A salute to the arts: NJPAC honors Newark legend Sarah Vaughan

Gala raises millions for performing arts center whose reach and impact in city is about to grow tremendously

On a night when everyone tried to describe the indescribable — the impact the late, great Sarah Vaughan had on jazz (and music) as we edge closer to the 100th birthday of Newark’s favorite daughter — famed musical director Chrisitan McBride did it best.

Every singer that has come after her owes a little bit of their success to her, McBride told the crowd at the annual NJPAC Spotlight Gala, held Saturday night in Newark.

Indeed, Vaughan’s talent is undisputable — and her four-octave range generally is considered greater than any other singer. Ella Fitzgerald often paid homage to a singer known as “the Divine One,” or, simply, “Sassy.”

It’s why Vaughan’s legacy, which began at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Newark in 1940s, has lived long after her death in 1990 — and why the New Jersey Performing Arts Center devoted its biggest night to her and jazz. For, while there may never be another Vaughan, there will be others that show the world the impact the arts can have.

Therein lies the greater purpose of NJPAC.

The center, with its world-class acoustics, brings some of the greatest acts of our day to the state. But it is NJPAC’s commitment to help discover, train and nurture the stars of the future that sets it apart.

Charles Lowrey, the CEO of Prudential Financial and a co-chair of NJPAC, called the center a place where artists from around the world could reach the people of New Jersey — and where generations of children would get to see live performances.

“One of the most magical things about this place is that those same children will eventually get to perform here on this stage in front of audiences,” he said.

They will because the more than $2 million already raised this year will go to the hundreds of free “arts-in-the-park” type events NJPAC puts on each year to show how the arts are good for soul — and to programming that helps nurture the next generation of talent.

And that’s not all.

John Schreiber, the CEO of the arts center, always uses the event to thank those who helped create NJPAC (its four founding fathers, Gov. Tom Kean, philanthropist Ray Chambers, Newark Mayor Sharpe James and inaugural CEO Larry Goldman) and update the who’s who crowd of attendees of what is coming next.

In 2024, NJPAC hopes to break ground on what will become an arts district — complete with 330 rental units in high-rise and low-rise buildings, retail, restaurants (including a food hall) and cultural spaces.

Those cultural spaces will be key.

There are plans to expand Chambers Plaza, which sits in front of the center, into a full-fledged park area (complete with performance areas). And plans to create the Cooperman Family Arts Education and Community Center.

“This is a seven-day-a-week home for everyone from babies to older adults to learn, to grow, to be entertained and to be inspired,” Schreiber said.

And NJPAC, long an anchor for the rebirth of Newark, also is taking its efforts beyond the arts center.

In 2024, NJPAC also expects to break ground on Lionsgate Newark, a 250,000-square-foot TV and film studio that will provide new jobs for new workers and opportunities for high school and college students to apprentice and learn about the industry, he said.

Top honors for Merck

Merck was given the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Founders Award, its highest honor, in recognition of the role the company has played from the first day of planning through the support of then-CEO P. Roy Vagelos — continuing on with Ken Frazier and others. Merck has contributed more than $6.5 million over the years. And continues to volunteer its time. Executive Carmen Villar, who currently serves as a co-chair, accepted the award for the company.

“I cannot underscore enough the importance of the work of NJPAC,” Villar said. “Merck has been an early supporter of the arts and wellbeing programs; with deep commitment to health equity comes commitment to more equitable access to the arts.”

Returning in 2024 will be the North to Shore Festival. Last June, the inaugural three-week festival, held in Newark, Asbury Park and Atlantic City, drew nearly 250,000 people to more than 200 events.

And, while North to Shore attracted some big names, such as Halsey and Santana, Schreiber was just as excited about the scores of local artists who got to perform.

The next Sarah Vaughan?

That remains to be seen. But NJPAC got a taste of what it could be Saturday night.

Its A-list jazz performers included Gregory Porter, Wé Ani, Cyrille Aimée and Jazzmeia Horn, a young performer who — back in 2013 — took top honors at Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Festival competition.

The four performers all did individual songs, backed by McBride and his ensemble of top jazz talent. In the end, they closed the show in a way that only jazz can — by coming together for one final jam.

Schreiber said the show was symbolic of what jazz — and arts centers —can teach.

“These days, when our friends in Washington find it hard sometimes to really hear each other, I’m reminded of what Wynton Marsalis told me a long time ago about the power of jazz,” he told the crowd.

“Wynton said jazz is the most democratic of musics. In order for great jazz to get created, band members need to collaborate, respect and truly listen to each other for the greater good.”

That’s what NJPAC does each and every day.