Shenel Johns portrays Sarah Vaughan in Free Bird at The Jewish Museum of New Jersey.

NEWARK, N.J. (February 3, 2020) — Continuing a long tradition of honoring and celebrating the legacy of musical icon and Newark native Sarah Vaughan, NJPAC joined forces with Newport Festivals Foundation to present a new biographical drama, Free Bird: The Early Life of Sarah Vaughan. This half-hour theatrical performance premiered at Newark’s public schools in January, and will continue to tour schools in the city through the end of this month.

“There never was–and probably never will be another–singer with a voice like that of Sarah Vaughan,” says Newport Festivals Foundation co-founder and legendary jazz impresario George Wein.

“Whether performing an a cappella rendition of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ or scatting a Charlie Parker tune, the magnificence of her sound was incomparable. We are proud to underwrite the Sarah Vaughan Jazz Assembly produced by our friends at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center,” Wein says.

“Given her endless impact in the world of popular music, her enduring status as one of Newark’s favorite daughters and NJPAC’s association with her name and work through our annual staging of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, it seemed only right to commemorate ‘The Divine One’ in a way that will further her legacy for the next generation of New Jersey artists,” says John Schreiber, the Arts Center’s President and CEO.

The relationship between NJPAC and Newport Festivals Foundation predates both institutions’ founding, to John Schreiber’s nearly two decades of work as mentee and producer for George Wein’s Festival Productions, Inc. Today, Newport and NJPAC share a vital resource in acclaimed jazz musician and historian Christian McBride, who serves as both Newport Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director and NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor.

Similarly, the relationship between Schreiber and Vaughan is also a longstanding one. Early in his career, Schreiber — then working at Festival Productions — worked directly with Vaughan as her road manager during a series of tours which took them across Europe together. “Forty years ago, when I was a skinny kid bickering with an airline clerk in Dubrovnik to make good and sure Sarah got her first-class seat on the aisle, I never imagined that decades later I’d be working at a place like NJPAC, where teaching generations of young people about her legacy is part of our DNA,” Schreiber recalls.

“I hope that the students who get to meet Sarah for the first time through this show are as knocked out by her as I still am.”

Actress and author Myxolydia Tyler’s script for Free Bird, based on the acclaimed Elaine M. Hayes biography Queen of Bebop, recounts the early years of Sarah Vaughan’s career as a 21-year-old vocalist striving for artistic independence and success. Performers for Free Bird have been selected primarily from the alumni and staff of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program.

Some performances of Free Bird are scheduled to take place in locations traditionally associated with Vaughan’s personal history, including Newark’s Arts High (on February 5).

NJPAC’s Arts Education Programming regularly brings the inspiring, life-enhancing power of the performing arts to children across Greater Newark. The Arts Center’s education initiatives reached more than 110,000 children and their families during the 2019 season. Schools often bring students to NJPAC’s theaters to see live performances where, in many instances, those performances are the first live theatrical experiences for the children. In a bid to better serve these communities, NJPAC also regularly transports the arts directly to children at their schools through semester-long performing arts residencies and assemblies like the Free Bird project, facilitating the excitement of live performing arts with a much lower barrier to participation. Free Bird, built around the life and success of a Newark icon, fits squarely into the Arts Center’s primary arts education initiatives by focusing on delivering experiences in jazz, poetry, hip hop, dance, filmmaking and theater to area children through performances, residencies, Saturday classes and summer camps.

Performers participating in Free Bird include:
Shenel Johns
A performer since age 14, vocalist Shenel Johns (Sarah Vaughan) has developed her own eclectic style, counting among her influences Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, and Sarah Vaughan. She has shared the stage with music royalty including Curtis Fuller, Hank Jones, Dionne Warwick, and Sheila Jordan. Returning recently from Qatar, where she served a musical residency at Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, Shenel next honored Billie Holiday as part of JALC’s New York production of Billie and the Boys, and has performed a tribute to another of her idols, Lena Horne, at New York City’s famed Appel Theater. A native of Hartford, CT, Shenel has studied performance with such jazz legends as Rene McLean, Jimmy Greene, and Nat Reeves. She graduated from the Jackie McLean Institute at the Hartt School of Music with a bachelor’s degree in music management.

Jarrett Walser (Drummer / Apollo Host & Club Owner) began studying in the Jazz for Teens program in 2001 and remained with the program for seven years. After his studies at NJPAC, he continued to pursue his passion for music at Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he received his B.A. (2012) and M.M. (2017) in Jazz Performance. When not performing, Jarrett loves teaching and is on staff at NJPAC and His & Her Music as an instructor, has private students, and conducts master classes for young children. He is also the Jazz Band Manager for the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Band, a 17- member swing ensemble whose single mission is to preserve the big band jazz music of the 30s and 40s as well as playing compositions of today’s modern composers.

Justin Jones (Saxophonist / James & Billy Eckstein) is a graduate of William Paterson University in his home state of New Jersey. Jones has studied under saxophonists Bruce Williams, Vincent Herring and Mark Gross. Growing up surrounded by the intricate sounds of classical, jazz, gospel and reggae, Justin’s ongoing musical journey has always been in pursuit of that. As a result, some of the world-renowned artists that he has performed with include Winard Harper, Yasiin Bey (AKA Mos
Def), Talib Kweli, Funk Master Flex, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Theo Croker. Jones is a staple in the New York City music scene and has been seen playing at several major clubs and venues such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blue Note, Carnegie Hall, Smoke and Minton’s. Jones plays saxophone, clarinet and flute. When Justin isn’t on the bandstand, you can find him composing, arranging and producing as a Teaching Artist for Jazz House Kids & NJPAC.

Eric Neveloff (Bassist / Saxophonist / Copacabana Announcer & John Kirby) is a multi-instrumentalist from West Orange, New Jersey. While in high school and middle school, he attended the NJPAC Jazz for Teens program for 5 years. Eric attended Rutgers, and William Paterson University as part of the jazz studies program. After his first year of college Eric was invited to tour the country with the doo-wop group, Little Anthony and the Imperials. Since then he has been working regularly with NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program as well as New Jersey Youth Symphony’s jazz division.

Michael Parker (Pianist / Preacher / Mr. Vaughan / Georgie) is a lifelong New Jersey resident born and raised In Paterson. With 30 years of experience countless performances and recordings under his belt, he currently plays for the New Hope Baptist Church under the musical leadership of Gospel recording artist Professor James Hall. He also has a weekly residence at the world-famous Cafe Wha? In NYC. Michael is also the Pianist for the NJPAC Assembly Character Rocks!

Myxolydia Tyler
Playwright Myxolydia Tyler is an established actress and playwright from NYC. Has been part of productions with Center Stage in Washington D.C, McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, NJ; Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle, WA among other regional theaters.

About Newport Festivals Foundation
Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. was founded in 2010 to maintain the legacy of the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals, which were created by George Wein. The Foundation aims to expand the impact of its Festivals through educational programs that celebrate innovation while preserving the deep traditions inherent in jazz and folk music. This is accomplished through assembly performances at public schools, instrument donations, funding for after-school programs and more.
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