Bee Ridge Park Jam: 15 years of bluegrass, country and gospel

[Originally published in This Week in Sarasota]

 

Last Thursday  gave me an opportunity to do two cool things:

  1.  Fulfill a pledge made two months ago to visit and report on one local open mic per month, then report back on its unique “flavor.”
  2. Answer a question I didn’t even know I had: What’s the difference between an “open mic” and a “jam”?

This opportunity arose via my friend Steve, who mentioned the other day in passing that a jam happens every Thursday in a park by his house near Bee Ridge. Having never heard of this, my interest was piqued. Maybe I could cover this as part of  my open mic exploration?

But wait—would this “count” if it’s a jam? … What is the difference?

Then Steve mentioned that he’d  been meaning to go out there to hear the music and meet his neighbors, and it was all over for me … as an avid promoter of neighbor-knowing and as a nerdy girl who’s curious about the definitions of things, I knew I had to go!

Come Thursday, it took some phone-calling to find my way to Bee Ridge Park (no, I do not own a do-everything-phone), but the location was easy to spot once I got on the right road.

Pleasant residential blocks opened up to a wide green space with hordes of cars spilling from the parking lot and onto the grass. Steve and his housemate greeted me with Steve’s specialty in arm—Chicken-Shrimp Tiki Masala—and we headed to the jam area. The mellow sound of guitars and other acoustic strings grew clearer as we neared a pavilion, filled with folks sitting at concrete picnic tables with more folks lounging and listening in their own portable chairs.

 

“Mellow” pretty well sums up the feel of the jam.  As Steve had advertised to me, the music played was bluegrass, country and gospel. A core of four or five people stayed standing, playing and singing while other folks came up for songs then sat back down, and another row of folks sat strumming banjoes, fiddles and I’m honestly not sure what else on the benches closest to the performance.

Without asking, I began to get the feeling of what might be different between a “jam” and an “open mic.” Unlike open mics I had attended, this musical gathering seemed to be more of a flowing body of performers coming in and out, without any major break or singled-out performance. The effect of this, and perhaps of the music genre, was also “mellow.” As some players shifted in and out, others shifted instruments while the core sound remained steady. I also noticed that the audience listened raptly, unlike some other open mics I have attended.

Steve, his roommates and I hung out in the back, not having brought any sitting contraptions of our own, enjoying Chicken-Shrimp Masala and the wafting, pleasant strains of this easy-going music and its calm crowd in the fading light of the evening. I thought to myself, What a nice way to spend a Thursday evening!

 

 

As dark fell and 9 p.m. rolled around, the players ceased playing and the audience members began emptying out the pavilion.

Stanley, regular attendee and possible future player.

I caught up with an older gentleman whose outfit I loved on first sighting:  bright white overalls over a pink and purple tropical print button-down shirt. His name turned out to be Stanley, and the outfit a combined memorial to his two late wives—one piece given by each. Jovial and accommodating, Stanley informed me that this is a weekly outing for him and a welcome way to get out of the house and enjoy string music. One of these days, he might bring his banjo and join in. Stanley also pointed out the core organizers of the jam—three people who were loading up instruments and equipment into the back of a van.

Don Campbell, co-host.

I approached and had the pleasure of meeting Charlie HolbrookGinger King-Holbrook and Don Campbell, the jam’s host team. The longest-running host on the team, Charlie, is a retired tool and die maker originally from Kentucky who grew up around bluegrass, country and gospel music. Ginger, his wife, hails from New Jersey and has always loved music. The two met at the jam when she finally decided to cross the line between observer and participant and picked up her own stringed instrument. Don is a friend of Charlie’s who jumped in to help years ago. The trio works well to keep the duty of coordinating from weighing too heavily on anyone.

 

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April: How did this get started?

Charlie Holbrook: The jam got started over 15 years ago—exactly how long I don’t remember. A few of us used to go down to Venice to a jam down there and there were three of us; another fellow said well, let’s start one here, ’cause it’s close to home. It’s just grown and grown. [At the biggest turn out, Don] quit counting at 250.

Ginger King-Holbrook and Charlie Holbrook.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Holbrook.

 

AD: How does it work?

CH: It’s an open jam, with a few simple rules and regulations. We limit it to acoustic instruments; basically, your bluegrass jam etiquette is expected. Guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins—that’s about it really.

