What began with casual jam session in Vincent and Anni Beach’s front yard has grown beyond anything Anni ever imagined at the time.
Now, 17 years later, she says the players of the Jam Pack Blues ‘n’ Grass Neighborhood Band have given far more to her and her husband than they’ve ever taken — and that includes all the gas money, groceries, instruments, Winnebago repairs and energy the couple could scrape together over the years.
“People probably look at me and say, ‘I don’t know how she does it.’ Well, I don’t know how I do it. I just do it. I’ve made mistakes along the way, and it just evolves, like anything. But when you can get together on a Sunday afternoon, like in the old days, and just play music together, and teach each other different things, that’s a great thing,” says Beach.
The band, which plays Friday at the Downtown Chandler ArtWalk, started in 1994, when a couple of neighborhood kids stopped at the Beach’s Chandler home to see if Anni would play her mandolin for them. Word of the musical couple (Vincent had been a bandsman in the U.S. Air Force) got around, and before long enough kids were stopping by for once-a-week jam sessions that the couple — former teachers and recipients of a National Excellence in Parenting Award by the National Parents’ Day Council — figured they’d better find a way to teach the youngsters something useful.
They turned to the canjo, a simple, inexpensive instrument made of a vegetable can and a neck with a single string and a fret scale, like a guitar or banjo.
“Everybody learned to play on those. They were the only instruments we had, except for my mandolin, for four years. And, in fact, we played our first bluegrass festival on those, on just one string,” recalls Beach.
As the band garnered attention in bluegrass circles, donations of instruments trickled in, and more children arrived, bringing friends. Most had no musical training whatsoever, but no one was turned away for lack of skill.
Before long, 15 to 20 kids were in the group, and adults who could play or sing were volunteering to help.
Today, the band has about 37 members, ages 5 to 90, who play festivals and other gigs. Each member is expected to help the musician next to him.
“As soon as they learn things, they teach the next ones. It’s a very communal learning process; that’s a big part of what we do. There’s no audition,” says Beach.
Practices, held twice per week, are still pretty casual, and they’re still held at the Beach house. Everyone crowds in on chairs set up in Anni’s tiny living room.
But Vincent — the band’s quiet and much-loved caretaker — is no longer there. The World War II veteran passed away last year, at 85.
“The children looked after him a long time, with me. He was very, very beloved. In fact, he called himself the Supreme Baloney Sandwich Maker. He was down with Parkinson’s Plus (progressive supranuclear palsy), and when he could no longer do other things, he could still make their sandwiches two days a week. He was right here in the living room, under hospice (care) for 17 months, so we played around him,” Beach says. “He never complained. He was always here, and he never minded the noise. He always wanted to be a part of it all.”
The band remembers Vincent’s steady, unassuming spirit, talking of him often and visiting the veteran’s cemetery where he was laid to rest. A song, “Simple Box of Pine,” written in memory of Vincent by bluegrass singer/songwriter Thomas Porter, is available on iTunes. It refers to Vincent’s coffin, a homemade box built by band members and signed with loving messages by those who knew him.
Bluegrass, folk and gospel aren’t genres you expect kids to warm to, but, Beach says, the music has created a family over the years. Children who have grown, moved away and started families of their own come back, and new youngsters join.
“It’s easy to learn, to start with. You learn about three chords, and you can play,” she says. “But then, too, bluegrass is a very social genre. It’s meant to be done together, and (the band) is very communal. We gather. We eat. We hang out. They go and jam — even the littlest ones — for a couple of hours. And, of course, some are playing pool or doing their homework.”
Beach, who picked up the mandolin for the first time at age 40, says it doesn’t matter to her whether Jam Pak kids go on to Julliard or professional music careers.
“My goal is that they make it a life skill. Once they get into it, most of them will play forever. Music is all around us, and there’s a reason for that. It uplifts us. When you learn to make it yourself, it’s a wonderful thing. If everybody who knew how to play an instrument taught just one child to play, what a lifelong gift that would be.”
The Downtown Chandler Art Walk is 6 to 10 p.m. Friday on the ground floor of the Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort, 1 San Marcos Place. Admission is free. For information, call (480) 855–3539 or visit www.downtownchandler.org or www.jampak.com.
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