Besides the Constitution and baseball, there’s arguably nothing more American than jazz. With origins that cross and merge throughout the country—from the storied streets of New Orleans to the Lincoln Gardens on Chicago’s South Side to Manhattan Prohibition speakeasies to the Roseland Ballroom—jazz spans the complicated matters of race, economics, and history in creative and joyful ways that precious few cultural forces can.

Verve Records impresario Norman Granz famously said, “Jazz is America’s own. It is the music that grew out of a young and vigorous melting-pot nation. It is a product of all America.” The soundtrack to the 20th century, jazz provided the upbeat backdrop to the giddy Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the big-band swing that lifted the spirits during the Great Depression and World War II, the be-bop that mirrored the stepped-up peacetime pace, and the troubled musical echoes of the civil rights era.

These days there are precious few places to watch jazz musicians wield their brand of magic, and even fewer in the Princeton area; however we need only look to nearby Trenton for the real deal. Considered by legendary saxophonist Julian Pressley to be “one of the last old jazz joints,” the Candlelight Lounge produces a Saturday matinee “Jazz Masters Series” whose caliber of talent gives the greater metropolitan areas a run for their money.

The Candlelight, located at 24 Passaic Street, is housed in its original brick building across from the D&R Canal and nestled between a neighborhood barbershop and an auto repair shop. The parking lot’s music-inspired mural and the hand-painted canopy over the front door are the only hints of the vibrant character that lies within—but don’t let the unassuming facade fool you. Taking advantage of its on-the-way location to jazz gigs in Philadelphia and Manhattan, some of the country’s best musicians have graced the Candlelight stage and continue to do so most Saturdays.

Just two owners have helmed the Candlelight since it opened in 1967: William (Bill) Powell and, since 2006, E.C. Bradley, who continues the legacy as Candle Light Events, expanding the calendar to include weekly events like the Jazz Series, and a Thursday Blues Night. Bradley, a Trenton native and accomplished saxophonist, bought the establishment after retiring from a successful 38-year career running his own construction company.

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The lights are kept low at the Candlelight Lounge bar; E.C. Bradley holds court.

A vital part of the series is Larry Hilton, a close friend of Bill Powell, whose far-reaching connections have brought decades worth of accomplished performers to the Candlelight. Shows are supported by both the venue and by the Trenton Jazz Disciples, a group of jazz aficionados organized by Hilton, who has always had his finger on the pulse of what audiences want to hear: musicians from New York and Philadelphia—the ones from the main jazz clubs, the ones in the paper and on the radio. By bringing these artists to Trenton, the Candlelight crew lets audiences avoid the costly trip to the city. No matter their pedigree, musicians are treated with deference, and democracy rules. “We pay everybody the same thing: a flat fee,” Hilton says. “They play from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. A lot of the time the guys have other gigs. In New York, they don’t start till 10 p.m. That gives them time to get back.” The Candlelight’s legacy has been supported by the likes of soul-jazz bandleader Jimmy McGriff, trombonist Clifford Adams, saxophonist Joe Ford, Hammond B-3 master Dan Kostelnik, and many more.

If Hollywood were going to make a movie about modern-day jazz joints, you couldn’t cast it better than the Candlelight does on a Saturday. Robin is in charge of the door, greeting guests with a sweet smile, advising of the cover charge and how delicious the buffet will be later. Wearing a path between the kitchen and the dinner setup is the unsung hero of the place, Bradley’s wife, Valerie, who creates from scratch the delicious soul food that’s served at the breaks. Smoothly tending both bar and band is Bradley: part well-spoken gentleman, part stern barkeep. Looking as if he were right in his own living room, he greets customers with warmth—a handshake, a gap-toothed smile, a “Hey, Frank!” and “What can we get you?”—all while keeping an eye on the needs of the musicians.

