Homage to Maplewood’s Jim Buchanan—’No Difference Between Music & Community’

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Among the multitude of creative artists who have called Maplewood home over time, there is only one artist who has two public gathering places officially named for him.

That artist is Jim Buchanan.  Fittingly, the two “Jim Buchanan Rooms” are the recital hall in the Maplewood Community Center and the back room/ performance space of the Park Wood Diner. For Jim, there was truly no difference between music and community.

James (“Jim”) Buchanan, master bass player and tuba player, beloved music teacher to thousands, and cherished community arts leader, died on Tuesday, January 31, 2023, at the age of 80. A lifelong Maplewoodian, he died in Maryland with his daughter, Rebekah Harris, and his grandchildren. 

We will be mourning and memorializing Jim for a long time, because he was a seminal figure in the creation of the Maplewood we know.

Simply put, Jim Buchanan invented community arts in Maplewood. In the 1960s, when he and his wife Carol moved into a small house in the Hilton neighborhood near where he grew up, the community arts scene here was close to non-existent. Jim was teaching in the West Caldwell school system (where he remained for 35 years), but he got right to work creating opportunities for Maplewood’s musicians, whose musical lives were mostly in the city, to play together where they lived.  During the ‘80s and ‘90s, he activated and renovated the Burgdorff Center as a community arts space and spearheaded the creation of Arts Maplewood, which opened the Burgdorff to community arts groups and arts education programs in many art forms and genres.  

In the late ‘90’s, Jim became Maplewood’s first Cultural Affairs Director and invented the job as he went. He formed Maplewood Community Music (MCM), an umbrella group of homegrown ensembles. He launched a swing band; he launched a jazz band; he masterminded classical chamber concerts wherever and whenever they could happen. An amateur painter, he also supported the growth of the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center.

His commitment to young people was lifelong; in addition to his full-time teaching job, he conducted the Essex County Youth Orchestra for years. And he created a much-loved Music for Kids series at the Burgdorff Center. Arts Council Chair Marcy Thompson remembers: “The Community Room was filled with children, and there’s Jim, telling them about how to use music to express stories and express themselves. I remember one time when he brought in some N.J. Symphony members to play the voices of different characters in a story. The kids were riveted. And we parents felt this intense joy that Jim was sharing his immense talents, and these musicians’ talents, with us.” 

All this is a crucial part of Maplewood’s history—but it doesn’t begin to describe Jim as a person, a force in the room. He was a gale wind of positivity and possibility. He adored a good laugh and a good time and, more than anything, a session of playing music with friends. A man with a thousand friends and a thousand projects, he was infinitely generous with his time and encouragement (and impromptu free lessons). MCM conductor Ben Williams says, “Artistically, Jim was the most open-minded person I ever met. He never prejudged artistic endeavor, and he gave equal weight to all kinds of music. And that was his approach to all aspects of his life. Hence his wide-ranging musical efforts were matched by his wide circle of friends of all stripes!”

Jim cannot be remembered apart from Carol, his wife of 54 years, who died in 2019. As Jim was working to create musical community in Maplewood, Carol was helping to create community activism. A revered educator and librarian, she spurred the creation of the Hilton Neighborhood Association and was its president for many years, as well working with the Maplewood Library Board and the Community Coalition on Race.

Jim and Carol Buchanan

“For me,” says Arts Council member Emily Zacharias, “Jim and Carol created the sensibility that is now Maplewood. They organically created the synergy between a suburban ecosystem and the binding force of music played with neighbors, for neighbors.”

MCM pianist Bill Tally gives us an indelible image: “Carol piloting their snappy red convertible through the Hilton neighborhood while Jim, in the passenger seat, plays his tuba—they were leading the Honk Parade that launches Maplewood’s Porchfest every Labor Day—followed by a raucous, ragtag group of neighbors, kids, families, and oldsters, professionals and rank beginners, making a joyful racket out of old New Orleans Second Line tunes. No longer able to walk with his tuba, he was still joyfully playing Pied Piper to the community he loved.”

We’ll miss Jim acutely.  But he and Carol leave us with a vision we can continue to honor and pursue.  They understood that it’s only by making music, making art, and pursuing social goals together does a population of residents become a true community.  

In Marcy’s words, “It was Jim’s act of gathering us that created community. He gave us good reasons to be together. He invited us to be changed by this—and so we were. He wasn’t just a gift to our community; he was the creator of community. This would be a completely different place without him.”

From Jim’s family: The funeral will be on Monday, February 6, at the Preston Funeral Home in South Orange: 10:30 visiting with family, 11:00 service, followed by the burial at Rosedale Cemetery in Montclair. 

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