There’s more to the library than the written word.

Most of us know the resources of the Jersey City Free Public Library. The historic main branch has undergone a stunning restoration. And there are branches all over town with their own collections and events.

One notable program may be the library’s best-kept secret. It’s called the Community Awareness Series (CAS), and the Miller Branch is the base of operations for a couple of standout activities.

All That Jazz, All That Time

It’s safe to say that a jazz group that’s been around for four decades has longevity. Spirit of Life Ensemble was launched in 1975, and is still going strong. The impetus was “to bring multidimensional arts to Jersey City,” says founder and percussionist Daoud David Williams. “We also perform throughout the state and New York City and internationally.”

In 1977, Williams was asked to develop a free program as part of the Jersey City Free Public Library’s CAS initiative. Headquarters was the Miller branch at 489 Bergen Ave.

Over the years, the ensemble has performed in some 5,000 programs, both in the library and in community centers, senior centers, and Jersey City schools that have special-needs kids, such as the A. Harry Moore School at 2078 Kennedy Blvd., and St Joseph’s School for the Blind. (See our story on St. Joseph’s in the spring/summer issue of Jersey City Magazine.

“We’ve had many, many outstanding artists over the years, which strengthens the role of the Jersey City Public Library,” Williams says. “Jazz aficionados will know these people.” They include jazz pianists Randy Weston and Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott.

A typical gig was playing at the rededication of the restored 113-year-old fountain in Lincoln Park this summer.

“It’s hard to believe that this many years have gone by, and we’re still chugging along, trying to produce and stay positive,” Williams says. Financial support is a challenge. “With anything, there are moments of discouragement,” he says. “It’s a struggle to get funding and build support.”

It’s the music itself that keeps the group going. “I get excited when the actual programs are produced,” Williams says. “After all the work, there’s the gratification when it’s finally done. It’s like giving birth to something, a living entity.

“Performing brings joy and happiness and all that goes along with music,” he says. “The response you get makes up for everything, all the hard, behind-the-scenes work.”

The rewards of brightening the lives of others have inspired Williams and the ensemble to achieve a 40-year milestone.

“You go into the Harry Moore School, and some of those kids are severely disabled,” Williams says. “Bringing joy is therapy for us as well as them. You walk away feeling good that you accomplished something and brought joy and happiness into someone’s life.”

Better Get Healthy!

Or you’ll have to answer to Grand Master Sup!

When I blithely left a message for Grand Master Sup to call me back, I wasn’t prepared for the force of nature thundering from my smartphone.

Master Sup runs cardio fitness programs at the Miller Branch of the public library, as well as at the Boys and Girls Club, and the Bethune Center.

Calling himself “God’s warrior,” he is the energy, brains, and brawn behind Master Sup’s Boot Camp. His parents gave him a name—Dennis Burgess—but that could be an accountant’s name, so I’m sticking to the one that suits a World Martial Arts Hall of Famer, ninth-degree black belt, and brick-breaking champion.

He sounds like the Muhammad Ali of karate, rhyming words: “tight, right, and dynamite,” and proclaiming, “I’m not an imitator, I’m an originator!”

If he were just a great martial artist, we probably wouldn’t be as eager to have him in the pages of a community magazine. That he runs a cardio-fitness martial arts program puts him dead center in a fight against a health crisis affecting not only Jersey City but the entire nation.

Diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are three health issues that disproportionately affect the African-American community. African-American women have the highest rate of obesity of any other group in the U.S. Master Sup says that 60 percent of Americans are obese. African-Americans are 1.7 times as likely to get diabetes as whites, and 40 percent of African-Americans have hypertension.

Master Sup was asked by Mayor Fulop to bring his program to Jersey City.

He calls his method the “gumbo system,” and it attracts everyone from teens to octogenarians.

“I created my own system that combines self-defense, martial arts, and cardio fitness,” he says. It incorporates “alertness, self-esteem, willpower, and determination to reach goals and dreams in life.”

The program has caught on. “I have packed classes,” Master Sup says. “Every time I give a class there’s no such thing as under 50 people.”

He’s a motivator. “I let them know what block, kick, or punch works that particular muscle,” he says. “I inspire and enlighten to give joy, so they always come again and bring more people.”

The system seems to be working.

“Results happen,” he says. “I have plenty of testimonials. A lady today said her doctor gave her a physical; her blood pressure is down, and she lost a certain amount of weight, so that she’s not in the danger zone. Her doctor said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’”

Starting Early

Master Sup lives in and was born and raised in Jersey City. “I was always doing a lot for the community,” he says. And not just cardio-fitness. He spearheads the Save Our Young Tomorrow’s Leaders anti-bullying and gang-awareness program in schools throughout the city. The headquarters is at the Boys and Girls Club.

“I’m grooming them to be tomorrow’s leaders,” Master Sup says, “not a nuisance, but a part of society, and I’ve been getting crazy results since 1999.”

Nutrition is a key factor. “Eating and fitness go together,” Master Sup says. “The enemy is people trying to harm us with bad foods. I guide them to the right place to feel good about themselves—smarter, healthier, happier.”—Kate Rounds


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group