New Jersey’s musical legacy reclaimed its place in Grammy lore Thursday with the opening of the Grammy Museum Experience in Newark’s Prudential Center, paying tribute to a history that includes musical greats like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Whitney Houston.
“For so many years, Newark has been overshadowed by Philadelphia and certainly New York,” said Bob Santelli, Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, citing the city’s jazz, blues, ragtime and Gospel traditions during the ribbon cutting ceremony, and recalling his own first concert experience – The Rolling Stones at Newark Symphony Hall. “All of this has made Newark the most important unheralded major music city in America, and from now on, they’re going to know about it.”
The Newark site is the East Coast’s first Grammy museum, joining existing locations in the Mississippi Delta, Nashville and the original Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, which opened in 2008. The museum features a mix of Grammy memorabilia and interactive exhibits designed to encourage creativity and musical experimentation.
Throughout the opening ceremony, the spirit of one of Newark’s brightest stars, Whitney Houston, who passed away in 2012, was ever-present. The ceremony opened with a performance by her mother, Cissy Houston, and the New Hope Baptist Church choir, which gave Whitney Houston her early music and singing experience. Sister-in-law Pat Houston pointed a butterfly out to the crowd gathered on the plaza outside the entrance had been circling in the air around the festivities, noting that the singer had loved butterflies.
The museum highlights the contributions by a variety of musical artists, with a large representation of jazz, pop and rap artists, and also focuses on the musical greats of Newark and the surrounding area, including Queen Latifah and Frankie Valli. Among the items on exhibit is a tuxedo worn by Luciano Pavarotti, which stands in a display along with shimmering dresses worn by Madonna and Ella Fitzgerald and a gold suit from Michael Jackson.
The Prudential Center, which opened 10 years ago, is just one of several downtown Newark venues to which the city has looked to spur an economic and cultural Renaissance. The center sits several blocks from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, home to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and last year, work began on a high-rise apartment building nearby on Theater Square.
“Newark has always been a town of music. Music is in our veins, from Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith to Sarah Vaughan to Picadilly Club,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, addressing the crowd. His parents made clear, he added, "that Newark was a place of jazz, of blues, of soul, of music, and it always should be that way no matter what we do. In fact, it’s music and art that’s going to bring our city back.”
While the museum includes display items such as Henry Mancini’s 20 Grammy awards, organizers stressed the educational component of the museum.
“I personally believe with firm conviction that at the center of a life well lived is the opportunity to enjoy arts and entertainment, and especially music, which I consider to be the most transcendent language that touches the hearts of people from all generations and all backgrounds,” said Colin McConnell, Chief Brand Officer of Prudential Financial, Inc.
The Recording Academy, through the museum and the Grammy Foundation, supports a number of educational initiatives, including the selection of a Grammy Music Educator Award that is presented during Grammy week. Musical education is also one of the goals of the Grammy Museum Experience Newark, said Recording Academy President Neil Portnow.
“Here’s a place to be entertained,” Portnow said in an interview following the ribbon cutting. “But it’s also education, because there are so many opportunities, particularly in the interactive exhibits that we have, to really drill down and see what it means to be a record producer, what it means to write a song or to sing on a record, what it means to be a manager or have a career in the arts.”
At one station, a visitor can don headphones and take a lesson on drum pads with Max Weinberg, drummer with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band; another stage invites singers to provide back-up for Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack.”
Carla Soto and Stefany Hernandez were among the group of students invited to the opening from Newark’s Arts High School. They said hey loved the exhibits, particularly the hands-on aspect.
“We like technology, we like to touch, we like to play with it,” said Soto, a senior, after taking a turn as a back-up singer on the Ray Charles exhibit. “That’s how we learn it, that’s how we have fun, that’s what makes music fun for us, so it really appeals to our age group, and us as musicians.”
The museum opens to the public Friday, Oct. 20. The Grammy Museum Experience is open Tuesday – Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm. More information is available at www.grammymuseumexp.org.
(A Tempo will feature the Grammy Museum Experience opening on an upcoming program later this Fall).