On March 23, as part of the March 22-25 virtual Ocean County Teen Arts Festival, Carolyn Dorfman Dance will offer an online preview of “Prima!,” a new work set to swinging Louis Prima classics such as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” The preview was originally envisioned as a live event, celebrating the opening of the 243-seat Gia Maione Prima Foundation Studio Theatre at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River. But that will have to wait until the pandemic is over.
The theater, and the dance, were made possible by the support of the Jersey-based Gia Maione Prima Foundation, which is also a founding supporter of NJArts.net and generously donates to many other arts causes in New Orleans (Louis Prima’s hometown), New Jersey (the home state of his widow Gia Maione Prima, who grew up in Toms River) and other locations.
“What better place to honor Gia than her hometown,” said foundation trustee Anthony Sylvester. “Gia always said she never was happier than the time she spent in Toms River. So it’s just this wonderful opportunity, to have something in her hometown.”
Gia Maione, a classically trained singer, won a place in Louis Prima’s wildly popular nightclub act (see video below) in 1962 before becoming romantically involved with him, marrying him, and having two children with him. Louis Prima died in 1978, at the age of 67.
Sylvester — a founding partner of the Florham Park-based law firm, Sherman Wells Sylvester & Stamelman — began working with Gia in the ’90s, when she moved back to New Jersey, from Louisiana, to take care of her ailing mother.
Sylvester remembers being contacted by her New Orleans-based lawyer, asking if he were interested in taking her on as a client. He told him he wasn’t — he handled banks, after all, not individuals — but agreed to meet with her as a courtesy.
“So she came to my office with her Aunt Mary and an armful of records,” he said. “We tracked down a record player and listened to records all afternoon.”
He agreed to give it a shot and become her lawyer. “And after that … this was in the late ’90s. Probably ’96-ish. All of a sudden, the Gap Khaki commercial came out,” he said. “And ‘Big Night,’ the Stanley Tucci movie, came out. And ‘Jump, Jive an’ Wail’ was put out by Brian Setzer. And all of a sudden, Louis Prima and his catalog became a hot commodity. And we started receiving substantial royalty income, and the like.
“We placed the catalog. Also, there were advertisers who were using Louis’ music with impunity, and we had to start some lawsuits and protect his catalog. And then we got it organized, and ended up doing a deal with EMI and, subsequently, Universal.”
Sylvester and Gia Maione Prima, he said, “became very close. She and I spoke every day — five days a week — for years, because so many things were happening. So we became friends. She became friends with my wife. She sent my daughter the most beautiful outfit, when my daughter was born, and she would always remember my kids on the holidays.”
Sylvester added: “I litigate for a living. And a lot of what she did had nothing to do with that. It had to do with things like, ‘What do you think, Tony, should we put this song in that particular commercial?’ Or, ‘Do we want it in this movie?’ Or, ‘HBO wants to use it for something that seems to be a little on the risque side. I’m not thrilled about it.’ So really, it became more of a business/counselor/friendship relationship, on top of the lawyering.”
Sylvester said that after Louis Prima died, “she was left with a catalog of music and a lot of debts,” but that she was “wicked smart, and very creative” and made the most of her situation “through a combination of incredible hard work and self-education with regard to the music industry, and a grittiness … sort of that New Jersey/Toms River grittiness.”
After the death of her mother, Gia Maione Prima moved to Destin, Fla. She died there in 2013, at the age of 73, about two years after she and Sylvester launched the foundation.
“It wasn’t that active while she was alive, because in the last few years of her life, her health wasn’t so great,” said Sylvester. “But after she passed, we made it mission No. 1 to make the foundation very active, primarily in the music education space, and with the focus being primarily New York, with ASCAP; New Jersey, with some organizations here; and then New Orleans, where Louis was born and where Gia spent a lot of her time, when they were married.”
In addition to NJArts.net (which became a nonprofit organization in 2020) and the Grunin Center, New Jersey organizations that have received support from the Gia Maione Prima Foundation include NJPAC in Newark; the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank; the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival; Jazz House Kids in Montclair; and the Morris Museum in Morris Township.
Louis Prima’s music is still used frequently in movies, TV shows and ads. “Thankfully it is,” said Sylvester, “because that money goes, thanks to Gia’s wishes, straight into the charitable foundation.
“I would say that the catalog is still tremendously active, despite the fact that the swing music craze has diminished a bit. The song ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ is still one of the most popular songs to use in various commercials, movies, TV shows and the like. And I believe — I’m not 100 percent sure, but up until the last time I checked, it was the most reproduced piece of sheet music. Every high school band plays ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Every jazz combo in high schools plays ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ So the catalog is still vibrant. There probably isn’t a week that goes by where one of my kids doesn’t say, ‘I just heard Louis (in a movie or TV show or ad)’.”
Sylvester hopes to be able to celebrate the opening of the Grunin Center studio theater with a live event, later this year, that would include the “Prima!” dance and possibly a performance by Louis and Gia Maione Prima’s son, Louis Prima Jr., who performs his parents’ music and other material with his high-energy band, The Witnesses.
“He is a good ambassador, and of course his band is excellent,” said Sylvester. “Especially in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia market, people come out to see that band. They still love the music.”
Another foundation project that got delayed by the pandemic, but that Sylvester hopes to resume soon, is a financial literacy program for young New Orleans musicians, created in conjunction with the Trombone Shorty Foundation.
“It’s extraordinary, really, how much need is there for these young musicians to have an understanding of how to manage their money: what a contract might look like, and debt, and how to manage your money when you’re on the road, and the like,” said Sylvester. “So we were going to start a multi-part program for young musicians in New Orleans. But then COVID hit, and people weren’t able to get together. But that’s the next project that we will hopefully get off the ground once people start seeing each other.”
It’s something they could eventually bring to other cities as well.
“We’re starting out in New Orleans,” said Sylvester, “but the hope would be that once we get the curriculum in place, and the instructors, which we expect will be from a major financial institution … then it could be a curriculum that can travel and be taught either remotely, or instructors from other cities can apply the curriculum to young musicians in Nashville, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or wherever the need is. Basically, everywhere.”
Carolyn Dorfman Dance will premiere “Prima!” online, March 23 at 11 a.m. The stream — filmed in October, with no audience, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center Loft — will be free, though pre-registration is required. Visit grunincenter.org/event/carolyn-dorfman-dance-prima.
For more on the virtual Ocean County Teen Arts Festival, visit oceancountyteenarts.com. This year’s theme is “Jazz and New Jersey.”
For more on the foundation, visit giamaioneprimafoundation.com.
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