NJ's new North to Shore Festival is in expert hands

Music comes in many packages, large and small.

It can be club-sized, theater-sized, stadium-sized. But the big bargain, in live entertainment, is the festival. Multiple acts, on multiple days. Sometimes on multiple stages, and in multiple cities.

Events like Newport, Woodstock, Coachella, Bonnaroo, The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, South by Southwest. And now, for the first time, the North to Shore Festival: three weekends, in three New Jersey cities, from June 4 to 25.

What could be more exciting than that? And who more likely than John Schreiber to pull it off?

"Being present at the creation of something like this is a great privilege," said Schreiber, CEO and president of Newark's NJPAC, which is producing the festival: in Atlantic City from June 4 to 11, Asbury Park from June 14 to 18, and Newark from June 21 to 25. Among the 100-plus attractions: Halsey (June 21 and 22, Newark), Carlos Santana (June 21, Newark), Demi Lovato (June 16, Asbury Park).

Pop-rock powerhouse Demi Lovato at the Stone Pony Summer Stage June 16.

"It's kind of a gift, being able to do this stuff," Schreiber said.

Experience preferred

He'd be the first to say that he's only one of many who made N2S happen. Credit must go to first couple Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy Snyder Murphy, who conceived it, NJPAC Executive Producer David Rodriguez, who curated the talent, and the raft of sponsors who are making it a reality: NJEDA, RWJBarnabas Health, New Jersey Manufacturers, Horizon New Jersey Health, United Airlines, PSE&G, NJ CRDA, and the State Division of Travel and Tourism.

But in this complicated recipe, the special sauce is Schreiber. He has, as they say on resumes, "relevant experience."

He is Mr. Festival — a man who probably knows more about this kind of vast, multi-platform event than just about anyone. "The beauty of a festival is the opportunity to be surprised, to be delighted," he said.

The man he apprenticed under, the late George Wein, pretty much invented the music festival, when he launched the groundbreaking Newport Jazz Festival in 1954.

John Schreiber with George Wein

"What we try to bring to this work is something George taught me from day one," Schreiber said. "You are in service to the artist, and the community."

In the end, Schreiber became president of Wein's company, Festival Productions — producers of the Kool and JVC jazz festivals, the Nice Fête de la Musique in France, the Playboy Jazz Festival, the peerless New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and many more. Those were his babies, through 1994.

"Festivals are really in John's DNA," said Rodriguez, an Englewood resident. "There are a lot of people and organizations that can put on headliners for a single day. The interesting thing about North to Shore — largely driven by John — is to create those major events while still engaging a community."


The point is to tailor each event to the place it represents. Headliners, of course, to attract the crowds. But also local artists, local engagement on every level. That certainly applies to the three cities that N2S is built around: Newark, Atlantic City and Asbury Park. In each place, there will be community events. Local legends will get to shine, along with the stars.

"This is the intersection of the biggest artists in the world, the biggest artists in the city, and the artists in the city that deserve wider recognition," Schreiber said. "One plus one plus one."

People who come to Newark, say, to see Alanis Morissette with Aimee Mann (June 22), can eat at neighborhood restaurants, see art and entertainment by neighborhood talent, and get an earful of the resident up-and-comers who could be the superstars of tomorrow. Comedy, poetry, TED talks are likewise part of the package.

"This isn't a spaceship that flies down into a community and then flies away," Rodriguez said. "This is a festival that listens. This is a festival that builds connections."

For Schreiber, it all started with a connection he made.

Born in Queens, a resident of Montclair for 20 years (he now lives in Brooklyn), Schreiber was a college student when he crossed paths with Marian McPartland, the celebrated jazz pianist and educator. That's what got him hooked.

"My college roommate and I used to go to The Cookery, which was at Eighth Street in the Village," he remembers. "We were going three times a week to hear Marian. I was a fan, and became a friend."

Through McPartland, he met other jazz greats, including Duke Ellington. When Schreiber, as a student at Pennsylvania's Haverford College in the 1970s, had some success booking a concert series, McPartland encouraged him to go further. "She said, 'You know, you're good at this.'"

Fateful meeting

And so she introduced him to George Wein.

