By Mike Jurkovic
Think Globally, Listen Locally
The John Street Jam
"Steve and Terri do what they do, it seems, not for the musicians, the audience, or the church to whom the proceeds go, but for the good of music itself - humbly bowing before the muse then working their tails off to keep it alive." - Jen Clapp, HV singer/songwriter.
So who knew so honorable and grand an idea actually sprang from a night of cosmos at Nashville's legendary Bluebird Cafe? Husband and wife on vacation in Music City, trying to figure out how to raise money for their beloved Dutch Arms Chapel, located, where else, but on John Street in Saugerties.
"Yeah, that was December 2003," co-founder, archivist, host, and sound-man Steve Massardo recalls with a wry smile. "It's all we talked about in the car coming home."
"There are so many open mics, we just had to figure out how to do it differently and we loved the Bluebird's concept," co-conspirator, hostess, and chef extraordinaire Terri Massardo adds. "Whatever we did, we had to distinguish our gig from the rest."
As part of the spice in the Hudson Valley's vibrant musical stew, Steve and Terri know well when they speak of so many open mics. That's why, a little over one month later on January 31, 2004, the John Street Jam was inaugurated, but with an age old concept.
"The first couple jams were your usual open mic," both admit in retrospect. "Your usual coffeehouse thing . . . finger foods, refreshments, folks who showed willing to play for nothing, since all the proceeds went to the Chapel, which is a part of the Reformed Church of Saugerties."
"But we knew immediately we had to build a loyal audience of not just musicians looking to play," Steve quickly interjects. "That's how it goes with an open mic audience. Eighteen musicians arrive wanting to play to six regular people hoping to hear something inspiring. It can become a very long evening for everyone."
"I know it's somewhat subjective, but often the quality was hard to control," Terri adds just as quickly.
"I can't remember a time when the Dutch Arms Chapel wasn't jammed pack for the Jam! At $5 it's the best entertainment value in the Valley. I love it, and I love knowing them. They bust their butts for this, and there's no money involved for anyone. The Food Pantry (and consequently, those in need) are the technical beneficiaries, but all of us come out ahead!"- Cheryl A. Rice, HV poet/free-lance writer.
By March of 2004, they had decided on the concept that has made the John Street Jam the musical event to be at every second Saturday (and fifth Saturday, when the calendar gods bless us with one). Eight invited players from all over the country, some novices who have caught the duo's ear and imagination, others long standing talents, are divided into two rounds of four players each, stir each other and their SRO audience to new heights of musicianship, lyricism, and insight.
"We trawled through every club and open mic for a good while," Terri reflects with a weary and winning laugh. Steve nods in agreement at the late, long nights of finding the talent the audience entrusted them to find.
"Nothing unsettles the mind like the prospect of singing at the Jam. But once I start to play, I become a virtuoso guitarist and a poet for the ages, or at least it feels that way. Because that's what the audience seems to quietly crave; and once I loosen up I'm able to focus, and with gratitude, swim the warm water." - Kurt Henry, guitarist / singer / songwriter, host of Acoustic Thursdays at the High Falls Cafe, High Falls, NY.
"And the audience does trust you," Steve notes. "We see it in the same faces, month after month, coming back. At least 80% of audience returns every month."
"And the players trust us too," Terri reminds us.
"That's the great thing! Steve adds, a hint of deserved pride in his voice. "When I let the players know who they're playing with on what month, if they don't know each other they look each other up. They get pumped to play with their peers. By Saturday night they can't wait to take the stage."
Now that stage is in the Dutch Arms Chapel which is attached to the Reformed Church. Four chairs situated in a circle so the players can face each other. Four vintage floor lamps light up the player's circle. The audience of approximately one hundred are seated around them. No song or lyric is missed. No great lick or riff goes unheard. It could be unnerving, but no one finds it so.
"It's a win/win thing for everybody, and one of my favorite gigs. Audiences have learned to trust Steve & Terri's choices so there is always a great listening crowd."
