Ellen Ruck likes to buy earrings at Communiversity, the Arts Council of Princeton’s signature event, to be held this year for the first time on a Sunday, April 28.
She lives within walking distance of the downtown arts and cultural festival, which is convenient in more ways than one. Ruck is a member of the Blue Jersey Band, which will be among the many musical acts featured at this year’s event.
Living so close means Ruck can walk to the stage, perform, walk back home again and return in time for lunch and some shopping, and to take in the sights and sounds of all the other musicians who will be performing.
“I’m an expert shopper,” she jokes. “Every year I buy earrings or a scarf or both. I usually go back to eat, and I listen to other people play because maybe they would want an audience too.”
Ruck plays guitar with her husband Frank, who plays the mandolin and banjo, and Mike Sutton, who plays bass. The trio plays “gypsy jazz,” inspired in part by the music of Django Reinhardt, although their catalog also features swing and bluegrass.
The Rucks first performed at Communiversity in 2006, when their group was called Extradition. As Blue Jersey Band they keep a busy schedule. On April 20, they’re scheduled to participate in the New England Folk Festival in Mansfield, Mass., and they are also the house band for Princeton County Dancers Contra Dance, regularly held at the Suzanne Patterson Center.
The Rucks have been married since 1989. They met at an “open stage” event at The Nassau Inn in the early 80s. Each was a part of a two-person group playing at the hotel. They got to talking, and decided they’d go to Frank’s house to practice a piece for four that they could play at an upcoming open stage.
But when that night came, only Frank and Ellen showed up. Eventually, they started dating.
“At that time, I had an apartment and child (Aaron, now 30) in East Windsor. He lived in Princeton,” she says. “So he would come over. I had a little balcony and we played on the balcony and we were very good. My neighbor called me the next day and said, ‘Keep this one.’ We’ve been doing this music thing ever since.”
Ellen Ruck describes herself as the band’s agent, manager and sound engineer Frank Ruck works at the University Medical Center of Princeton in the IT department. But like all who perform at Communiversity, the Rucks (along with bass player Mike Sutton) are serious musicians. Ellen Ruck detailed the band’s practice schedule, which is onerous. The living room of their home is like a studio, with sound equipment, speakers, microphones and monitors.
“I think the best thing (about Communiversity) is that all the people love it,” Ruck said. “This band loves being loved. We love when people listen. We’re so thankful that people are sticking around and coming out and listening.”
Another familiar face at Communiversity is Princeton native Tom Stange. Stange, 56, won’t be performing at the festival this year, but he has played at many of them as a member of various musical groups, including the very first one in 1971, when he was just 14.
In recent years, Stange has played Communiversity as a member of the band the Shaxe (“Shakes”). The Shaxe play original music as well as covers of bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers.
As a high schooler, the saxophone player was a member of the Fordham Road Blues Band. Back then, Communiversity was called simply the Art People’s Party.
“We played at the steps in front of Nassau Hall,” he said. “I just remember it was a great day and it was very crowded, even then. Of course, by today’s standards it was not very crowded at all, but there were a lot of people on the green.”
With crowds approaching 40,000 people now, Stange said he’s even had to change the way he gets around on the day of the festival.
“A couple of years ago, I thought I might be late to get on stage because I was down on the bottom of Witherspoon Street, and it was so crowded I didn’t know if I would make it (to the top).”
One of Stange’s favorite memories of Communiversity came just a few years ago.
“I was walking back up Nassau Street and (recording artist and Princeton’s own) Chris Harford and The Band of Changes were playing at another stage,” he said. “I had just come off the stage with the Shaxe, and Chris brought me up with his band. That was a whole lot of fun because he’s got some really premier musicians playing alongside him. it was an absolute treat for me to be able to come off one set and go right on another.”
Stange is married to wife Mary, and has sons Will, a junior at Princeton High, and Jack, a freshman. When he’s not playing the saxophone, he works in commercial real estate management with National Business Parks.
“I love it,” he said of Communiversity. “I’m born and raised in Princeton, and still live here, so for me it’s one of my most favorite venues. I get to see everybody, get to see lots of faces that I may see only once a year.”
The Blue Jersey Band is online at bluejerseyband.com. The Shaxe can be found on Facebook.