"He said, "What do you know how to do?'" Schreiber remembers. "I said, 'I don't know how to do anything. I'm a liberal arts major.' And he said, 'You write me a press release.'"

Wein, at this point, was an iconic figure in music circles. But his flagship event, The Newport Jazz Festival, was by then in rough waters.

Crowds enjoy the Newport Jazz Festival at Fort Adams on Sunday, July 31, 2022.

It had originally, of course, been in Newport, R.I. The posh summer homes and sailboat races were part of the general vibe, as viewers of the classic 1959 documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day" can still see. The music was all contained in one fairground.

But in 1970, the year after Woodstock, Wein invited rock acts to the party. The result was a disaster. "That brought a different element," Schreiber said. "Things got a little unruly." In 1971, it got worse: 12,000 people on the adjacent hillside crashed the fence during Dionne Warwick's set. Wein and his festival were no longer welcome.

So in 1972, he brought the Newport Festival to New York (it returned to Newport in 1981). In the process, he was forced to transform it into a new kind of music festival, one that had never existed before: urban, decentralized, multi-venue. It became the model for many others, including South by Southwest, and now North to Shore.

"He essentially reinvented what a jazz festival could be, by producing 10 days of jazz in probably two dozen locations," Schreiber said.

It was here that Schreiber cut his teeth: writing press releases. "George insisted there be a press release for every event," he said. "It was 40 events over 10 days. That was my baptism by fire. And he would read every press release and wordsmith it to make sure it was correct and got the point across."

Meet the talent

Newport Jazz Festival artistic director Christian McBride gives George Wein a kiss as McBride takes the stage to perform with his big band in 2017.

In time, Schreiber became Wein's assistant. And in so doing, he got to work with some of the biggest names in music.

Dizzy Gillespie — in whose company he discovered a talented teen, playing bass in a Philadelphia high school. "Dizzy gives me a shove in the ribs and says, 'Who's that kid on the bass?'" It was 14-year-old Christian McBride, now a jazz legend in his own right (he's the jazz adviser at NJPAC). "The rest is history," Schreiber said.

John Schreiber with vibes great Lionel Hampton

James Brown — who would always insist on being picked up at the airport by a white Lincoln Continental whenever he played the JVC Jazz Festival. "Why a white Lincoln?" they asked him. "Because he freed the slaves," Brown deadpanned.

Ella Fitzgerald — who struck a crowd of 100,000 people at the Kool Jazz Festival in Pittsburgh literally dumb. "You could have heard a pin drop," Schreiber said. "She turned this huge public spot into a nightclub. It was an extraordinary moment. It made me understand what genius is, what it's capable of meaning to people."

But working with Wein, who anointed Schreiber his successor in the business (Wein died in 2021), was also a master class in festival philosophy. Schreiber has never forgotten those lessons.

Festival goers hold signs thanking George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, on Sunday, July 31, 2022.

"George would say to me, 'Go to to Pittsburgh, and get to know the community,'" Schreiber recalled. "'If you just go in there with a bunch of big names, you're not adding value — you're not being respectful of the music and the culture of the community.' And I loved that. I thought, that's really the way to do it. Otherwise, it's just a tour that comes and goes."

Starting small

A classic example is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which Wein launched in 1970, and which Schreiber later worked on (Quint Davis is the producer).

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Over the years, everyone from Phish to Bruce Springsteen played there. But originally, it was created to be a showcase for local greats — jazz and R&B stars who had hit records in the 1950s and 1960s but who had wound up as waiters and janitors when the city's music scene died. Jazz Fest gave them a chance to remind people — once a year — who they really were.

John Schreiber

"Without Jazz Fest, would the world know Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band the way they do now? I don't think so," Schreiber said. "Jazz Fest performed a tremendous service to the music heritage of New Orleans."

It also taught another lesson to Schreiber. Everything starts small. The North to Shore Festival — however it does this summer — can only get bigger. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which drew 460,000 people over two weekends this year, is a perfect case in point.

"When they started that in Congo Square, there were just 300 people," Schreiber said. "Festivals evolve and grow. George would say, 'The beauty of a jazz festival is that you get to start over every year.'"

More information: northtoshore.com.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Behind NJ's new North to Shore festival is an expert