By Richard Skelly
NEW BRUNSWICK – Even with his higher profile in the jazz and blues worlds in recent years, guitarist, composer and bandleader Dave Stryker still makes time for regular performances with the New Brunswick Jazz Project. The West Orange-based Stryker, raised in Nebraska, has performed for NBJP shows since the non-profit group began its second year of hosting shows at places like the New Brunswick Hyatt Hotel and a number of restaurants along George Street.
Credit must be given for continuing these shows, and providing some level of normalcy for live music junkies like me, to NBJP co-founders Virginia DeBerry, James Lenihan and Mike Tublin. Now in their 12th year of presenting live jazz [and some blues] in New Brunswick, these three passionate, dedicated volunteers quickly obtained 501-C-3 non-profit certification and later on, earned the support of Mayor Jim Cahill, who understands the role the arts play in keeping a small city vibrant and economically healthy.
As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on into the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021, it was Mayor Jim Cahill and others in his administration who insisted on opening up a series of tents in the heart of New Brunswick’s commercial shopping district to allow for a range of different live music to continue here. And some federal pandemic funds didn’t hurt, either, to allow for vented tents with proper social distancing and mask wearing and propane heat during the winter months.
All of the New Brunswick Jazz Project shows since last fall have been held in front of the former Tumulty’s, now called Tavern on George. On Thursday April 15, Dave Stryker led his trio – with Jared Gold on Hammond organ and McClenty Hunter on drums – through two breezy sets of blues-based cool jazz, to a packed tent. This powerful trio has now been performing together for a decade.
Stryker played just a few tunes from his latest disc, “Baker’s Circle,” and took time to introduce or post-introduce most of the tunes he and his super-tight trio rendered. He opened the standard two set program as he always does, with a blues, “Blue Strut.” He freely mixed an assortment of originals with jazz standards from ‘the Great American Songbook,’ sans vocals, and included material from some of his more recent albums, including songs from the era of 8-track tapes, like Bread’s “I Want to Make It With You” and during the second set, the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” and later still, the Beatles’ “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.”
These days, Stryker is able to divide his energies between teaching jazz at Rutgers – thanks to his buddy, departed Vic Juris, who passed from cancer in late 2019 and could no longer continue teaching at Mason Gross School of the Arts – and pursuing live shows. Given the dearth of organizations and clubs presenting music of any kind, Stryker’s new teaching role during the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise, of course in retrospect, for it was only a few months after Juris’ untimely demise that New Jersey and the rest of the U.S. was thrown headlong into the throes of COVID 19 last year in mid-March. Not surprisingly, many of Stryker’s jazz guitar students and jazz studies students were at the April 15 show.
I was at the gig on a Thursday night—instead of over at WRSU-FM doing my usual Thursday night blues program – owing to a Rutgers’ Womens’ Soccer playoff game.
I first heard Dave Stryker at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center on New Year’s Eve 1988. He played on a gig with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and his bluesy guitar stylings were a central part of Turrentine’s blues-based, soul jazz sound. The concert that night also included classic R&B vocalist Ruth Brown and Little Jimmy Scott. The whole concert was organized by WBGO-FM, Newark’s public radio outlet, where I was working as a production associate at the time. I was struck by the “bluesiness” of Stryker’s guitar playing on that rainy, foggy New Year’s Eve. Later that night, I was even more awe-struck by jazz ballads singer Jimmy Scott, who had a good dose of classic R&B and blues in his voice and persona. Both he and Ruth Brown, a.k.a. “Miss Rhythm,” always approached the stage with a poise and dignity that was so old school, it was refreshing!
No wonder people like legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, rocker Lou Reed and actor Joe Pesci all loved Jimmy Scott!
Some years later at our Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festival, we were able to present a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to [then East Orange resident,] Jimmy Scott at Marine Park in Red Bank. The park was packed to the gills, and you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Jimmy’s then-wife was shedding tears of joy as a number of us onstage presented Scott with his Lifetime Achievement Award, including a ceremonial resolution that I wrote and presented him with for the occasion.
A short time after I saw Stryker with Turrentine that New Year’s Eve at Windows on the World, JSJBF co-founder Mel Hood had the good sense to book Stryker and his quartet at Jason’s, his jazz and blues club in South Belmar, in the early 1990’s. Once again, Stryker did not disappoint, and he stuck to his own musical path: blues-based jazz played with probity and grace.
In recent years, after toiling away in relative obscurity -– there are thousands of jazz musicians in the tristate area — Stryker has seen some real strides in gaining international name recognition with the success of albums that helped broaden the audience for what most people think of as jazz. Stryker has had great success on the jazz charts — and in actual record sales — with a series of recent albums, including “Eight Track,” “Eight Track II,” “Eight Track III,” “Strykin’ Ahead,” and his homage to his late, bluesy saxophonist and boss, “Messin’ with Mr. T.” Stryker, raised in Nebraska, began his professional career with Turrentine and spent a decade touring the U.S., Canada and Europe with the late tenor saxophonist.
For more on upcoming shows and artists being presented – for free – by the New Brunswick Jazz Project, see their website: www.nbjp.org.