Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

By 
Jonathan Schwab
Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

LOUISE WARD writes a message in a book for the family of the late George Pryde, whom the Wednesday morning musicians and audience honored during their jam session on Sept. 2 at Jordans Point Park. (All photos by Claudia Schwab)

Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

DAVID KEELING sings and plays his handheld drum during a recent jam session. Musicians joining him under the pavilion at the park are (from left) Don Henke, Bob Floyd, Kelly Harris, Brian Dearing, Steve Parent and Dan Newhall.

Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

PERFORMING at a jam session are (front, from left) Jim Payette, David Keeling, Dan Newhall, (back, wearing mask) Sam Newcomer and Steve Parent.

Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

SPREAD OUT along the grass at Jordans Point Park, the audience enjoys listening to the musicians one Wednesday morning.

Music ‘Experiment’ Goes On

PENNY NEWHALL (front left) and Kelly Harris (center) join Dan Newhall (front right) in singing. Accompanying musicians include (back, from left) Sam Newcomer, Bob Floyd and Steve Parent.

Wednesday Morning Jam Sessions Now At Jordans Point

Since the early 1980s, local musicians have been singing and jamming together nearly every Wednesday morning. The venues have changed and, except for a few individuals, many of the faces have changed. But the music lives on.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the area in March, the musicians had been meeting weekly at Grace Episcopal Church on Washington Street in Lexington. Taking precautions, the organizers chose to cancel the weekly music gatherings for nearly four months, from mid-March until early July.

After Virginia entered Phase III of reopening on July 1, the organizers and musicians decided to do a trial run of music on July 8 outside at Jordans Point Park, open to just a few musicians and regular helpers. Two weeks later, the musicians welcomed a larger audience. At a jam session on Sept. 16, there were 33 total attendees, 11 musicians and 22 audience members. The musicians play under the pavilion at Jordans Point, some of them wear masks when not singing, and listeners bring chairs, wear masks and socially distance.

The three organizers are Pat Anthony, Mona Hazera and Kay Lera. Ever since music resumed at Jordans Point Park, Hazera has regularly emailed musicians and attendees, including a list of guidelines to follow due to COVID-19. The musicians have been gathering every week, weather permitting, but they have been open to listeners just every other week, generally from 8 to 10 a.m. Today is an “on” week for audiences, with audiences next allowed Oct. 28.

Starting last week, the musicians started playing from 9 to 11 a.m. to give the musicians and audience more daylight and warmer temperatures. Cold weather will dictate how late in the year the musicians continue playing outside, Lera said. - - -

Anthony said Wednesday morning music “is a local treasure and we are happy the temporary outdoor venue allows us to bring back the music with necessary safety measures.”

Dan Newhall, who still shows up regularly to play bass and harmonica and sing, started the jam sessions with Burr Datz at Harb’s, where Sweet Treats Bakery is now, in the early 1980s. Gradually, more musicians heard about them and joined in, and the group developed a following of listeners. Originally, each musician got a free cup of coffee and a donut, but eventually there were too many musicians to provide that service.

Over the years, the jam sessions moved to different venues in Lexington. It was at the Lexington Coffee Shop for a long time before a copyright license was required. The music then moved to Marjorie Kasch’s private studio, Blue Sky Bakery, Blue Phoenix Café (current location of Legendary Eats) and then Grace Episcopal Church.

Newhall, a retired electronics technician at Washington and Lee University, said he’s always called the jam session a laboratory “because people are brave enough to make it not a show, but an experiment … New instruments, different ideas.”

Jordans Point Park is the first outdoor venue for the music, and Newhall said he feels safe, especially in the era of COVID-19. “Fresh air is essential,” he said. Newhall added that playing indoors in close proximity “doesn’t make sense, especially for the older musicians.” Most of the musicians are at a higher risk for COVID-19, in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Through all of life’s challenges, Newhall said that “there’s obviously a strong urge in people” to play music together. “It keeps you in shape,” he added, noting the musicians are active and constantly moving, using their hands and moving their feet.

Another regular performer is Dan Newhall’s wife, Penny, who sings. She and Dan have been singing together since the 1970s.