It takes a minute for the eyes to adjust, but when they do, the front-to-back bar, the framed photos of musicians, the icicle lights edging the stage all come into focus. The crowd trickles, then mushrooms, into a potpourri of jazz fans: attorneys and artists, Gen X- and Y-ers, Trentonians and out-of-towners, many leaning up against the stage to chat with the performers as they set up. A recent visit revealed a seasoned foursome featuring Frank Catalano, a Grammy-winning saxophonist from Chicago; Lee Smith on bass, Aaron Graves on piano, and drums handled by Craig McIver. Among the four of them, they’ve performed with the pedigreed likes of The Delphonics, Kenny Burrell, Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins.

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Clockwise, from left: keyboardist Aaron Graves; saxophonist Frank Catalano; bassist Lee Smith. 

Around 3:30 p.m., the first note is finally struck and the energy in the room sharpens. Patrons sit up a little straighter on the bar stools, and attention turns to the stage. Soon, classic jazz hallmarks sting the air: the calls-and-repeats, the tasty fills, the on-the-fly improvisations. If you listen closely, you can hear the instruments talk to one another, and feel the players fall into the pocket. You might recognize the song, you might not, but the performers’ experience shows. Before you know it, the first set ends and appetizers begin; Valerie’s home-cooked buffet is laid out after the second set (musicians eat first, of course). Don’t worry, there will be dessert, too, after which the music winds down. By 7:30 p.m., you can make it an early night, if you’d like, or stay and soak in the good company.

“Jazz and blues are American music, Black American music, and our American heritage. Jazz and blues are creativity and the free imagination,” Bradley says. “Local artists, musicians, and professionals come to musical events to unwind, and to snatch a groove by being in the moment and around other like-minded folks all appreciating the energy of both musician and listener. There is a moment when the lightbulb of imagination causes a masterpiece to sprout in concept, [and] we watch the artist scramble [for] a napkin to preserve the image [until there’s] a moment in the studio.”

Despite the magic of the music, owning and operating a music venue in downtown Trenton does present its challenges. Bradley cites the ever-growing list, beginning with the city itself, whose heyday, worthy of its “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” moniker, seems over. Robust manufacturing of everything from ceramics to cigars to elevators has all but disappeared, taking a large tax base with it. However, as is the case with many troubled towns, it’s the arts that persevere, with graffiti art bringing color to the streets, organizations like Artworks and Trenton Circus Squad providing safe haven for local youth, and events like the ultra-popular Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market attracting thousands of patrons from all over the tri-state area. Neighborhood pockets like historic Mill Hill have had much of their shine restored; Cadwalader Park is in the middle of a $2.4 million renovation. But even with these bright spots, Trenton is still working to pull itself back into prosperity. Bradley has guided Candle Light Events ably through some fairly choppy seas and has been recognized by Trenton’s City Council for its numerous community efforts. The Trenton Council of Civic Associations awarded Candle Light Events “Small Business of the Year” for 2010 and 2018, with recognition from Congress, the N.J. Senate, the N.J. Assembly, and the Mercer County Administration. Bradley is proud and rightfully so. “The Candle Light Events Jazz Family is an emerging group culture that appreciates great musicians, while giving support in meaningful ways of volunteering to keep live jazz and blues alive.”

How can we keep the bright flame of The Candlelight and the tradition of jazz alive in our area? “We need music lovers to brave the stigma of a poor community, attend a show, bring a friend, and have an open mind,” Bradley says. “Because at Candle Light Events, there is a family feeling that is soothing, as well as a great atmosphere that makes it easy to cross cultural lines, network, or simply enjoy good jazz music event, with tasty food to boot. You will be surprised and amazed.” The next generation of jazz musicians also has a proverbial match in its hand. Many students from Princeton University and other local colleges ebb and flow through The Candlelight, catching a rare opportunity to sit in with the pros, until they graduate and move on in their careers. “These young people get to perform with seasoned professionals,” says Bradley. “[Many are living] on budget fumes, but they know there is a free dinner [offered] to them when needed, as well as the opportunity to gain insight on their abilities from the pros who willingly observe, wince, or applaud, and then, maybe, critique the young future masters.” It’s with this respect for young and old artists that Candle Light Events continues its legacy as tireless historian and keeper of the flame, preserving jazz’s past and encouraging its future.

—Rae Padulo (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Fall/Winter 2019, Vol. 6)

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