These days, filmmaker Tom Jones lives and works in Southern California. But his heart is in his native New Jersey. And his love for the place shows in the documentary Jones directed about the decline and rebirth of Asbury Park. The film, Asbury Park: Riot Redemption, Rock ‘n Roll, follows the shore city’s path from the devastating riot of 1970 to its current revival, using some of the area’s most well-known musicians to propel the narrative. You know who they are.
Now, Jones is developing a television series about his beloved Garden State. If he can secure enough sponsors, Jones will take “Jersey with Big Joe Henry” to the small screen. The host, a popular radio DJ on NJ101.5 drives around the state talking to the people who make it work and visiting the sites that make New Jersey unique. NJBIZ recently sat down virtually with Jones to talk about the project and about the state he adores.
“I do live in California — I’ve been living in Malibu, California since 1989. I moved out there to run a TV show and never left,” he said. “I grew up in New Jersey and love it. Always have. I came back to do a film here and spent a lot of time here for a couple years and realized how much I love it. And my family and I are actively — I think we’re going to move back. it’s just a great place — there’s so many great things about New Jersey. And I think people forget. I was telling someone yesterday about moving back from Malibu and she said I’ve never heard anyone leave Malibu to come to New Jersey. Sometimes when you’re too close to something you don’t realize how great it is.”
What follows is an excerpt from the discussion. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available here.
NJBIZ: You mentioned that some people forget about what’s good about it here and in some of the materials that I’ve read about the series, you do acknowledge that there are some reasons not to like it In terms of high costs and trouble retaining young people. What would you say to a young person thinking about relocating, say, to sunny Southern California?
Tom Jones: Have a look in your backyard first. The state has so much to offer, it’s bookended by two huge cities and there’s great opportunity, there’s great natural beauty.
We have a place here on the central shore — Sandy Hook — is one of the great beautiful places in in the world. I’ve lived in London. I’ve lived in Paris. And I’ve lived in California for a long time, and this place stacks up really well.
Q. That’s quite an endorsement. Now, the host of the series is Big Joe Henry from NJ101.5. For [readers] not familiar with his work, can you tell us a little bit about him and why he’s the face of the show?
A. Well, Joe has been the number one DJ in this market, including New York for decades. He’s well-loved and he’s well-listened to. He’s got a fantastic personality and he narrated the film we did recently called Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘n Roll, and I think he’s a great spokesman for the state.
He’s also well-traveled. We host the show out of a vintage car, so that gives us good mobility all over the state and he did a great job. We shot a couple of test pieces and he’s done a wonderful job so we look forward to working together.
Q. Who do you think is the audience for this series? Is it just New Jerseyans or do you expect that it would have wider appeal, like for travelers? How do you think you think this would be this would be viewed elsewhere?
A. Our goal is to create a great Jersey show for people who live in New Jersey. But there’s a thing New Jersey has one of the world’s biggest Diasporas, except for maybe Central Americans and Indians. There are New Jerseyans everywhere and we’re going to touch on that a little bit. We’ll find people who started out in New Jersey and no longer here.
But we’re trying to do a show for people who live here today and really take stock of what they have and kind of rally behind it around the state.
Q. Well, that that was that leads me to my next question which is whether the goal is to make New Jerseyans feel better about living here or to convince outsiders that this is a place say, for example, a business owner who was thinking about relocating to New Jersey? But it’s mostly aimed at New Jerseyans or former New Jerseyans who want to keep up with the state. Am I getting that right?
A. Yeah it’d be great for people coming in — that’d be wonderful. But the point is really for people living here. The state doesn’t really have any statewide media — it tends to be bedroom communities around New York and Philly. And we’re trying to get the state a higher profile, give it a rallying cry.
Q. I’m curious just from your travels how much do you think New Jerseyans really know about the state? I mean many people, depending on where you live and what your experiences are, you may know that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb here or that the first college football game was played in New Brunswick. But from what you’ve seen, from what you’ve heard, from what you’ve experienced, do folks here really understand what the history of the state really is?
A. I don’t think so, and I consider that with relative confidence because I’m really interested in the state. I love history. I grew up here and I don’t know that much. The more I learned the more I realized how much I don’t know.
We just we did a story about Paterson. I didn’t realize Patterson was the start of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The great moment of Hamilton and Washington, looking at the falls, and Hamilton saying the industrial revolution should start here. The submarine was invented in Paterson. It was the silk capital of the world. I didn’t know any of that.
We have the extraordinary history and background.
Sandy Hook — people really don’t know that much about Sandy Hook. The lighthouse was the last thing that the British surrendered and the Revolutionary War. I didn’t know that. The more you learn the more you realize there’s so much more to find out.
Q. And if I remember correctly — and I actually did know this because I’ve looked it up before — the size of the economy in New Jersey. If it were a country, it would be the 20th biggest in the world, which is when you think about how big it is and what’s here, it’s a pretty astonishing fact. Again do people understand what business is like here and exactly how big of an economic engine this the state really is?
A. I don’t think so, and because we’re in the shadow of these two big cities. I was doing some research and if we were to clip off the New Jersey portion of the TV market from New York and Philly, New Jersey would be the third biggest TV market in the country. We have more millionaires than any other state in the country. People think it’s soon as California — not true, it’s New Jersey, you know just the facts pile up.
Q. And all the Fortune 500 companies.
A. A lot of them here. Huge amounts of philanthropy … really impressive numbers. But it’s almost like the overachieving little brother behind the big kid — New York is this big Island sitting pretty much in Jersey water.
The Statue of Liberty. It’s in our navigable waters.
Q. Well, now you’re opening an old wound there.
A. I think we should be the land of liberty. Let’s take it on.