This article was originally published in the July 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
It may not look it, but this dull-looking low building on Passaic Street in Trenton is the real deal for jazz in New Jersey, and its weekly Saturday afternoon jazz sessions — like the July 7 appearance of Philadelphia saxophonist Josh Lee — is attracting attention near and far.
Let’s start close to home. In 2016 students in Princeton University’s Trenton Project film-making course discovered the Candlelight and created “Keeping Jazz Alive.” Part of an ongoing series of university-created documentaries about the capital city, one scene in this short focuses on — in the words of one recent critic — “original” jazz saxophonist Julian Pressely, who puts the venue in perspective:
“The Candlelight is one of the last old jazz joints. As long as you put on a good show, (the audience) loves you. As long as you play close to the roots, play some funky type of thing, and play the music creatively, the people will love you. Very few places exist like this today. This reminds me when I started in this business in the early 1970s,” says Pressley, who has been playing at the Candlelight since 1995.
Farther away is the online Oxford American Magazine — the self-described “Magazine of the South.” One of its reporters arrived in Trenton in 2017 and aptly summed up the Candlelight: “You might mistake the concrete-block building with the redbrick skin at 24 Passaic Street for a storefront church, there to offer God’s word to a struggling neighborhood. A closer look reveals another kind of church — a storied watering hole that becomes a jazz club once a week, at the ungodly time (for jazz) of 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon.”
What drew the magazine’s attention was in part the involvement of Louisiana-born and now Trenton homeowner Yusef Komunyakaa. The noted Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a regular Candlelight attendee. In fact, his poem “The Candlelight Lounge,” framed and on the bar’s wall, captures the spirit of the scene: “All the little doors unlock/in the brain as the saxophone/nudges the organ & trap drums/till an echo of The Great Migration/tiptoes up & down the bass line.”
As Komunyakaa told the Oxford reporter, “Almost all the players curated at the Candlelight can hold their own in a cutting contest. But a few with tones that burn into the brain and linger there are (guitarist) Monnette Sudler, (the late pianist) Sid Simmons, and the (Trenton-born pianist) Orrin Evans Quartet . . . I’m not really listening with my mind. I’m listening, I hope, with my body.”
While the music and poetry are evident, the place’s real soul is with Candlelight owners E.C. (aka Eulogio Cruz) and Valerie Bradley.
“It’s my personal passion,” says Bradley about jazz at the Candlelight. “I picked up a saxophone when I was in Junior One School when I was 12,” he says explaining how jazz entered his life as a kid growing up in Trenton.
A student with the late well-known area teacher and saxophonist Tommy Grice —brother of prominent bebop saxophonist Gigi Gryce, who spells his name differently and appears in the historic 1958 “A Great Day in Harlem” jazz photo — Bradley says he selected the instrument that became the musical love of his life to escape the arranged marriage his mother had planned for him with the piano.
The sax “is something I really enjoyed,” he says. “I played around with a couple groups and loved it, but I had a family and had to make money.”
Born at home in Trenton in 1954, Bradley was one of 10 children. His father died when he was young. “My (oldest) brother and mother raised us. She did domestic work. She cleaned the synagogues of Trenton. She also provided rooms and meals to renters — a rooming house. She worked all the time. I never saw her sleep until she was very old.”
The work was complicated when the family home was taken by the city under eminent domain in order to build the ill-fated Kingsbury Towers, and the family had to resettle elsewhere in Trenton.
Then there was an unexpected twist. “I won a scholarship to go to Westtown School, a boarding school in Westtown, Pennsylvania. It was part of ABC, the A Better Chance Program created by (Motown Records founder) Berry Gordy.”
His selection, he says, was connected to his ability to read quickly but not for general academic reasons. “My mother didn’t want us to read comic books,” he says. “She wanted us to either read something educational or the Bible. So I had to hide and read comic books. The comics helped me learn to read. I could read upside down if I had to. I took exams and scored high.”
And while he was given a scholarship and lived two years at the Quaker-run school, it wasn’t for him. “I didn’t adjust well and left at the end of my junior year.” He had also fallen in love with a young woman and was going to be a father. “I couldn’t concentrate,” he says.
Following his Baptist mother’s directive, “You’re going to take care of that baby,” Bradley took the GED and entered Mercer County Technical School to learn a trade.
And while his time at trade school led to an eventual career in construction, it also brought him into a legal conflict. “There were a lot of problems with minorities in trade schools,” he says. “The union refused to let me go for my third year of apprenticeship. I followed up with an Economic Employment Commission complaint and the job site got violent. They couldn’t force me out, and it got to the point where I was afraid.
“My brother had just entered law school in at the University of Minnesota. So I applied to go to trade school there. When I got there the union was willing to have me, but there was also the opportunity to go to college and work on campus. So I did that. They had a family support program for students with children. I was accepted in June and went to class in September.”
Looking back on the experience, Bradley says, “Having children at such a young age isn’t easy. For economic survival I needed to work and be productive for my children.”
It also wasn’t easy staying away from jazz, and he picked up the sax and played at various clubs with a band called Aristocratic Funk.
Then there was another twist. His college professors learned about his legal complaint in New Jersey and “made my course study my law defense.” He says it eventually helped him build the arguments to win the case.
