For a little over a decade, the Trash Party thrived as one of New York nightlife’s most beloved institutions. Originally located in the East Village’s Rififi and later moved west to Webster Hall, the Trash Party was an outlet and home for any New Yorker who may have felt like an outcast or been sidelined at other clubs in town but was still drawn to the dance floor. Commanding the music was DJ Jess Marquis, who co-founded Trash in 2003 and continued to serve as its head DJ until the party stopped a year ago, in April 2014.
DJ Jess (born Jess Imler) believed in what he and Trash were accomplishing. Speaking to Cityzen.tv in a 2004 interview, he said, “Trash is a very DIY party. The kids put a lot of effort into it, and are very passionate about the music they hear. This isn’t one of your typical hipster parties, where everyone dresses in black and turns their back on the dance floor. They love and embrace the songs they hear and as a result can get slightly ‘disorderly,’ as the NYPD has so delicately phrased it. Still, the Bloomberg administration is intent on ending nightlife as we know it, and unless the city gets genuinely heated and excited about this debate, the city that never sleeps will become the city that mildly naps.”
Trash attracted scores of people from every corner of the city. And so when word began to circulate on social media last Thursday morning that DJ Jess had passed, the outcry was massive.
“He was a force of positive energy,” says Gerard McNamee, the general manger of Webster Hall. “He supported and directed and was a shoulder for countless kids over his fifteen-year tour in New York City. This is so fucking terrible. The whole town, if you will, is upside-down over this. It’s ineffable.”
Though the time and cause of death remain unreleased to the public, DJ Jess’s friend and partner in Trash, Alex Malfunction, said Sunday was the last his friends heard from him. An avid user of social media to promote his events and music, DJ Jess’s final non-automated tweet was published on April 5 at 9:30 p.m. and read, “What’s this from? ‘Death is our business. Business is good.’ ”
DJ Jess migrated to New York from Los Angeles sometime in the early 2000s to study at New York University. Exact details of his early life are hazy — including his age — but this is exactly how DJ Jess preferred to present himself. While still new to New York, DJ Jess (who went by Jesse at this time) met Andy Shaw while both played in local bands — a Morrissey cover band, in Jesse’s case — and the two bonded over a mutual appreciation for music. In 2003, when a newly re-branded DJ Jess decided to begin hosting Trash Parties, he called upon Shaw and his company, Shaw Promotion, for assistance.
“He pretty much helped me launch my career. I had never done promotion in New York City and had no connections and I was high and dry. That’s when he called me up and said he just started a new party called Trash at Rififi and he needed help with promotion,” recalls Shaw. “The first thing I did was go to the Trash party. This was just when Trash first started, and when I was there I noticed the attendance was pretty low, but I recognized the potential right away — mostly because of Jess. There were a lot of parties in New York City regardless, but Jess was the star and I could tell right away. He was very charming, like a magnet. People gravitated towards Jess.”
Shaw worked with DJ Jess to attract the fresh younger crowds coming in off the streets from NYU, Columbia, and Parsons.
“I grew up in New York City, and every year in September, I walk around and see the new students in NYC for the first time. They’re overexcited and looking for something to do. I told Jess, ‘These are the kids we need to get. We need to give them a home,’ ” he says. “And that’s exactly what we did. Trash became exactly that. Everybody gives credit to Jess and Trash for being where they met their boyfriend, their fiancé, where they met their best friends, best memories, because it’s not just a party. It’s their first experience in NYC for a lot of people, and they associate Trash with New York City.”
Included in this mix of nightlifers was Nate “Igor” Smith, who attended his first Trash Party on New Year’s Eve 2006. By that spring he was a regular.
“Jess just believed in the legacy of NYC nightlife and would really go out of his way to make everything as crazy and as fun as it could possibly be,” says Smith. “From the very first party I ever went to for Jess to the last, his attitude towards it was exactly the same. I feel like he just instilled this responsibility of ‘This is NYC nightlife and this is something more important than just getting drunk and fucking people.’ You really felt like you were part of something when you went to one of his parties.”
Smith had an interest in photography prior to meeting DJ Jess and credits him for launching his career, which is represented by his own photography blog, Driven by Boredom, and photos published by the Village Voice.
“I wouldn’t be a professional photographer if it wasn’t for Jess,” Smith says. “I remember when I first started doing nightlife, trying to get paid for party photography, which, you know, seems impossible, but Jess would hire people to host. And you’d get $100 and a bottle of vodka.”
Around three or four years ago, Anna Cecilia met DJ Jess and was soon inspired to DJ herself with Jess as her mentor.
“He took me under his wing and taught me how to DJ, eventually giving me a shot to DJ at the Trash Party,” she says. “He was always teaching me how to be better and giving me tips. He meant the world to me. He never just thought about himself; he would always think about everyone and wanted everyone to be happy. He would always say the show must go on. Nothing bad would stop him from doing what he loved to do.”
The Trash Parties came to an end on March 28, 2014, so that DJ Jess could turn his focus to producing his own music and remixes — but he never quit performing. In March, he returned to Webster Hall with his new event, Kill City Party. He released a handful of songs. The week of his passing, he debuted a remix of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
“I would go into the studio with him, in his apartment — he would always work on music in his apartment — and we would sit there and he’d ask, ‘Does this sound good?’ He’d produce different songs and sounds. At first his music started off as OK, but then it kept getting better and better. He was just starting to make his own music,” says Cecilia.
DJ Jess’s character prevails through the countless comments expressed on social media and in the testimony of friends and colleagues. He was an avid fan of raspberry vodka and it didn’t matter how bad the music was, he would still dance. He lived a few streets over from St. Marks in the East Village near the Taj Indian restaurant and loved his neighborhood. “To get Jess out of Manhattan and that [Village] area was like pulling teeth,” says Cecilia.
Smith refers to him “as much as a drama kid as you could possibly imagine. He’s like a Glee cast member but with a fucked-up New York City dark side.”
Webster Hall’s McNamee says DJ Jess “always welcomed the colorful kids, the misfits, the freaks, the clubs kids, the LGBT community.”
“I mean, he covered so much ground, Jess Marquis. When I first met him, you could tell by looking at him that he was an artist and he was also an entertainer. He could dance, sing, DJ, was fashionable, his energy was contagious — I don’t know what we’re going to do without him. He was irreplaceable.”
In the 2004 Cityzen.tv article (where DJ Jess was interviewed by Andy Shaw), it’s revealed that his initial start in NYC music and nightlife began with a personal ad in the Voice. It read, “Emotionally troubled, adorably absurd audiophile seeks someone to shoplift from H&M with, and to share massive music collection.”
Soon a quote follows, a statement that would certainly earn him a nod from his hero Morrissey.
“I don’t believe in love,” said DJ Jess. “There is only the memory of love, and the desire for.”
A memorial service for DJ Jess will be held at Webster Hall April 16 at 7 p.m.