- Elly Wininger, HV singer/songwriter
"Big applause to Steve and Terri for creating a one of a kind monthly occasion. It's always inspiring, heart warming and great fun! Wonderful audience and musicians, who needs more?" - Helen Avakian, HV guitarist/singer/songwriter
Off to the side is a table with fresh baked goods, hot coffee, soda, tea. It's $5 at the door.
From first hand experience I can tell you no one even goes to the bathroom during the rounds. It makes for long lines at intermission, but it creates a bonding respect between audience and performer. A respect that I can tell you, again from first hand experience, doesn't happen at the big name shows where everyone fiddles with cell phones and talks rudely when their favorite greatest hit isn't being played.
"It is a sacred moment each and every time I have participated in JSJ. That sacredness is a rarity, for audience & performer alike, and we are truly lucky to have it in our backyards." - Sean Schenker, singer/songwriter, member of The Trapps
In JSJ's illuminating eight year history, over 350 truly gifted musicians have brought light and assurance to their respective audiences. Whether he or she is coming from right around the corner on Partition Street, NYC or North Carolina, no one gets paid. But there are the Cornish hens, wine, and home made dessert. . .
"JSJ isn't just another show. The performance is the culmination of Steve & Terri's hospitality and warmth, which is at the heart of the entire experience. Before the show, performers meet at their home and share food, wine and songs. Often, collaborations are born and the musical community is made a little stronger. This is the essence that makes what they do special, and the music reflects that." - Todd Giudice, HV singer/songwriter, Producer @ Roots Cellar Recording
"We felt dinner was a great way for the musicians to meet each other and offer them something special in lieu of money. It's a wonderful way for everyone to get comfortable," chef Terri readily explains. "We invite each musician to bring their spouse, partner, or accompanist." It's here that I threaten the duo to come out of my musical retirement just for dinner!
"We were privileged to perform at JSJ. Besides being very talented artists and musicians, Terri and Steve are great hosts. We loved sipping wine by the pool, talking to fellow musicians. What an amazing evening!" Judith Tulloch & Steve Franchino, Cammy Poeme Music Productions
Being a presenter of poetry readings for eighteen years (the last eight Calling All Poets at The Howland Cultural Center in Beacon) there was one last question to ask. It is an often dark question that lingers in the air. How does the JSJ selection process work and how do they handle the delicate balancing act of who plays and who doesn't?
"At first, we reached out to who we knew and who those people knew to get things started," Steve begins, unafraid to dodge the dark question. "Now we let the musicians contact us. They send us their MP3's and press kits."
"Two people can look at a painting and see two different things," they say simultaneously, then Steve continues. "Art of all disciplines is hugely subjective. You can listen to one poet or musician and it strikes a nerve or it doesn't."
"That's pretty much how we do it. I usually get the yay or nay, but if I'm on the fence about someone, I pass them on to Terri. If we both can't decide, we'll take a chance and invite someone in. We've been burned a couple times, but overall the musicians present themselves as who they are."
"But . . ." I impose.
"Well there are those we don't invite," he admits, "and unfortunately I've had to make it almost like a standard, I hate to say it, rejection letter/email. If the musician responds asking for constructive criticism, I'll go into it as much as I can."
"In the end it's not about Terri and me, it's about what our audience trusts us to do and the respect the players have for the themselves, the music, and the process. Without those things, we might still be doing the usual open mic thing. We've been extremely fortunate in that regard."
"Every month, like magic, Steve and Terri manage to bring together a remarkable community of listeners and performers to enjoy one another in an intimate, joyful space.
It's always a pleasure to play the jam." - Kelleigh McKenzie, HV singer/songwriter
ps: While discussing the future of JSJ, I forgot to mention that Steve and Terri are entertaining the idea of a possible radio show and live performances posted online.
For more info: www.johnstreetjam.net & on facebook