‘The best day of the year’: NJ Uke Fest glides through Whippany, makes happy landing on the Morristown Green

A pair of amateur enthusiasts are backed by NJ Uke Fest stars Christopher Davis-Shannon, Rachel Manke, Heidi Swedberg and Daniel Ward, on the Morristown Green, Aug. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


Christmas?  Valentine’s Day? The Fourth of July?

They can’t compare to the annual New Jersey Uke Fest. At least, not for Lerissa Crockett.

“It’s the best day of the year,” said Crockett, who drove to Whippany from Oberlin, Ohio, for concerts, workshops and jam sessions on Saturday.

REVOLUTIONARY CONCEPT: Founding Fathers try ukuleles on for size, with coaching from NJ Uke Fest stars (from left) Daniel Ward, Rachel Manke, Christopher Davis-Shannon and Heidi Swedbergm Aug. 25, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

About 150 people turned out for the weekend’s events, according to Pam Robinson, organizer of the festival, started seven years ago by Scott “Scooter” Ferguson for the nonprofit Folk Project.

‘BEST DAY OF THE YEAR!’ Lerissa Crockett at the 2019 NJ Uke Fest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Ukulele aficionados came to the Ukrainian American Cultural Center from as far as Texas, Kansas and New Hampshire.

They saw concerts by Rachel Manke and Gerald Ross on Friday, and Christopher Davis-Shannon and the duo of Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg on Saturday.

In between, the performers gave tutorials on everything from plinking your very first note to attempting solos, jazz arrangements, clawhammer blues and flamenco.


Scenes from the 2019 NJ Uke Fest. Slideshow by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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“People don’t think they can do it, they’re so scared,” mused Ross, an accomplished ukulele- and Hawaiian lap steel guitar player from Ann Arbor, MI., who demystified solos during a 45-minute class.

New graduates of hula workshop perform at the 2019 NJ Uke Fest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s something I was always afraid to do. Gerald broke it down for me,” raved Louise Martin, a repeat festival-goer from Long Island.

Likewise, a newcomer was completely gaga after a session with Swedberg–and not because Swedberg once starred as George Costanza’s girlfriend on Seinfeld.

Rather, the actress-turned-musician shared secrets of the C chord, and the sunshine that four strings can bring.

Audience participation is central to these festivals, and this year’s edition offered plenty. Members of the Morristown Uke Jam club led a sing-along celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and a ukulele arrangement of Habanera from the opera Carmen.

HEY, THAT’S MY STRING! The One Uke Wonders perform at the 2019 NJ Uke Fest.
(L-R) Beth Bachmann, UFO (Unidentified Fretting Object), Danny Vento, Mike Sagurton and Bob Kammer. Photo by Susan D’Alessandro

A mother-daughter duo shared top honors in an open mic contest with the One Uke Wonders — five members of the Morristown Uke Jam who shared one uke for a cover of Walk Off the Earth’s Somebody That I Used to Know.

Interpretive dance at 2019 NJ Uke Fest jam on the Morristown Green. Photo by Bill Lescohier

(Before the ensemble reprised its lunchtime triumph at Saturday night’s concert, one One Uke Wonder dashed to a bargain store for black trousers, which he tailored with duct tape. Another desperate member bummed a belt from his girlfriend to avert a wardrobe malfunction onstage.)

Friday’s concert crowd included a busload of kids from the Holy Family Summer Camp in New Brunswick.

A grant from Rutgers bought ukuleles for the youths, who range in age from 8 to 17 and come from families of limited means.

Uke players from the Holy Family Summer Camp in New Brunswick at the 2019 NJ Uke Fest. (L-R): Maydeline Ortiz, 11; Deacon Nelson Torres; Marilyn Ortiz, 8; and Edward Morales, 13. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“A lot of them said they want to play guitar. Most of the time, they fall in love with the ukulele,” said their instructor, Deacon Nelson Torres. “It’s so sweet on the fingers.”

“It’s like a tiny, better version of the guitar. It’s simpler,” said Edward Morales, 13, a Beatles fan. Maydeline Ortiz, 11, said she loves playing Michelle on her instrument.

The festival wound down on Sunday on the historic Morristown Green, with a well attended jam session sandwiched between a multi-denominational worship service and an afternoon Day of Healing honoring African Americans.

Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg sing at 2019 NJ Uke Fest jam on the Morristown Green. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Festival performers Manke and Davis-Shannon were joined at the jam by headliners Swedberg and Ward–after the Los Angeles duo discovered a few treasures at the annual rummage sale of the Woman’s Club of Morristown.

In a fitting coda to the weekend, Ward led a battalion of amateur uke players in a three-chord rendition of an old Wings hit: Silly Love Songs.



Jam Fest on the Green: Slideshow photos by Bill Lescohier, Katherine G. and Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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Stay tuned for video highlights.


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