Meanwhile, in 1977, Bradley’s mother became ill and he returned to New Jersey to be near her. Able to work on union projects, he began to rebuild and created Trenton-area connections. In 1979 he began his own construction company, E.C. Bradley Brother. By 1981 the company was working on fulltime union contracts.
However, he says there were still problems related to race and employment and was engaged with affirmative action. But, he says, he also found support from contemporary political leaders: Trenton Mayor Arthur Holland, Governor Tom Kean, and Assemblyman John Watson.
‘The musicians come from New York and Philadelphia, people who work in the main jazz clubs. That’s what (the Candlelight audiences) want to hear.’
The results included jobs with the statehouse, New Jersey Department of Transportation, and on the building of Interstate 95 as well as the passage of state and federal laws supporting minority and women-owned businesses.
After 38 years of the construction business, Bradley says, “My body was beat to pieces. A lot of things I did with a shovel and a sledge hammer. Construction beats everyone up.” And Bradley was receiving therapy for back problems.
At the same time he heard from his accountant that another client, Bill Powell, was planning to sell his business of 37 years: the Candlelight Lounge.
“It was not planned,” Bradley says of his purchase. The building had been once a whites-only bar called the Downtown Club and was now a Trenton jazz spot.
“It was income, it would keep me busy, I could play my saxophone the way I wanted to since I was a child, and I could heal,” Bradley. “I had accumulated enough money. It was a surprise acquisition.”
After paying $350,000 for the property and putting in $70,000 renovations, Bradley began a new career and continued a Trenton legacy — one that draws one of the most unusual audiences in the region.
As Oxford Magazine notes, “The Saturday jazz crowd tends to be educated professionals, middle-aged or older — knowledgeable listeners with discretionary income.” Listed occupations included a lawyer, artist, corrections officer, and a data analyst.
“You wouldn’t believe the people who come,” says Bradley. “A lot of different cultures are coming here because of the jazz and the music. That keeps us alive. But it’s very interesting. We meet people from other countries.”
The “we” Bradley talks about are several. First is Valerie, who showed up one day years ago. The couple has been married for seven years. Though she still works for the state full-time, she is a Candlelight fixture known for both her bartending and for cooking the soul-food buffets available at most sessions, especially the Saturday afternoon jazz sessions.
She also cooks for special events, including the Candlelight’s Thanksgiving dinner sent to senior citizens around the city, the Passaic Street block party, and the annual July Fourth barbecue.
“Without Valerie, there wouldn’t be any food. She works hard. It’s a lot,” says Bradley.
Another person is Larry Hilton, the Trenton-born saxophone player who also promotes visual artists, spearheads the Saturday matinee jazz schedule, and is one of the lounge’s supporters known as the Jazz Disciples.
In a previous interview, Hilton says, “The musicians come from New York and Philadelphia, people who work in the main jazz clubs. That’s what (the Candlelight audiences) want to hear. They want to hear the people they read about in the paper and hear about on the radio. This keeps people from having to go to New York or Philadelphia. It is very costly to go to New York. You got the turnpike fares, gas, tunnel, and parking,” he says.
Hilton says musicians are selected because he has heard them during visits to clubs in New York or Philadelphia or patrons make recommendations. “Most of the guys I know, so I call them up and ask them if they want to work. We pay everybody the same thing, a flat fee. They play from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. A lot of time the guys have other gigs. In New York they don’t start ‘til 10 p.m. That gives them time to get back.”
In addition to a roster of jazz artists in the tri-state area, sometimes there is the unexpected. “We just had two musicians from Venice, Italy,” says Bradley. “The pianist is internationally famous, Massimo Farao (who has made more than 200 recordings and performed as part of the Nat Adderley Quintet and Archie Shepp’s Just in Time Quartet). He was with bassist Nicola Barbon.”
In addition to the jazz matinee, the Candlelight has added two other music sessions: the Tuesday night jazz jam and the Thursday nights blues. Both run 6 to 10 p.m., have a $5 entrance fee, and offer free food.
Another new element is a patio where patrons can step out from the main building into a lounge area with a shipping container made into an art gallery and where interested artists can talk to Bradley about having works on view.
Yes, Bradley says, there have been downs: There is an ongoing struggle to overcome Trenton’s physical and social problems. For a time a local newspaper would publish a stock photo of the Candlelight to accompany a random street crime that had nothing to do with the establishment.
Yet there are some “ups,” as well. Bradley talks about opening communication with local residents, business owners, and various community circles and groups to help them understand what the Candlelight is doing and how they can help improve the area. “We have the Passaic Street Business Association and have meetings and get the word out. It is beneficial for all business. Some people who come to the bar now get a haircut or get their car fixed next door. It’s kind of working.”
Some other indicators that things are working: Bradley just received news he was the recipient of the Jazz Ambassador Award from Jazz Bridge in Philadelphia and Valerie received a nomination for a State of New Jersey Volunteer award.
Asked about his daily hopes, Bradley gets real, smiles, and says, “I just look forward to the event of the day, preparing in advance and glad when it is over.”
Jazz at the Candlelight Lounge, 24 Passaic Street. Saturdays, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. $10 cover, $10 drink minimum, and free buffet. Tuesday night jazz and Thursday blues sessions, 6 to 10 p.m., $5.