AD: What has made you keep doing it?

CH: All my life it’s been music; in fact, hanging on my wall is my mother’s fiddle she got when she was 11 or 12 years old, and she was born in 1921. My dad was more or less a singer; my brothers had a little gospel group. Just been music in my life ever since I can remember. It comes very natural to me, very natural.

AD: What good things have you seen come out of it?

CH: Well, we put a lot of smiles on people’s faces. They tell us how much they appreciate it. We have brought a lot of use to the park on Thursday nights and that helps them keep it going. One of the guys who came got started there; now he has one of the best bluegrass bands, Highway 41 South.

AD: Compared to other music stuff happening around town, what makes the Bee Ridge Jam special?

CH: Actually, the venue that it’s at. It’s open, has more of a public venue. Other places, it’s usually a hired band that lets other people join in with them.

Ours, for some reason or other, people say it’s special … There’s just something about it.

AD: So what’s kept you doing this all these years?

CH: Well like I said, I love my music. And it’s something we started many years ago with my friend who passed away. He was like a second brother to me, we were just so close. So to keep something going that we started together is just special to me. I love to put a smile on people’s face and make people happy.

AD: Forgive my ignorance, but can you tell me the difference between an open mic and a jam?

CH: Open mic is where they usually have a back-up band and they will come in and get up to the mic and sing or play a song with a back-up band.  One person gets to come up there and does this, that or another. Ours is so open, so we call it a jam. At an open mic, you play a little bit and sit down. At a jam, everybody gets to join in.

AD: Is that something common in bluegrass?

CH: Actually it is. That’s pretty much the way most of it is played. Actually is, and country also.

AD: Do you have a favorite bluegrass band?

CH: Highway 41 South.

AD: Would you say that hosting this jam for so many years has changed you?

CH: Yes it has. It’s given me a great feeling inside, a great feeling of pride that this thing is going, with no more effort than showing up on Thursday night very religiously and playing ourselves. That’s payment to me. I guess I’m an entertainer at heart.

AD: Anything else you want people to know?

CH: There are very few rules, but we do have rules. No washboards and spoons. We say you can’t do that because the person next to you won’t be able to hear anything else that’s going on. There’s no alcohol under the pavilion. And we ask everybody to hold the chatter down [except between sets].

AD: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a jam of their own? 

CH: Make some rules and stick to ’em. It’s not an easy thing. It started out just two or three of us, four or five. Takes time—don’t get impatient. The thing is to get together and play. Just play and have a good time. People hear about it through word of mouth, and it’s amazing how it will grow.

AD: Do you have any particular hopes for the jam in the future? 

CH: That when I get too old for this, somebody else will take over. Floyd, he’s the one started this thing; before he passed, he’d come out and sing. When he got too weak, I took over for him. So I’d like to see someone take it on and keep it going after me.

AD: What’s your favorite thing about it?

Ginger King-Holbrook: I think what [Charlie] feels and myself is the enjoyment and the smiles people show you, and as they come week to week they become like an extended family. They get cards for each other. If people get sick, they’ll go and visit each other and make sure they’re okay.  Also the people who come are very supportive and will go out to other events we suggest.

 

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About Don, Ginger added, “He’s been a great person to be there and adds so much to it. He’s become one of us—he’s Charlie’s best friend.”

The Bee Ridge Jam offers a flavor of music and gathering which I found mirrored in the demeanor of Bee Ridge Jam’s host team: sweet and sincere, rooted in story, place and a love for life. It offers a regular, welcoming space in this town where park benches are now a rarity and people tend to stay inside. Finally, it fosters bonds of caring and creative camaraderie among those who attend. These strike me as an invaluable asset.

 

Do you have stories to add about this or other local jams?

Can you add insight into the difference between a jam and an open mic? Which do you prefer—and why?

Share your responses in the comments section below!

 

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MORE INFO:

 

BEE RIDGE JAM SESSION

“Come One – Come All”

Every Thursday at  7:00 to 8:30 p.m.
Bee Ridge Park
(Corner of Wilkinson Road and Lockwood Ridge Road)

 

OPEN MICS PREVIOUSLY VISITED:

Open mics: growing and connecting local talent  (Growler’s Pub, Tuesdays)
A Circle Intact: Old Packinghouse open mic links young and old  (Mondays)

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