The Beat Goes On: Smithereens members meet recipients of Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship


Two violinists, a flautist and a pianist. It’s an orchestra in the making, but for four talented students enrolled at the Count Basie Center Academy’s Conservatory, it’s the beginning of a life enriched with sound.

Students Rafael Estrada and Ian Kenny (violin), Oliver Schrenk (piano) and Diego Ruiz (flute) were celebrated this week as the inaugural recipients of the Basie Center’s Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship.

The Smithereens with Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship Recipients
Inaugural recipients of the Pat DiNizio Musical Performance Scholarship with Smithereens founders Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken

Named for the late vocalist of New Jersey Hall Of Famers The Smithereens, the program was founded after a tribute to DiNizio was broadcast worldwide  from the Basie Center stage. Proceeds from that event, as well as continued contributions from donors, created and continue to fund the scholarship.

Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken met with the young scholars at the Basie’s new Conservatory campus, telling tales of their lives as professional musicians, urging students to perform together and explore a diversity of styles. Each student performed for the Smithereens founders, receiving real time feedback and – frankly – accolades all around.

“I see the way you perform with your body,” Babjak told Ruiz, 15, of Colts Neck, who swayed as he performed (song) on his flute. “I perform much the same way with my guitar.”

“I’ve been playing flute for five years or so, and I want to pursue music when I’m older,” Ruiz said. “This scholarship means a lot to me – I’ve worked fairly hard for this award, since any financial aid for me is great. I hope more students are able to receive this same opportunity.”

Babjak and Diken encouraged the students to be relentless in honing their craft, and to seek out peers who are as good as them or better to help strengthen their ability.

“Dennis was so superior – so much better than I, that I had to play better in order to keep up,” Babjak said. After watching a performance by recipient Ian Kenny, he reiterated that importance to Estrada, 9, one of the  younger conservatory students. “I was watching you watch him perform – because you both play the violin. Learning from your peers is invaluable.”

Estrada opened the evening with a performance of Gavotte by J. B. Lully

“I love being at the conservatory,” he said, “because I get to practice a lot, and I have a great teacher.”

Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken of The Smithereens
Guitarist Jim Babjak (left) and drummer Dennis Diken of The Smithereens

Violinist Kenny, 15, of Bayville, shared his appreciation of the program.

“I got a lot of great lessons, and this opened a lot of opportunities for me,” he said. “Music education means everything to me, as I hope to pursue music and go into a music conservatory.”

Schrenck, of Long Branch, echoed those sentiments.

“I think the Monmouth Conservatory is a very open place,” said the 11-year old pianist. “Everyone is super nice, and the teachers are very helpful – they don’t ridicule you if you mess up. They’re always there to help you, and they organize recitals to show what we’ve done. That makes me feel good.”

“Everyone should be happy about what they do,” Schrenk continued, “and the Monmouth Conservatory really helps you think about that. I’m very thankful for this scholarship and experience.”

Pat DiNizio would be very proud and honored to know that his name is attached to a program that teaches young people to play music,” Diken said. “We all started playing when we were very young – I picked up Lincoln Logs and turned coffee cans into drums as a child, and I remember Pat talking about playing guitar in first grade.”

“Somewhere,” he continued, “I am sure he’s looking down, very happy that his name is attached to this.”