You would probably think that New Jerseyans, being so close to the music capital New York City, wouldn't have much music of their own. Think again! New Jersey musicians have had an impact on the music world since colonial days. A number of American musical firsts happened right here in the Garden State.
- The first American composers were from New Jersey. In 1759, Francis Hopkinson, a Bordentown resident, wrote "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free." Also in 1759, James Lyon, a Newark minister, wrote an ode for his college graduation. Hopkinson did not write the date on his song, so we don't know which one came first.
- Hopkinson, who went on to fame as the man recognized as the designer of the American flag, had another national musical first in 1788. His book Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Forte-Piano is believed to be the first music book published in the United States.
- In 1796, William Dunlap of Perth Amboy wrote The Archers, the first professional opera in the United States.
- New Jerseyan Lowell Mason became the first American to earn a doctorate degree in music. Mason earned his Ph.D. from New York University in 1855. Known as the "father of American church music," he started the movement to add music to school curriculum in 1853.
- Jazz artist Willie "The Lion" Smith of Newark was the first African-American recording artist. He played piano for the song "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds in 1920.
Newark was a stop on the road to stardom for many jazz musicians. In the early 1900s, jazz legends practiced their skills in nightclubs like The Alcazar and The Piccadilly Club before going on to greater fame in New York City.
Many of the famous "Harlem Stride" piano players performed in Newark. A "Stride" player played with his left hand continuously to keep the beat. James Johnson of New Brunswick was among the first of these jazzmen. His most famous work is "The Charleston." Willie "The Lion" Smith, Thomas "Fats" Waller, and Donald "The Lamb" Lambert are among the other famous Newark jazz pianists.
Red Bank native William “Count” Basie is recognized as one of the most influential musicians in jazz history. Count Basie linked jazz to other kinds of music such as swing and the blues. An accomplished jazz pianist and bandleader, his most famous songs include One o’clock Jump and Jumpin’ at the Woodside. The Monmouth Arts Center in Red Bank was renamed Count Basie Theatre in 1984 to honor this legend.
Dizzy Gillespie was one of the great showmen in jazz history. Known for his puffed-out cheeks and upturned horn, the Englewood resident was one of the most innovative trumpet players in history.
Jazz musicians performed not only in Newark but also in many clubs throughout the state. Atlantic City was Newark's closest rival in attracting top quality performers. While not known for its clubs, Camden was home to the famous Victor Talking Machine recording studio, where many musicians made their early recordings. Today, jazz is still an integral part of New Jersey's music scene.
Singers and Symphonies
A Hoboken native helped tie the popular music of the 1940s and '50s to the music of today. Frank Sinatra went from teen idol of the 1940s to legendary status as arguably the most popular singer ever. His 1958 album Only the Lonely became the number 1 best seller and stayed on the charts for 120 weeks. Sinatra's music was a force in the Billboard charts all the way through the '90s when he celebrated his music with stars of today in his Duets albums.
One of the most famous singers of the early 1900s came from Princeton and attended Rutgers. Paul Robeson became the first soloist to sing a concert of black spirituals in 1925. Robeson, an accomplished student, football player, actor, and political activist, was best known as a singer for his bass-filled rendition of "Ol' Man River" in the play Showboat.
If you prefer instrumental music over singers, check out New Jersey's Symphony Orchestra . If you are interested in getting involved with orchestral music yourself, visit the New Jersey Youth Symphony.
Freehold's Bruce Springsteen was New Jersey's first rock star. His album Born in the USA sold more than 12 million copies. Springsteen is considered by some to be America's greatest living rock star. He continues to pack arenas whenever he goes on tour.
Perth Amboy's Jon Bon Jovi is another New Jersey rocker who has enjoyed great success. His 1987 album Slippery When Wet was that year's top-selling rock album. Bon Jovi has had continued success both with his band and as a solo artist.
As rap and R&B became part of the popular music scene, New Jersey played no small part in producing its stars. Lauryn Hill of South Orange began her musical success story with the Fugees. Her solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, won her five Grammies at the 1999 awards show, a record for a female artist.