By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN – There was a time when jazz musicians would hop a train from New York City and in little more than a half-hour would be setting up inside the Cornerstone restaurant on New Street in Metuchen.
“It was a jazz joint, it was known in Central Jersey as a place where people would go to hear some good jazz,” said Bob Diken, co-chair of the Metuchen Arts Council.
“It was kind of a smoke-filled local restaurant, it was a good place and a lot of jazz players would come through, being near New York, a lot of them would stop by. It had a bit of a vibe to it,” he said.
Lynne Mueller, vice president and secretary of Friends of the Metuchen Arts Council, also credits the eatery for establishing the town as a hub for jazz.
“For years the Cornerstone restaurant had jazz and Metuchen became known as a jazz spot because of the Cornerstone,” said Mueller.
“Many great musicians played at the Cornerstone; it’s very easy to get to because it’s one or two blocks from the train station. So New York musicians could come down. So that, plus the one-evening jazz festival at the high school, that was it.
“Then several years ago I got involved and we started doing even more events, so we have now our Cornerstone Series, that’s once a month on a Sunday, and then we really expanded the jazz festival.”
Since the Cornerstone closed in 2019, Mueller and Diken have worked together to fill the void and keep live jazz local.
Together, they created the monthly Cornerstone Jazz Series at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse on Sundays; host jazz brunches at The Greek on Main; and founded the Metuchen Jazz Festival, with Mueller tapping into her wide network of contacts to garner support. For the past two years, the festival has taken place at the Metuchen High School auditorium.
Now Mueller and Diken are celebrating a major milestone with news the Metuchen Jazz Festival has been added to the lineup on Sept. 11 for the regional Central Jersey Jazz Festival 2021.
This is due to the work of New Brunswick Jazz Project to make Metuchen a part of it.
Other festival locations include: Flemington on Sept. 10, New Brunswick on Sept. 11 and Somerville on Sept. 12.
“This year as we started planning it, we got a grant from Middlesex County that was going to support us this year for the expenses related to the festival,” Diken said. “Because of Lynne’s connections, and mine as well, we know the people at the New Brunswick Jazz Project quite well and we’d been keeping in touch with them.
“We helped them a little bit with promotion. They help us a lot more on promotion and they’ve been fun to be with and learn from.
“But, long story short, we talked and they do a Central Jersey Jazz Festival and my dream for the arts council always is to reach more people and not only be just for the people of Metuchen but bring other people in.
“That’s how they support our town, support our restaurants and support our businesses.
“I said maybe we should reach out to our friends in New Brunswick and see if they would be open to it. And lo and behold, we did get positive news that they were going to add us to the lineup this year,” he said.
“It was really cool news,” Diken said. “They had to check in with other partners in this event. New Brunswick does it, Somerville, Flemington – and now Metuchen.
“So our jazz fest is embedded in this new event and we’re pretty excited,” he said. “Now there’s a platform for getting more people to see what we’re doing, maybe trying to expand the live jazz in Metuchen.”
Mueller, who has more than 30 years of experience producing jazz concerts in New York, including as chair of the Jazz Commission at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, known as “The Jazz Church,” is also focused on bringing more music to the Metuchen community and in connecting with regional presenters.
“I have supported the New Brunswick Jazz Project for quite some time,” she said. “I’ve been over to hear their programs quite often. This year we asked if Metuchen would be allowed to join, and we fit in because everyone else is at a different time. We only have a small festival with one major headliner so we do it on Saturday night. New Brunswick does theirs on Saturday afternoon, Flemington is Friday night and Somerville is Sunday afternoon.”
“We’re a little town of about 13,000 or 14,000 people, but we’re ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ ” she said. “We love our town. People move here and they don’t move away, they just move to different houses.”
Supported by a grant from Middlesex County, the Metuchen festival on Sept. 11 will feature a Family Jazz Education Class from 6 -7 p.m. led by harpist Riza Printup and members of the Marcus Printup Quintet.
According to the website, “Jazz Storytime with the Printups” is a multi-media, interactive educational program geared for audiences of all ages to engage with one another through the music of jazz.”
A performance by Marcus Printup, a member of the trumpet section of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, accompanied by the quintet will follow, 8-9 p.m. Quintet members are Willie Jones III, drums, Sean Conly, bass, Mika Nishimura, piano, and Emilio Modeste, tenor saxophone.
In addition, the Metuchen High School Jazz Ensemble will perform under the direction of Band Director John Messenger.
According to Mueller, plans are for the program to take place outdoors at the downtown plaza, depending on weather and lighting conditions, since a movie screen will be used as a part of the program. If lighting and/or weather do not permit, the program will be moved indoors to the high school, 400 Grove Ave.
Attendees are encouraged to bring seating and picnic or purchase food in the downtown.
Notification of any changes will be made by noon on Sept. 11.
Visit metuchenartscouncil.com or call 732-632-8502 for more information.
For information on the Central Jersey Jazz Festival, visit www.centraljerseyjazzfestival.com/