On a recent Thursday evening 13 people gathered at the Montpelier Senior Center’s meeting room. There’s a big circle of chairs and the folks take out instruments and start tuning. Several size ukuleles, a couple of guitars, fiddles, banjos and a bass fiddle are tuned and ready to go. It’s the bi-weekly jam session and the attendees are eager to make music.
The jam grew out of a program organized by the center’s Bob Barrett, which now welcomes people of all ages and virtually all skill levels. Leading the jam are Jacob and Greta Stone on banjo and guitar respectively and Susan Reid on fiddle.
As the jam progresses it’s obvious that there aren’t any virtuosos here, but that’s not the point. All the attendees are strumming, picking and bowing away on their instruments, and a reasonable sounding rendition of the various tunes fills the space.
“If the jam wasn’t available,” says Barrett, who plays ukulele, “I don’t think that we would have tried to learn playing by ear.” He reflected on the usefulness of the experience saying, “the Jam has been a unique opportunity to play in a fun, casual environment with other musicians.” With a nod to the Stones and Reid he praises them as “welcoming and supportive of everyone in the group at whatever level you can play.”
Montpelier has emerged in musical quarters as a community with many musicians and several opportunities to get together with similarly interested players to make music through jamming. Within 20 miles of the city, ranging as far north as Cabot, there are several weekly or bi-weekly jams for old-time musicians, Irish music, and Swedish fiddle among others.
“Playing with other people makes you a better musician, and it’s fun,” said Jacob Stone. “You learn to listen, learn new tunes by ear, and listen to those around you.”
“It’s a cross fertilization,” adds Greta Stone.
The couple moved to Montpelier from Bucks County, Pennsylvania eight years ago. At the time they played folk and bluegrass music and were in a local band.
“When I first started playing here there were so many tunes I didn’t know and now they are part of my standard repertoire,” he acknowledged.
The tunes that pop up at the jam can be diverse and eclectic.
“We play Celtic, bluegrass, old time and folk music, and virtually any other acoustic music that interests the group,” explains Jacob Stone.
At a recent jam, for example, the leaders led the players through Scottish and Irish traditional tunes, some old-time American tunes, “and even some Johnny Cash and Kingston Trio songs.”
Why Montpelier has become a resident community for such a variety of music is based on geography and serendipity. The musical diversity that fuels the jams, said Greta Stone, “goes way back; it’s not recent.” She points to a long-standing fiddle playing community in Vermont, one that has been influenced by Quebecois music and the New England bouillabaisse of Celtic, French-Canadian and old-time music. More recently, the late David Kaynor, a multi-instrumentalist and well-respected fiddler, brought an interest in Swedish music when he led the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra.
There’s also the generous sharing of tunes and technique and the encouragement from musicians like fiddler Katie Trautz, teacher and multi-instrumentalist Pete Sutherland, the Summit School of Traditional Music, and the popularity of the ongoing Vermont Fiddle Orchestra.
While the jam here is predominantly seniors, who by nature have more time to pursue musical interests, the session encourages all ages of players and levels.
“We want to share the joy of playing together with people who aren’t pros and not highly skilled,” said Greta Stone. “We are kind of a bridge to hone your skills and the first step toward playing with more highly skilled people.”
An important aspect of the jam, said Stone, is that “playing music with others has to do with more than musical skills, it’s connecting with others you build a community. The jam is a little community of connection support and sharing the joy.”
When asked why he attends the jams Andrew Jackson was quick to respond. “I guess mostly for the music and the socializing.” He’s admittedly “not an advanced guitarist, just competent enough to have fun.” But ability aside, he said “I love traditional fiddle and dance tunes and I’m very supportive of any way to get new folks to play and enjoy them too.”
A list of tunes that are revisited with some regularity, with the music and audio files is, available on the North Atlantic Tune List, natunelist.net From that home page go to the “Slow Jams Practice Tunes,” then to the “Montpelier Slow Jam” page.