Newark’s Jubilation Choir Celebrates 20 Years of Grammy-Worthy Gospel

The 75-member Jubilation Choir includes members from as far away as Virginia. They’ve sung alongside the likes of Dionne Warwick and Ray Charles. Courtesy of Kasi McKoy

There’s a reason Newark’s Grammy-winning Jubilation Choir has sung alongside heavy hitters including Dionne Warwick, Queen Latifah and the late Ray Charles. Those who buy a ticket to the gospel group’s 20th anniversary show June 22 at NJPAC won’t leave wondering what that reason might be, says the Rev. Dr. Stefanie Minatee, Jubilation’s founder and artistic director.

The Rev. Dr. Stefanie Minatee founded the choir in 1999. Courtesy of Kasi McKoy

“When you see Jubilation, you see the sincerity on people’s faces, and you hear the soul in their voices,” says Minatee, a Newark native who lives in Union. “Even if it’s a secular song they’re singing, you’re going to hear that they actually feel the message of the music.” 

Jubilation’s reputation as New Jersey’s most decorated community choir dates to 1999, when Minatee, known to all as Rev. Stef, auditioned more than 300 singers from the tristate area for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at NJPAC. She selected 120 from that group, including Queen Latifah’s mother, Rita Owens. The group went on to sing that year with Shirley Caesar, another gospel giant. In 2002, Jubilation was tapped as the choir on Ray Charles Celebrates: A Gospel Christmas Album. In 2010, the choir earned a Grammy with Latifah and other artists for a track on the compilation album Oh Happy Day. In between, there were gigs with the likes of Isaac Hayes and tours to places like Japan. This year, Jubilation joined Warwick for a pair of songs on an as-yet-unnamed forthcoming album by the 78-year-old Orange native.

Despite the lofty credentials, the now 75-member choir, with members from as far away as Virginia, has stayed humble, says Minatee. At the anniversary show, they will offer a tribute to Owens, who died in 2018, and present a scholarship to a deserving young artist from a historically black college or university. Latifah may attend, says Minatee, and honorary chairpersons, including gospel great Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) and Warwick, as well as Governor Phil Murphy, may also appear.  

“This will be a time for celebration,” says Minatee, who is still recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2015. “We’re grateful to God for all of it.”

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Film and Music Align in Asbury Park

Wyclef Jean, a longtime Jersey resident who was raised in Newark, performs at last year’s festival. Photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival

Long before $400-a-night hotel rooms and $8 mocktails, rock ‘n’ roll was the only thing keeping Asbury Park from falling into the Atlantic Ocean. The musicians, venues and legendary shows buoyed the waterfront until gentrification swooped to the economic rescue.

Asbury Park has changed, but music remains a key attraction. The Asbury Park Music & Film Festival spotlights the role of music in film, and how both mediums intersect. From April 25–28, the City by the Sea will host dozens of films, musical performances and Q&As all tethered to the powerful influence of sound.

“When I was growing up around Asbury Park, it was the epicenter of film in the state of New Jersey,” says Tom Bernard, co-chair of the festival and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “There were several iconic venues in Asbury, including the Paramount Theatre, where people flocked to see their favorite motion pictures.”

On the music side, Bernard reminds us that Asbury Park is “the home of the Jersey Shore sound” popularized by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny, all of whom, Bernard says, have appeared at the festival in the past.

In addition to good sounds, the festival is committed to good works. Proceeds are directed to programs for underserved children in Asbury Park. The programs provide the children with music education, instruments and networking opportunities.

“This is the only festival I know of that is purely committed to a charitable cause,” says Bernard. “That’s what attracted me to it five years ago and continues to inspire me today.

Purchase individual event tickets—or the VIP Boardwalk Pass ($1,000)—through

Here are a few highlights:

Screening: “Echo in the Canyon”; live performances by Jakob Dylan, Cat Power, Jade and special guests.

April 25, 7 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

The festival opens with the New Jersey premiere of “Echo In The Canyon,” a star-filled documentary about the historic Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles. After the screening, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) and other artists will perform songs by the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and the Beach Boys.

Concert: Gary US Bonds’ Unusually Big Birthday Bash

April 26, 6:30 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

The R&B/rock legend, who has collaborated with many notable Asbury musicians, celebrates his upcoming 80th, backed by the veteran Pittsburgh band Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers.

Screening: “Creem: Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine”

April 27, noon
House of Independents

An insightful documentary on Creem magazine and the bold staff who would become the rock stars of music journalism, followed by a Q&A with director Scott Crawford and deejay Rich Russo.

Clarence Clemons Courtesy of the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival

Screening: “Clarence Clemons: Who Do You Think I Am?”

April 27, noon
Paramount Theatre

The New Jersey premiere of a new documentary on the life of E Street Band sax legend and songwriter, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons. The film features interviews with Bill Clinton, Joe Walsh, former bandmates, friends and family. Followed by a Q&A with director Nick Mead, producer Joe Amodei and special guest Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence.

Screening: “The Bruce Springsteen Archives”

April 27, 3:30 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

Exclusive screening of never-before-seen clips from the Thrill Hill Vault, presented by Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime film director and archivist.