She said performing outside has gone well, even if the acoustics are a bit strange. “I think the church was the best place we had because there was lots of room and there was the kitchen there where they keep the coffee and [refreshments, with donation baskets],” she said. “I hope we can go back to the church.”

Another longtime performer is Kelly Harris, who has been coming to the jam sessions since late 1999. She met some of the musicians at a local music party after moving back to Rockbridge County that year, and some of them told her about the jam sessions at Harb’s. There was an old piano at Harb’s, so she didn’t sit in much but has been playing off and on since then. Now Harris plays the piano keyboard and sings.

At Jordans Point, she said, “I love the nature feel there. It seems more of a good old jam session than a performance. Though the weather is getting a bit chilly, I plan to hang on until my fingers are too frozen to play or we find the next venue, whichever comes first.

“I love that we all come from different eras, backgrounds, musical levels, play different instruments and musical styles,” she added. “Somehow, we seem to mesh pretty well most of the time. I have learned so much, even though I’ve been playing music and singing since I was a child and professionally for 47 years.”

David Keeling, who brings his handheld drum, said he enjoys performing with the group because “it makes me feel cheerful. Lexington isn’t as cheerful a town as it used to be. The music helps to bring back the cheerfulness.” Keeling likes to sing Calypso songs and make people laugh. “Musicians make fools of themselves.”

Another regular performer is Don Henke, who has been singing and playing harmonica with the group for about six years. “I look forward to coming here every week,” Henke said. “It’s a personal morale builder, with all the problems going on in the world. I think that the press often has all of the negative stuff. It’s really just an opportunity to get a little clearheaded on life.”

Henke said the number of musicians certainly hasn’t gone down since the outbreak of COVID-19. “I don’t feel all that differently about the rules that are asked to be followed,” Henke said. Whether or not they get a sizable audience, Henke said, “We do this regardless. We’re happy that people wander in off the street if they wish, and that’s great.”

In addition to entertaining the audience, the musicians make sure to pay tribute to those we have lost. They honored the late George Pryde, a former Lexington City Council member who died at age 82 in early August, by playing some of his favorite songs at Jordans Point on Wednesday, Sept. 2, and displaying photos of him. Musicians, family members and friends took turns telling stories about Pryde. Many of the musicians and regular attendees shared stories at a tribute to Pryde at Boxerwood Nature Center & Woodland Garden, where Pryde’s ashes were scattered, on Saturday, Sept. 19.

One of the speakers at the Boxerwood gathering was Lee Martin, who has been playing guitar and singing with the musicians for five-and-half years, after moving to Lexington following his career as a radio announcer in New York and Philadelphia.

On the months when the music was shut down after COVID-19 hit, Martin said, “I really missed it. I’m really glad to be able to do it again. It’s terrific camaraderie, probably more than anything, but playing music is central to my life and always has been since I was 9 years old.” Martin has played guitar since he was 15. Before that, he played ukulele.

Another regular musician is Beth Houser, a retired flight attendant, who sings and plays the fiddle and guitar. Houser had heard about the jam sessions from Lera, a longtime friend, a couple of years ago, but she didn’t start coming until about a year ago. I was flying a full schedule for many years, and I just couldn’t get up this early to be here because I was jetlagged all the time,” she said. “Now I’m retired, and so I’ve enjoyed using my musical instruments and hanging out with lovely people who love music as much as I do.”

Sam Newcomer has been playing guitar and singing for about 50 years, and he joined the jam sessions three years ago. “It’s something to do,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s a break from the monotony.” “I just like the simplicity of it.”

Newcomer recently convinced Bob Floyd, a guitarist, to join the jam sessions. “It’s a good place to hear all different styles of music,” Floyd said. “If you’re like me and just a hobbyist player, you can learn a lot from some of the more experienced people. It’s enjoyable, a lot of good fellowship. That’s really what I came for, to try to learn. You can always rogue a little bit off of a better player.”

At first, Floyd came to the music sessions and just sat and listened before he got comfortable playing. “I’m not the most confident man in the world, but they’re really forgiving, so if you screw up, it’s no biggie,” Floyd said.

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