Spotlight Gala 2018

The WA salutes women of jazz for NJPAC’s biggest fundraising event.


One of the soggiest of Septembers departed New Jersey with a glittery moon, a whisper of a breeze and not a raindrop in sight for the Women’s Association of NJPAC’s Spotlight Gala 2018.


Illuminated in vivid color against the clear night sky, the NJPAC campus became an Ozian destination for more than 900 guests, many of whom lingered outdoors to take in the scene on Chambers Plaza. The spaciousness of Prudential Lobby was enhanced by a dual-level tent that accommodated a dance floor, presided over by DJ Kiss, as well as a lounge for kicking back, networking or people-watching.


Social by design, serious by mission – this year’s Gala on September 29 raised some $2.3 million for arts learning and NJPAC general operations – the WA also recognizes Newark leaders whose accomplishments elevate education and quality of life in the community. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka appeared onstage to honor RWJBarnabas Health President and CEO Barry Ostrowsky, born and raised in the city, for his network’s front-running strategies for healthier living, as well as his devotion to the arts. Accepting the WA’s Founders Award, Ostrowsky began by acknowledging those founders for their philanthropy: Raymond and Patricia Chambers, Arthur and the late Patricia Ryan and Roy and Diana Vagelos.


Borrowing a lyric from the Tony Bennett tune “Because of You,” NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber reminded each donor that their generosity supported programs in schools and communities throughout the State; just one example cited was a free screening of Marshall earlier this month for hundreds of high school students who joined in a discussion with John Marshall, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


And then the music played.  A set lit in gold gave extra sparkle to the brass in Christian McBride’s Big Band, which accompanied a procession of jazz artists there to pay tribute to the music of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday and Newark’s “Divine One,” Sarah Vaughan.


Eighteen-year-old Nia Harris, an alum of NJPAC’s Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens and currently enrolled at Berklee College of Music, was first up for the women, who also included vocalists Cyrille Aimée (first winner of NJPAC’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition), Valerie Simpson of the great songwriting partnership Ashford and Simpson, and R&B supernova Alice Smith, singing “Tenderly” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” In addition to bassist and music director McBride, the headlining men were guitarist and singer Raul Midón, Southside Johnny (whose latest album is an homage to Billie Holiday), and former Yankee center fielder Bernie Williams, an acclaimed guitarist.


Celebrating the Music of Lena, Billie & Sarah featured more than a few musical surprises – McBride and Southside Johnny in “Billie’s Bounce,” a bluesy duet for bass and harmonica, Aimée scatting magnificently to that same bass on “Lullaby of Birdland” – but the most overwhelming was saved for last, when a fourth jazz legend was commemorated. Simpson led Smith and Aimée in a salute to the recently departed Aretha Franklin, concluding with “Ain’t No Way.”


The audience reconvened, undoubtedly humming bits of “Stormy Weather” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” for a foodie fantasia staged by NJPAC Events. Among the passed appetizers at the cocktail reception were skewers of glazed duck in sweet plum sauce, dragon fruit and tuna ceviche, and the centerpiece of the tent: a station of mini-“meat”balls displaying turkey meatballs with cranberry glaze, salmon balls with lemon caper crème fraîche, and more. The main entrée was a gourmet’s reimagining of surf’n’turf : petit filet mignon with peppercorn sauce incorporating Newark’s All Points West Whiskey, lemon grilled shrimp, wild mushroom polenta cake, and roasted artichoke and tomato. The dessert extravaganza occupying the greater part of the lobby in the later hours is traditionally the spot for mingling over wishfully non-caloric treats; diners kvelled over skewered marbles of poached pear dipped in zabaglione, popping them like gumdrops.  


Sharing in the evening’s festivities were NJPAC Board Chair John Strangfeld, WA President Marcia Wilson Brown, and Gala Co-Chairs Mindy Cohen, Vice President of the WA, and Kevin Conlin, Chairman and CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Prudential was the Gala’s lead sponsor.


To date, the WA has raised more than $51 million on behalf of the Arts Center, says Sarah Rosen, Managing Director of the WA.


“What began as a small group of women who banded together to embrace the idea of a New Jersey Performing Arts Center has become one of the most powerful forces in the State, advancing world-class artistry, a cultural home for our children, and the renaissance of Newark.”


Oct. 1, 2018