University Operating Status

Jam Session

Rigoberto González, left, and Mark Gross at the New Jersey  Performing Arts Center.
Rigoberto González, left, is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Rutgers University–Newark, and Mark Gross is the director of jazz instruction at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Photography by John Emerson

City Verses: Elevating Voices through Jazz and Poetry is an initiative that blends two art forms to amplify the diversity of voices that often go unheard. Drawing on the resources of the Creative Writing Program and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University–Newark and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), City Verses will invite a broad swath of residents of all ages to create, perform, and hear “jazz poetry” in the city’s schools, libraries, parks, and cultural venues. The three-year program is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Poetry and jazz are natural partners for helping people express themselves, says Rigoberto González, director of the Creative Writing Program and one of the project’s leaders. “People are connecting to spoken-word poetry because they want to have a voice,” González says. “They’re finding that the topics they want to discuss”—like race, justice, inequality, and poverty—“can be expressed through poetry.” And jazz’s improvisatory nature and rhythm complement the musicality often found in poetry, he adds.

Mark Gross, director of jazz instruction at NJPAC, is leading the music side of City Verses. In one component of the initiative, jazz musicians and poets will collaborate with students in New Jersey public schools in Newark and East Orange. He hopes  that the curriculum will boost students’ self-confidence, their pride in their  community, and respect for others. “Art transforms lives,” Gross says, adding that working together to create something new will open the students’ minds to the experiences and perspectives of others. “It’s not just about them,” he says. “They will have to listen to others.”