Screening: Bob Dylan Center Presents: “Dylan Archives IV”

April 28, 11:30 a.m.
House of Independents

The Bob Dylan Center, a cultural heritage group dedicated to the study and appreciation of all things Dylan, presents never-before-seen archival footage of the American folk icon.

Screening: “Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n’ Roll”

April 28, 3 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

This new documentary traces the decline and comeback of Asbury Park, and features Springsteen reuniting with original band members to play a now legendary concert at a sold-out Paramount Theatre. Springsteen trades guitar licks with a group of 11-year-old rockers who suggest that the town’s best days might lie ahead. The film hits theaters on May 22.

Additional highlights include a Friday-night concert by Yo La Tengo; screenings of films about David Crosby, Miles Davis and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio; and a live interview with the Farrelly Brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”; “There’s Something About Mary”).

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Maestro Gustavo Dudamel: How Music Heals and Unites Us

During his residency at Princeton University, maestro Dudamel grabbed his violin and joined members of the Trenton High School orchestra. Photo courtesy of Nick Donnoli

Even if you don’t know Schubert from Chopin, you’ve likely heard of maestro Gustavo Dudamel. The Venezuelan conductor and violinist has appeared on everything from Sesame Street to 60 Minutes. Music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel, 38, is completing an academic year as Princeton University’s first artist in residence.

Dudamel will lead two performances this month with the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club: April 26 at the university, and a free concert April 27 at Patriot’s Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton. The April 26 show quickly sold out. For Trenton, 1,800 tickets will be made available April 1 at or by calling 609-258-9220.

Empathic and shaggy haired, Dudamel is one of the most charismatic and communicative conductors since Leonard Bernstein. When not hanging with friends like architect Frank Gehry and director Alejandro Inarritu, he guest conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and other famous orchestras. “I believe in music’s unique power to unite,” he says by e-mail. “Especially in these challenging times, art can help remind us of the values we have in common.”

Dudamel, the son of musicians, grew up in Caracas. “When I conduct an orchestra of young people, I see myself there, among them, working, playing, fighting, laughing. That is where I come from,” he says. “It takes me back to my roots in El Sistema and to the ideals that made me who I have become.”

El Sistema is a system of teaching music to kids that started in Venezuela and has spread worldwide, including more than 200 programs in the United States. Its key tenet: anyone can join, even poor students who can’t afford an instrument. “El Sistema promotes access to music for everyone,” Dudamel says. “That is its great strength and why it offers such hope for thousands of people in hundreds of countries, from all walks of life.”

Since arriving in Princeton in September, Dudamel has introduced the spirit of El Sistemo to Mercer County. He ventured from the ivied campus to work with student musicians in the Trenton Music Makers program and in Trenton public schools. His dream for his residency, he says, is that “through music, really through all the arts, we can make connections between different disciplines at the university and between the young people of Princeton, Trenton and the surrounding community.

“An orchestra,” he adds, “is a perfect example of a society. A hundred people, each bringing their own talents, perspectives and histories to work. They play an instrument, which is part of a group, which is part of a section, which is part of the whole orchestra.”

The positivity, musically and otherwise, begins with listening. “As a conductor, I see it as my most important job to encourage the musicians to listen to one another,” he says. “That is how we make the best music together. Rather than try to drown one another out with their own voices, if political leaders would learn something from our model of the orchestra, I think our world would be a much different place.”

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Retiree Enjoys Career ‘Encore’ as Beatles Scholar

Sixties music aficionado Vinnie Bruno amid his collection of Beatles paraphernalia and books. Photo by Matt Furman

Vinnie Bruno remembers the first record he ever bought: “She Loves You” by the Beatles, released in the United States in September 1963. He purchased the single for 57 cents at Woolworth’s in Jersey City. “I still have it,” says Bruno, but that’s just the start of what the Woodbridge resident has in the way of Beatles anecdotes and ephemera. 

The 65-year-old former college-level business and math teacher has become something of a post-retirement rock star, lecturing on the Beatles and other 1960s acts on both coasts. His audiences, he says, are primarily “adults over 50 reliving their past,” but also teens and young adults who have turned their own parents on to the Beatles.

Marketing himself as a “Beatles scholar and ’60s rock historian” (, the married father of two has a repertoire of 44 programs, including 25 on the Fab Four. Based on thousands of books and articles he’s read, his 2 1/2-hour PowerPoint-guided presentations on the music and mystique of the Beatles are punctuated with anecdotes of his own encounters with each member of the band. “I have tons of information on them rolling in my head,” he says. He also gives talks on Bob Dylan, the Who, the Beach Boys and the British Invasion.

Bruno’s memorabilia collection includes two original lithographs by John Lennon and two by Paul McCartney; a signed-leather-bound book of George Harrison songs; and a CD signed by Ringo Starr. His memories include at least two dozen shows by the individual Beatles. Alas, he never got to see the band itself.

In March, Bruno starts a 10-week course on the Beatles at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Rutgers (OLLI-RU) in Freehold; a seven-week Beatles course at the Princeton Adult School; and a five-week Beatles course for the Union County College continuing-education program. He’ll also teach a 10-week course on American pop, and a five-week course on Bob Dylan (starting in April) at OLLI-RU in Highland Park. Also coming up: a Rolling Stones talk April 12 in Tenafly and September 27 in Monroe Township.

“It requires a lot of work, but it’s fun,” says Bruno. “It’s become my encore.”

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