By Emmy Liederman
In some ways, Jason Zujkowski was just an ordinary student. He hated getting up early, loved internet memes and was loyal to his favorite brands, never touching anything but a Samsung cell phone and Lenovo laptop. Although he was a lot like other college kids in some aspects, there was something extraordinary about him — he had an undeniable passion for music.
“Jason surrounded himself with music,” said Sean Zujkowski, his brother. “If he wasn’t playing, he was writing. If he wasn’t writing, he was listening. And if he wasn’t listening, he was just talking about it.”
On Nov. 9, Zujkowski, a music education major, played the Baritone saxophone alongside musician Michael Ray and the Jazz Ensemble in celebration of 100 years of music at the College. Shortly after the performance, Zujkowski was on his way to the reception with some friends when he collapsed due to a pre-existing heart condition. The 22-year-old never regained consciousness.
“We went from such a high to an unbelievable turn of events,” said Gary Feinberg, the director of the jazz ensemble. “I feel as though this concert was one of the highlights of his musical life. It was really a special concert and he knew it.”
Zujkowski’s performance consisted of three prominent solos, which were well-received by the audience. According to Feinberg, one of the key components of jazz playing is improvisation, which Zujkowski mastered with ease.
“As a performer, he had a lot of fire,” Feinberg said. “He was super expressive and that was his moment to show everybody that he owned that solo. I was thinking, ‘He’s been waiting for this moment to do this piece of music every ounce of justice he had within him.’”
This was Zujkowski’s first semester at the College after he transferred from Raritan Valley Community College. In just a few months, he was able to prove himself as a dedicated musician and leave a lasting legacy in the music department. For Zujkowski, playing saxophone at the College meant more than just earning a degree.
“He commuted from Manville, which is a brutal 60-minute commute and he was always on time for the morning class,” Feinberg said. “That is just a small insight to his character. He was really happy to be here. He was really excited about being a student here — this was his dream.”
During his short time at the College, Zujkowski also made a profound impact on other students in the music department. More than 500 people, many of whom were from the College, attended his funeral in Manville, New Jersey. Students organized carpools to ensure they could all be there to honor their friend.
“He made a lot of friends really fast,” said Wayne Heisler, the chair of the music department. “One of the things that was so crazy about this is that he hadn’t been here that long, but everyone seemed to know him pretty well for someone who had only been on campus for a few months. I get the impression that he was just really kind.”
Zujkowski’s brother echoed Heisler’s judgement of his character — on top of his love for music, he was undeniably kind to everyone he met.
“It comforts me knowing that his three months at TCNJ were probably the best of his life and that his kind and gentle soul left an obvious impact,” he said. “Life without Jason has left a void, but I feel his love every time someone he knew shares theirs. I feel its cliché to refer to Jason as ‘the best brother ever’ or anything along those lines, but it’s not a lie that Jason was one of the dearest people in my life.”
Although Zujkowski was at times reserved, his loved ones recall that as soon as he picked up his saxophone, he was comfortable and confident.
“He played the baritone saxophone for the Jazz Ensemble’s concert with Michael Ray and, while he had been clearly nervous about performing, the second he picked up his instrument, it seemed as though he was a different person,” said Jonathan Andersen, a senior music major. “Everything else had seemed to fade away whenever he performed.”
Andersen was also quick to comment on his character.
“Jason was one of the kindest people I know,” he said. “He never turned down anyone who needed help.”
After his death, his family received video footage from the concert and was overwhelmed with gratitude. Many agree that the video of his final performance captured his passion for music.
“When I watched the video, there are a couple places where he is just throwing his head back and laughing,” said Kim Pearson, a journalism and professional writing professor who helped plan the concert. “He just looks like he is having a great time.”
According to Professor Kathy Mitchell, Zujkowski’s saxophone teacher, her student’s dedication and passion for his instrument will live on in the College’s music department.
“He gave it his all,” she said. “Jason has inspired the saxophone studio and myself. We all agree he has brought us closer together. He is with our studio always.”
Pearson noted that his preservation and dedication to his art, despite health challenges, should be an inspiration for the College community.
“So often I learn about some of the challenges that students have here.” Pearson said. “You never know what somebody is going through and what it took for someone to be sitting where they’re sitting. You should never assume. This is just another powerful reminder of that.”
Heisler honored Zujkowski at a Department of Music recital on Nov. 13 by equating his everlasting spirit to that of American jazz icon Sun Ra.
“Among those present at Friday’s jazz ensemble was Sun Ra,” he read. “Not physically, in the flesh, but in spirit, or the imaginary, or whatever we choose to call it. Sun Ra once said, ‘if death is the absence of life, then death’s death is life.’ May the life force of today’s recital match up with Jason’s — somewhere.”