For almost 30 years Shanghai Jazz in Madison New Jersey has been sought out by both musicians and fans of various jazz styles. Tom Donohoe is the club’s third owner and protector of its heritage. One of his regular headliners is Adrian Cunningham, who usually fronts a trio composed of veterans from his popular “Professor Cunningham” unit because as the professor explained, “They know my material, and we get along pretty well.”
While he does often venture into its tri-state region for some special occasion, only this Jersey spot regularly lures Cunningham out of the city. So, if you wish to avoid a cover charge while enjoying good food and drink priced below New York’s norm, and be treated to a true virtuoso on alto, clarinet, and flute, who is also a talented vocalist and a great entertainer, this is the spot you must plan to visit, as we frequently do.
The professor explained why he does it, “It is the only gig that is worthy of our time and traveling that far to do. When you go to a venue you get to know if someone appreciates the music and the musicians. Tom really loves music, and respects the musicians. That is an acute thing for us, playing for a venue and feeling welcomed and that someone really appreciates what you do.”
His performances always delight as he ranges far over the American Songbook, his own often impish compositions, and great New Orleans Jazz from Sidney Bechet to Fats Domino. On a recent gig, he was ably supported by two of his long-time veterans, Alberto Pibiri on piano, and Jim Robertson on bass. They somehow performed 16 gems of varied styles and tempos, because he magically delivered both the perfect amount of entertaining chatter while filling the evening with plenty of the music we wanted to hear.
The selections roamed from Nat Cole’s “The End of a Beautiful Friendship,” Oscar Peterson’s “Cakewalk,” Frankie Ford’s “Alimony,” Bert Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” and Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” A special treat was his own “Aussie Blues,” a selection that he has yet to finalize or record as the lyrics continue to evolve on the bandstand. He prefaced it with his own rules for composing blues. (1) You wake in the morning, because, as he explained, if you don’t wake, you have greater problems than the blues. (2) Your baby must have left you, and (3) you need a drink.
One memorable engagement that generated that need for a drink occurred last September 1st. That night, like so many others, we ignored the storm warnings and went to the club to enjoy Cunningham’s gig, because repeated weather alerts had failed to materialize. As patrons and the trio arrived at the club, the remnants of Hurricane Ida arrived from the south. That evening, all was normal inside the club, but the killer storm outside created tornadoes, flash floods, and impressive devastation.
Cunningham recalled that after the gig, “Jim and I went to the train station to catch the Jersey Transit back to Manhattan. It was pouring down and we huddled under this little awning. It was insane. We started checking our phones and saw that things were not good. Our 10 pm train didn’t come and we waited another half hour and that one didn’t come. We said, ‘We are in trouble. Something has gone wrong.’ We looked for Ubers, and couldn’t find any. We talked to our buddies back in New York, and they said, ‘All the roads are flooded. You’re not going to be able to get back.’ Then we said, ‘Okay, we are really screwed.’
“I’d been in touch with Tom to let him know of our situation. He said, ‘Keep me posted.’ I called him back and said, ‘We are in real trouble.’ He said, ‘I’m at the station now waiting downstairs in my truck.’ We put our stuff in the back and got in, as he said, ‘All right guys, I got a hotel for you, don’t worry about it, you are staying on my dime.’ He takes us to this beautiful hotel, and they put us up for the night. The next day we still couldn’t get a bloody train, so we got an Uber for 150 bucks back to Manhattan which was insane.
“Tom is a beautiful human being. He really looked after us, above and beyond. That was the last thing I expected. He had no responsibility, but he looked after us. To be really taken care of like that, I don’t know of any other club owner who would do that. In New York, they would kick you out on the street and watch you drown in the gutter.”
The trio is due to return in early April, after Cunningham returns from visiting Australia. You can learn more at shanghaijazz.com/music-schedule.