MILFORD, N.J. — Those iconic images of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk playing in smoky, urban jazz clubs feel far, far away here in the rolling hills overlooking the Delaware River.
But the Mitchell Cheng Trio doesn't feel any less cool on this Sunday afternoon gig at a dairy farm. The joke among these jazz musicians, all in their early 20s, is that it's always better where cows outnumber the bulls.
"Better crowd out here," says pianist Cheng. "The people seem happier and are more into it."
"It's pretty cool that we can play jazz for a living," said bassist Adrian Moring. "That's the end goal for us."
The gracious Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse holds periodic pig roasts with live jazz — this one with a full lawn of 120 or so audience members, some of whom found out about the event from a community billboard while out birding.
Cheng's trio and a loose collection of jazz groups now ply their trade at venues like this in a thriving rural jazz corridor that reaches from Bucks County to the Poconos. This jazz scene's musicians have been known to contemplate the acoustic properties of hay bales. One regional group is named the Bovine Social Club.
It's an impressive pool of talent that can be worth traveling for, particularly during the forthcoming Celebration of the Arts Festival in Delaware Water Gap Sept. 8-10, a jazz fest now celebrating its 40th year and known by its acronym, COTA. "That's our Super Bowl," said bassist Moring.
One year-round magnet for jazz travelers is the Deer Head Inn at Delaware Water Gap, which has presented regular jazz since the 1950s and which has hosted Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz, and the late Phil Woods among others, many of whom lived in the area. The club even has its own line of recordings.
Another mecca for jazz in the hinterlands is Easton, Pa., a town of 26,000 with three jazz clubs. Regular weekend bookings at the Vault Brewing Co. in Yardley and here-and-there concerts in places such as the Villa Milagro Vineyards in Finesville, N.J., keep the jazz calendar jumping on both sides of the Delaware.
It's not entirely accidental that jazz musicians have migrated to this particular neck of the woods.
"I moved out to the Poconos in the 1970s and realized there was a big working music scene," says drummer Bill Goodwin, now 75 and a significant force in the COTA Festival. "Unless you're Pat Metheny or have subsidized housing, you can't afford to live in New York City. Here, you're 72 miles from New York, 90 miles from Philadelphia, and you can be at any of these places in a few hours, play, and even come back the same night — if you're young and crazy."
In 1981, COTA cofounder saxophonist Woods (who is heard on Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," among other recordings, and who died two years ago) sent out letters to local band directors to organize a youth group and band camp, which evolved into what is now the COTA Cats youth band. About 1,000 musicians have been members over the years. While still in high school, Cheng was playing gigs on the front porch of the Book Garden in Frenchtown.
Some go on to school — and then careers. Singer Najwa Parkins, raised in the Pocono Mountains and once a COTA Cats trombonist and vocalist, went to Temple University and settled in Philadelphia, where she has her own groups and is lead singer for Hot Bijouxx. Others go to the Manhattan School of Music — and don't stay away.
The small-town informality at Delaware Water Gap allows young musicians to have an impromptu master class with any number of jazz elders. "People like Mitchell … I've seen them from the beginning, and now they play at a super-high level," Goodwin said. Returning COTA grads include bassist Evan Gregor and wind player Jay Rattman, among the busier sidemen out there.
Still, it's a truly improvisational life. Any given musician is involved in several different kinds of bands. Cheng, for one, has a progressive rock group named Sailors that is recording an album this summer. Lead singer Patrick McGee doubles as equipment chauffeur for the Cheng trio.
This in a world where music is disseminated mainly through sound files. "It was bad enough when I was a kid," Goodwin said. "I'm glad I'm not starting out now." But the musicians continue playing music anyway.
Here is a partial list of jazz venues and events in the Bucks-to-Poconos jazz corridor. Their schedules are often subject to change.
Bookstore Speakeasy, 336 Adams St., Bethlehem, Pa. Jazz and blues — 1930s style — Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Information: 610-867-1100 or www.bookstorespeakeasy.com.
Central Jersey Jazz Festival, 6-10 p.m. Sept. 15, at the Historic Court House, Main Street, Flemington; 1-6 p.m. Sept. 16 on George Street in New Brunswick; and 1-6 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Somerset County Court House, Main and Grove Streets, Somerville. Information: www.centraljerseyjazzfestival.com.
COTA Festival (Celebration of the Arts). The three-day festival spreads more than 20 bands over three venues (indoor and outdoor) at Delaware Water Gap — plus an art show — Sept. 8-10. Tickets: $10-$45. Information: www www.cotajazz.org
Deer Head Inn, 5 Main St., Delaware Water Gap, Pa. Live jazz Thursday through Sunday. Last Monday of each month features the Water Gap Jazz Orchestra. Information: 570-424-2000 or deerheadinn.com.
Newberry's Yard of Ale, 622 Main St., Stroudsburg, Pa. Wednesday night jam session where local musicians drop in and sit in. Information: 570-517-0130 or www.newberrysyardofale.com
Sugar Hill Jazz House, 39 S. Ninth St., Allentown, live music most Fridays and Saturdays. Information: 610-841-5299 or www.sugarhilljazzhouse.com.
Shanghai Jazz Restaurant & Bar, 24 Main St., Madison, N.J., music Tuesday through Sunday. Information: 973-822-2899 or www.shanghaijazz.com
Vault Brewing Co., 10 S. Main St., Yardley. Craft brewery and restaurant with period flavor and no television, jazz on Friday and Saturday. Information: 267-573-4291 or vaultbrewing.com.