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Live music scene unites a city

New London — Jack Madry knows music is sometimes the catalyst that initially draws people to his church. He’s OK with that.

The professional jazz musician who is pastor at Madry Temple Church on Manwaring Street has long experienced the unifying power of music and has seen how it can help open up depths of understanding and spiritual and emotional well-being among listeners. It can be what draws people through the church portal, but also later leads them to a deeper spiritual, communal and social awakening.

“People become blind to color,” he said about music’s power. “Music speaks the same language to all and brings us together.”

Each Sunday the church that only recently reopened to in-person services after a too-long, pandemic-induced hiatus, features a band with a pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trombonist and percussionist. Mayor Michael Passero calls the spiritually uplifting music of Madry Temple’s church services some of the best to be heard in New London.

Actually, however, the Sunday gospel music that emanates from Madry Temple and many other houses of worship across the city are just some examples of the ubiquitous and integral nature of music in the Whaling City. Since the local rock ‘n’ roll band The Reducers was established in 1978, a wide spectrum of music has become a key to the city’s fabric and its social and economic well-being. This music ranges from the sold-out classical performances of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, to ensembles playing jazz, blues, hip hop, soul, funk, folk and a myriad of other genres.

“Our region is micropolitan,” said Caleb Bailey, ECSO executive director.

The ECSO, with its subscribers from throughout eastern Connecticut and from as far away as New York, Long Island and Rhode Island, draws suburban residents into the city for concerts at what has become a jewel in New London’s arts crown: The Garde Arts Center. Many of those who come to listen to the orchestra might not otherwise venture into downtown New London.

The Garde on State Street is a place where such beloved regional musical groups, big-name national performers and more home-grown acts find an audience. It also has been, for the past decade, the home of an event that epitomizes the power of music and the arts to unify and heal a region: the New London Talent Show. The show grew out of the pain of the 2010 murder of 25-year-old artist and pizza cook Matthew Chew.

“The talent show was designed to break down barriers,” said Curtis K. Goodwin, one of its founders.

Break down barriers it did. Goodwin said he’s seen the talent show performers form strong bonds to one another. Through their art, young people from Mystic and other wealthier suburban communities now come together with their urban compatriots from New London.

“That would never have happened 10 years ago,” Goodwin said. The young performers discovered the inclusive and welcoming nature of New London’s artistic community, he said. “You can come here and be anybody you want.”

The eclectic and powerful music scene has been the topic of study for a small group of University of Connecticut journalism students since late January. They have been researching and reporting on the phenomenon of music in New London — how music shapes the city and how the city shapes the music scene.

Their reporting led them to make a variety of conclusions. Among these are that music is a great unifier, an economic driver, a vehicle for celebration of patriotism, identity, culture and ethnicity and promotion of social justice causes.

Students said they were struck by how often their sources told them the city’s music community is open-armed, has been a force for positive and social changes and an emotional uplifter during the past two dark years of the pandemic. Even when clubs, restaurants and churches shut, when street festivals were suspended and silence dominated downtown after March 2020, musicians turned to livestreams as a method to share their musical messages.

About this series

Under the direction of instructors Gail B. MacDonald, a University of Connecticut professor in residence and former Day reporter, and Carlos Virgen, The Day's assistant managing editor for audience development, UConn journalism students worked all semester crafting stories in text, audio and photographs that strive to tell parts of the overarching tale of music in New London. They spoke to musicians, businesspeople, city and regional officials, educators and others to inform their work. These stories will be published in The Day and on theday.com.

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