm, at Riverview Fisk Park, Palisade Ave. between Griffith St. and Bowers St. Admission is free. There’ll be an after-event at the Lincoln Inn, 13 Lincoln St. For more information, visit riverviewjazz.org.

JCI file photos by Mickey Mathis

Check out the week of events listed on the JCI Cultural Calendar!

A Week Of Jazz in Jersey City:

June 1: Riverview Jazz Festival Opening Reception and Jam Session
June 2: RJO All-Stars
June 3: Gypsy Jazz Jam at Razza
June 4: Manouche Bag at Madame Claude Cafe
June 5: Wild Jazz Adventure at the JC Reservoir
June 5: Elise LaBarge sings Edith Piaf at the Statuary
June 6: Riverview Jazz Festival
June 7: RJO’s Dixieland Picnic

Additional Coverage:

Tris McCall

For the past twenty years, Tris McCall has been preoccupied with the art, music, architecture, politics, and public culture of New Jersey. For the past fifteen, he's been writing and singing about the Garden State wherever and whenever he can. The Trespassers, his first novel, was released in 2012; another not-dissimilar book is on the way. You can read more on his blog trismccall.net.