About this Project

Trenton Makes Music: Cultural Identity, Memory and Economic Development

There are cities whose names seem synonymous with particular genres of music. Think of New Orleans and you hear jazz, zydeco and maybe bounce. Washington DC is go-go. Chicago is known for the Blues. Nashville is country.

Trenton, New Jersey might not come to mind. But it should.

From the fifes and drums that kept Revolutionary War soldiers in line, to the musical institutions that energized vibrant local communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, Trenton has been a city with a soundtrack heard around the world. The influential musicians coming from and through Trenton reflect aspects of the city’s history and culture that are seldom studied in relation to each other.

Start a conversation on a cross-town bus with local residents and you will hear how, from the 1950s through the 1970s, every black neighborhood had a band whose members grew up in the same church. Go to Chambersburg to talk to the singing waiters and you might hear about the old Trenton Opera House, and maybe an old-timer will relate how Richard Crooks came to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House, or how the Mikado was staged at the Carver Center in the black neighborhood back in the 1940s.

Decades later, locals Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx would grace the Met as members of Labelle. A steady stream of Trenton High School graduates went into the industry in the 1960s and 70s, scoring hits in their own right or playing behind such stars as David Bowie, the O’Jays, and Guns N Roses.

Deeply woven in those conversations, however, are references to larger social and cultural phenomena – migration patterns, tensions over civil rights, and economic investment and disinvestment. You will also hear echoes of Trenton’s economic and political history – the stories about the legends who routinely played night spots that proliferated when the factories were humming and the politicians were cutting deals over steak and bourbon at Pete Lorenzo’s. Talk to the R&B and jazz musicians, and you will hear references to longtime city music teachers Tommy Grice and Tommy Passarella. Talk to Tommy Grice and you will be led to consider the impact of the landmark Hedgepeth-Williams Supreme Court case on teaching assignments in the city. And that is just the beginning.

Unfortunately, much of this knowledge exists in ephemera and the fading memories of the participants. With limited human and financial resources, the Trenton Historical Society has made a sustained effort, but the records and artifacts related to the city’s musical history have not been systematically digitized and made publicly accessible. The authors of a 2011 inventory of African American historical sites in Trenton identified several locations critical to the story of Trenton music, but little content has been created to flesh out the stories behind the sites.

We are not the first to recognize the value of documenting Trenton’s music history.  Dave Hart of the Trenton Historical Society can tell you about the cadre of rockers who were inspired by the Beatles to pick up guitars. One of them, Maury Muehleisen, was on the scene only briefly, but achieved lasting fame as the musical partner and accompanist for singer-songwriter Jim Croce.  For years, Tom Krawiec has been curating vintage photos of Trenton’s Rock and Roll age at his Trenton Makes Music Facebook page, which is separate from this project.  Dr. james Day, Assistant Dean at The College of New Jersey, created the Trenton Soundscapes project with his students in 2011 as an ethnographic snapshot of the city’s musical cultures. The Soundscapes project was displayed at the Trenton’s City Museum at Ellarslie.


Our Goal

That’s where we come in. The goal of the Trenton Makes Music project is to document the stories of the people, places and policies that made Trenton a hidden treasure of the music world. We are collecting oral histories, mapping key locations and otherwise documenting this history as a resource for educators, city leaders and other interested stakeholders.

This project began as a first seminar class in the Fall of 2014. It has been growing depth and sophistication over time. In 2015, we were awarded a major grant by the New Jersey Council of the Humanities to support the construction of a digital archive with an interactive map of significant sites, a podcast series, and a series of public programs that will take place in the fall of 2016:

  • Trenton Makes Music 1: Classical and Sacred Traditions 
  • Trenton Makes Music 2: Blues and Jazz
    • October 12, 2016, 7-9 pm
    • Mayo Concert Hall, The College of New Jersey
  • Trenton Makes Music 3: School of Pop
    • November 16, 2016, 7-9 pm
    • Mayo Concert Hall, The College of New Jersey
  • Trenton Makes Music 4: Where Do We Go From Here?
    • November 18, 2016 12:30-1:30pm
    • Mayo Concert Hall, The College of New Jersey

We are also grateful to have the support and assistance of the College Music Society, Trenton Public Schools, Trenton Historical Society, Trenton’s Conservatory Mansion,  Laura Poll and her volunteers at Trenton Public Library, Beyond Expectations,Ms. Sarah Dash and our colleagues at The College of New Jersey. In particular, we owe thanks to the Don Evans Memorial Fund, the offices of the Deans of Humanities and Social Science and Art and Communication, the Cultural and Intellectual Community Program Council, the First Seminar Program the Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research, and the Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience research program.

The Trenton Makes Music Team, Summer, 2016. From left, Gabriel Salazar, Louinel Jean, Kim Pearson, Teresa Nakra, Christopher Tenev. Not pictured: Patrick Roderman. Photo taken at the Trentoniana Room of the Trenton Public Library.

The Trenton Makes Music Team, Summer, 2016. From left, Gabriel Salazar, Louinel Jean, Kim Pearson, Teresa Nakra,Sarah Dash, Christopher Tenev. Not pictured: Patrick Roderman. Photo taken at the Trentoniana Room of the Trenton Public Library.


Project director: Kim Pearson, Associate Professor, Journalism and Professional Writing, The College of New Jersey
Project co-drector: Teresa Marrin Nakra, Associate Professor, Music and Interactive Multimedia Departments, The College of New Jersey
Podcast and event host and co-producer: Sarah Dash
Web developer: Patrick Roderman
Designer: Gabriel Salazar
Audio Engineer: Christopher Tenev
Usability researcher and production assistant: Louinel Jean