The Kids Are All Right
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."
Indeed, if Douglas's somewhat grizzled brand of gregariousness doesn't win kids over, Brock's soothing alto and motherly manner tend to make even the youngest participants feel safe in the spotlight. In fact, she reveals that one six-year-old who'd received a harmonica as a birthday gift offered to brave the stage "only if he could stand next to me." Other Kodak moments the stage has produced in recent weeks include the image of ten-year-old bassist Haylee Brown plucking an instrument roughly as tall as she is.
As for the quality of the music such participants deliver, it ranges from painfully pedestrian to a level of precocity that could have teen-pop impresario Lou Pearlman kicking himself for not dreaming up the juniors' jam first. In particular, a recent installment found McGregor wetting his reed with an off-key rendition of "Amazing Grace" before eventually finding a groove with the help of sax/harmonica specialist Jeff "J.D." Dorn, a longtime denizen of Denver's music community whose resumé includes a stint with regional rockers Pat Foley and the Flyers and a fill-in appearance with James Brown's horn section. It took mere minutes for Dorn to get McGregor piping in and out of the mix like a Blues Brother in training, harmonizing with the older musician's alto licks and even chiding him for taking unintended liberties with the tune's time signature.
Walker, on the other hand, acquitted himself admirably both as a slide man and a singer on the Dylan chestnut "Highway 61 Revisited," revealing a sturdy growl that sharply contrasts with his sometimes taciturn nature. Other selections routinely assailed at the sessions include "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and "Summertime," with seven to ten performers (including Adrian's father Al McGregor on drums and bassist Craig Sullivan) on stage at once and hand percussion instruments such as maracas often being distributed among additional aspirants seated nearby.
The gatherings' growing popularity might come as a surprise to some, but not to Douglas.
"When it popped into my mind, I knew it was needed," he says. "I guess the only surprise is the ongoing revelation of how good these kids are, how smart they are and how much they need to actually play."
Initially, Brock admits, she was afraid that other kids might not share Clark's enthusiasm for playing in public, which would have put a serious crimp in the cafe's turnout. "So it was a nice surprise when people started calling even before the first jam had happened. Not everyone showed up at once, but it's a surprise every week, because each jam session is a new mix. It's a new energy, a new kind of passion that different people bring in. That's what's exciting about it."
Indeed, the sessions appear to have generated significant interest among adult performers as well, who frequently wander in and out with axes in hand for a chance to get their own grooves on, sometimes before heading off to paying gigs later that evening. But when asked if there's any danger that these long-in-the-tooth "kids" could begin crowding out those for whom the event is designed, Brock doesn't fret. So far, she says, "I'm happy to see that most of the adults there represent the families of the kids who come to play." As such, she assumes they'll be more than happy to step aside if and when the number of youths showing up necessitates it.
"Even if there were four or five young sax players," Brock adds, "they might all still appreciate having an adult player there to give them some ideas and leads they haven't learned yet. It's not just about the kids being on stage as stars -- it's like any kind of jam, where even adults can sit down and learn stuff that people older than them have figured out. We're all here to learn. It's a really great energy, and I think the kids appreciate that, too."
Also appreciated by everyone involved is the decided lack of stage-parent mentality, which can drive families to push their progeny into the limelight whether said progeny want it or not. "Kids aren't just showing up to be obedient to their parents," Brock asserts. "Actually, it's the parents, in a real sense, who are acknowledging their children's interest. Another thing I didn't expect is that there's a lot of family bonding that goes on, because a lot of the kids who play have parents who either are musicians or have a real passion for music on some level. So I don't see any of that living-through-their-kids energy."
One thing she and her husband would like to see, however, is more young people on stage. It's something of a misnomer to label the sessions a kids' jam, they've realized, in that this tag tends to turn off teenagers, who often don't consider themselves kids or want nothing to do with the Barney demographic. In truth, the get-together is geared toward "anyone too young to get into a bar," Douglas says, adding that an age-eight-and-up restriction he originally devised is only loosely enforced.
"We'd also like to get one more club" in which to host a similar hootenanny, possibly one more centrally located, Douglas reveals. Also on his wish list is a home for the jam after April: He recently learned the Abstract Caffé is being sold. At press time, it was unclear whether its new owner would keep the sessions intact, so Douglas was working on a handful of backup possibilities. One thing that's unlikely to change is the feeling of safety the jams foster. Along with teaching people how to share, Brock says, "music is about coming to some point of trust in yourself and with the audience and knowing that if you screw up, that's okay, because you can do it right the next time. There's a lot of levels of strength I think a person gains through music." And that's an apt lesson for jammers of any generation.
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