GRAMMY Museum Experience Prudential Center
Photo: Nate Hertweck/Recording Academy
The Boss, Taylor Swift, Education & More: Inside New Jersey's GRAMMY Museum Experience
In October 2017, the GRAMMY Museum Experience Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., opened its doors to curious musical minds of all ages, offering one-of-a-kind artifacts, interactive exhibits and mementos of GRAMMY history. With a focus on New Jersey-born artists such as Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Jersey Boys, and the recent opening of the Taylor Swift Experience, the exhibit space is alive with the spirit of music's rich — and growing — legacy.
Today, there is a palpable sense of excitement bouncing off the walls of the Experience. It can be felt from the moment you step into the GRAMMY Award statuette-lined entry room, and it can be seen in the eyes of new Director Rashida Cruz. A professor at Monmouth University's Music Industry Program, Cruz now focuses her unique blend of industry and education experience toward building meaningful programming for the Museum.
During her 20-year career, Cruz has taught several music industry courses and mentored her students through the process of building their own student-run record label, Blue Hawk Records. Her new role of building out the Experience's educational resources to support the future minds of music starts with a deep-rooted understanding of New Jersey's celebrated musical past.
"Just behind me we have a huge archive with New Jersey legends, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Whitney Houston to Bon Jovi, who just performed here at the Prudential Center this past weekend, to the Sugarhill Gang — so many artists who have been an integral part of music," says Cruz "It's right in the middle of the Museum so everyone can see it. We really want to shine a light on their contributions to music."
While New Jersey's musical legacy is often overlooked, it takes center stage at this Museum, showcased by a collection of personal instruments, clothing and keepsakes from a diverse mix of musical legends. After just a few minutes of perusing the exhibit, the Garden State's deep impact on music can be felt in a big way.
"The Museum allows us to celebrate that great music tradition of the state, but also teach people about it as well," says GRAMMY Museum Founding Executive Director, Bob Santelli. "The great Count Basie — most people don't know he was born in Red Bank. The Four Seasons. 'Jersey Boys' is such a part of American culture now, it's the story of four kids from Newark.
"What we have the opportunity to do is unveil so many great artists that people either know and admire, but didn't know were from Jersey, or we turn them on to music or artists they didn't know were Jersey-based."
The Museum saw an influx of visitors last week when the Taylor Swift Experience opened on April 6. The exhibit gleams with Swift's immaculate stage costumes, GRAMMY outfits, childhood possession, instruments, interactive dancing jukebox, and much more. In a compilation of rare home video and live footage, you can watch Swift singing as a toddler, heading off to her first day at school, taking the stage at county fairs, wowing a radio DJ with an improvised jingle, and performing in front of sold-out crowds the world over. Any aficionado of music will find this exhibit genuine, vibrant and moving, while Swifties will find themselves in pure heaven.
But the mission of the Experience doesn't stop at celebrating New Jersey's musical past and hosting exclusive collections from today's hottest artists. Cruz and Santelli are determined to engage the youth with music in a meaningful and lasting way.
"The emphasis has been, and always will be, reaching out to school groups and kids," says Santelli. "This museum is really designed to connect with young people. Not just kids who want to be the next Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake, but kids who we hope will appreciate music more and understand more."
One way the Experience accomplishes this is through interactive musical exhibits. Rather than stand back and watch how music is made, visitors can get their hands dirty, play instruments in the Roland LIVE exhibit, mix multi-tracks with In The Studio, and even jump in the booth to hop on the mic with Wyclef Jean as he leads you through the fundamentals of the hip-hop feel.
"Students can really immerse themselves in some of the tools and learn some of the techniques that are used to make music today," says Cruz.
The difference between watching and doing is huge, and it's most apparent at the Museum's exclusive drum lesson from Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. As you take a seat in the drummer's throne and take the sticks, Weinberg takes you through the basics of playing on of the Boss' biggest hits, including "Born In The U.S.A."
"If you're from Jersey that could be an important song for you. But when you hear Max on record, you're not thinking about it so much, it may be just basic snare shots," says Santelli. "When you start to put together some of the things he's doing, all of a sudden it gets quite difficult, and that's deliberate. We want to show you that the artistic process is something that requires great skill and creativity, which will allow you to appreciate it more."
After a quick personal run-through of the drum parts from Weinberg, the video cuts to festival concert footage of Springsteen counting off the song live, and the adrenaline begins to flow. The crack of the snare is no longer just a sound on a record, but it becomes the lifeblood of the song, accentuating the Boss' impassioned vocals and driving an endless sea of screaming fans absolutely wild.
And then it does get quite difficult, as Santelli points out, and you learn that while the hi-hat, kick drum and snare are all individual pieces of the kit, they must be played with a cohesive feel, groove, and musicality that musicians spend their whole lives mastering. This a-ha moment represents what makes the Experience such a valuable educational resource.
"The Max Weinberg interactive demonstrates what this Museum can be and should be. Here's were we got cooperation from a major artist who saw the educational merits in what we're doing and basically gave me his time and talent to tell a story, and that I'm most appreciative of, because it doesn't happen every day."
This kind of support from superstar members of the music community continues to lay the groundwork for the outreach, but spreading the word to area schools that these resources are available represents the next step for the Experience.
"We're having our first teacher's open house on April 12 here at the GRAMMY Museum," Cruz says. "It's an opportunity to expose teachers to some of the educational resources here, get feedback from them as to what programming they would like to see here, and connect with them to let them know that we are here so they can bring their students and enjoy the experience."
With educational programming taking shape, and a knockout location inside Newark's Prudential Center, the GRAMMY Museum Experience is primed to extend its reach across the surrounding communities and create a hub for musical growth and exploration.
"The key to this GRAMMY Museum Experience will be its public programs and the education programs," says Santelli. "It's great to come see the exhibits, it's great to try out the interactives, but really where we're going to make the biggest impression on the community is with what we do with young people in Newark and the surrounding cities, because these kids never had the opportunity music-wise that we're going to be able to give them. Kids in Los Angeles have that, kids in the Mississippi Delta now have that, thanks to the GRAMMY Museum in Mississippi, and now kids in the greater metropolitan area, particularly Newark, will have it as well.
"We're going to be able to allow them the opportunity to interact with our music tradition in a way that wasn't possible before. That will start with this summer. That's what I'm most excited about, to be honest."