By Drew AIles
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From Swallow Hill to Schenectady, open-stage jam sessions tend to bring out the kid in even the most aging artists. So imagine what might happen if a good portion of the participants at a particular venue actually were too young to know Bessie Smith from the Smithereens. That's precisely the idea behind a Saturday-afternoon gathering known informally as the "Kids' Jam" that's been running for the past two months at Arvada's Abstract Caffé.
The sessions, which take place from 3 to 6 p.m. amid the cafe's eclectic mix of funky sandwiches, musty board games and dineresque chic, are the brainchild of 44-year-old Jack Douglas, a gravel-throated folkie who plied his trade as far east as New York and New England before settling down in his native Colorado. The jam's genesis was "kind of an accident," says Douglas. He'd been performing regularly at the cafe with his wife of three and a half years, local singer-songwriter Phyllis Brock, he explains, when the two were asked by Abstract owner Bob Athearn if they'd consider a weekly booking geared toward kids. As the stepfather of twelve-year-old Clark Walker -- Brock's son from a prior marriage whom Douglas considers to be something of a musical prodigy -- he says the idea of providing youngsters with a forum to rock out had been "fermenting" in his mind for some time; Athearn's offer simply brought it to a boil.
Douglas's willingness to usher in an all-ages jam session stemmed largely from his belief that youthful musicians are frequently held back by teachers who can't comprehend how their charges might benefit from being allowed to cut loose on occasion. Like the Suzuki method, which teaches youngsters to play musical instruments by acquainting them early on with actual songs rather than boring them with scales and arpeggios ad infinitum, the jam session puts kids in contact with their own muses, as well as with bighearted local players. "This is a forum to bring teachers and kids together -- 'teachers' meaning people who actually play the music and don't have a vested interest" in charging pupils for pricey lessons, Douglas says.
A six-string veteran of four years, young Walker studied trumpet for a time. During one semester, Douglas notes with disgust, his stepson was taught, "like, three notes." Granted, Walker might not have been the most willing student. Various attempts to interest him in performing-arts programs offered at local schools failed, Brock reveals, when it was discovered that none offered an instrumental-oriented curriculum that wasn't geared toward either the classical or jazz genres. At the same time, though he's said to possess verbal acumen equivalent to that of students two years his senior, Walker suffers from attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities related to eye-hand coordination that make tasks such as reading a frustrating experience. At most schools, Brock states, "you can't very well get up and sing your report," which goes a long way toward explaining why Walker is currently being home-schooled.
"Yet he can play guitar for three hours straight," his mother marvels. And he frequently does so during his biweekly appearances at the jam, save for an occasional break to sip java or snarf down something gooey. The jams provide Walker with more than a creative outlet; equally important is the exposure he gains to musically minded peers like Adrian McGregor, an O'Connell Middle School student whose year and a half of saxophone experience obviously includes more than one private lesson. (Hearing McGregor warm up with the opening salvo from "Take the A Train" is almost enough to restore one's faith in the future of our nation, or at least of perpetually strapped jazz outlets such as KUVO.) As soon as you hit the Abstract's ground-level stage area, says McGregor -- who unabashedly lists B. B. King and Kenny G. among his favorite artists -- "you figure out why you're learning all that stuff."
For his part, Walker's not about to swap his Hendrix CDs for those of George Benson. He has, however, approached the sax-toting McGregor about putting a separate project together. Of course, not all of the pairings engendered by the open-stage event are musical ones. These are adolescents, after all. When asked if she's encountered any hotties during her participation in the sessions, fourteen-year-old Jamie Crain, who never sang a note outside of a school choir until making her scat-singing debut earlier this year at the jam, replies with an enthusiastic "Oh, yeah," confessing to a crush on one of the players' older brothers.
It's the music, though, that remains the sessions' main attraction, along with the kid-friendly vibe fostered by the smoke-free cafe -- which suspends alcohol sales for the afternoon -- and its homespun hosts. It's this combination that appeals to young artists-in-training like Amanda Hinshaw, who's occasionally been coaxed into contributing backing vocals to rousing renditions of "Don't Call Me If You Don't Want Me," a should-be standard penned by Massachusetts-based songwriter Roy Moore.
"One reason I like the place is 'cause, I don't know, it's, like, a warm environment. People will talk to you. They'll be like, 'Come on and sing!' At first I was really shy, and then I realized there was nothing to be shy about. Nobody's going to be like, 'Ooh, you suck.' People there are just nice."