Jammin’ out at The Village Green

Blue Ridge Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) are still getting their groove on while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions by holding weekly socially-distanced strumming sessions at The Village Green.

JAM is an educational and instructional nonprofit that teaches students from southern Jackson County the history and culture of music in the area as well as instrument instruction, said Sarah Hall, JAM Program Director.

JAM meets on Monday afternoons at The Village Green, offering lessons for students in grades 3-12 in guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. Students also have opportunities to try autoharp, dulcimer and upright bass. 

Students in JAM practice with more experienced players at the beginning of the session, and then play with everyone towards the end.

During jam sessions, beginners meet separately with more experienced players for instruction and then everyone gets together to tear it up as a socially-distanced group.

Joshua Velazquez, 18, has been involved with JAM for 4 years and learned how to play guitar because of it.

“I’ve always wanted to learn guitar, and JAM has opened so many doors in my life,” said Velazquez. “They teach you how to play and the history of the music. It’s the best way to learn from more experienced people, and now I’m teaching younger kids.”

Joshua Velazquez works with a younger student at The Village Green on Monday.

Tristan Fisher, 11, has also been with JAM for 4 years and said she has learned a great deal.

“I keep coming back because it’s fun to be able to sit down and play with everyone and learn the history of the music,” said Fisher. “When I first started I wanted to learn guitar and I have learned a lot.”

On left is Tristan Fisher strumming her guitar at a JAM session on Monday.

JAM is in it’s 5th year of operations (2 semesters a year) and Hall said they had to limit the number of students this semester because of COVID-19, especially with younger students who want to pick up an instrument for the first time because it would be too difficult with pandemic restrictions.

Students also take part in “Prime Time,” which includes games, dance, crafts, stories, guest speakers, and guest performers, said Hall.

Tuition is $75 per semester, but many students participate tuition-free thanks to donors.

“No student is turned away for lack of funds,” said Hall.

Blue Ridge JAM is a 501c3 charitable organization.

Blue Ridge JAM receives funding from Church of the Good Shepherd, Cullasaja Women’s Outreach, Cashiers Community Fund – CFWNC, Wade Hampton Foundation Fund, Mountain Youth Charities, and other donors.

For more information about Blue Ridge JAM click HERE.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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JAM Instructors include:

Sarah Hall serves as program director for JAM-Blue Ridge. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Theory and Composition from Appalachian State and a Masters in Music Education from UNC-G. She is currently music teacher for Blue Ridge School and Blue Ridge Early College. She has previously taught for Pfeiffer University, Catawba College, and Western Carolina University and in public schools in Rowan and Mecklenburg counties. Her other jobs have included Director of Education for a symphony orchestra, arts reporter for a newspaper, magazine editor, church music director, founding director of the Amadeus Youth Choir and founder of the Salisbury (NC) School of Music.

Jacquelyn Golden began violin at the age of 5, learning from Suzuki teacher Jean Dexter, and by age 6, Jacquelyn had already decided to become a violin teacher as well. After obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in music education in 1999, focusing on violin, she returned to her first teacher and started the process of learning how to become a Suzuki violin teacher. She has now tempered the rigidity of Suzuki with fiddle technique and improvisation, and is teaching online lessons to fiddle students. Jacquelyn loves improvisation and creating harmony parts. She is using this passion for improvisation in teaching students to harmonize, even from the beginning of playing their fiddles.

Gerald Haskins has been making music for almost 60 years. Starting as a piano player in a Dixieland band in the early ‘60s, he later became the front man and upright bass player in a jazz trio. After a short stint on bass with the San Francisco Civic Orchestra, he formed a folk duo (on guitar) which toured extensively in Mexico and the Caribbean before finally winding up teaching guitar in England. Along the way he has done broadcasts of his poetry for the BBC, some of which have been picked up by theater companies, translated into regional dialects, and performed around the UK. His latest love is the ukulele, which as he says “…is a great instrument because it only has four strings, while we have five fingers for fretting!”

Debbie Lassiter has been playing violin for over 50 years, starting lessons and playing with the school orchestra in 5th grade in Chicago. After moving to Atlanta, she played with the Dekalb County Community Orchestra and Atlanta Emory Orchestra during high school and college. Since moving to Highlands/Cashiers she has been performing for 20 years with the Summer Chapel gospel/bluegrass band and Nocturne, a classical chamber trio. Debbie is chairperson of the Blue Ridge JAM Advisory Council and assists teaching the JAM fiddle class. With her love of music and children she brings a wealth of experience and energy to the program.

Jennifer McKee is song and dance leader and instrumental assistant for JAM-Blue Ridge. Jennifer teaches fifth and sixth grade language arts and social studies for Blue Ridge School, dedicating her Monday afternoons to JAM as a volunteer. She grew up in a musical family — singing, dancing, and playing a variety of instruments with her parents and siblings. Her family ties run deep in Western NC, and she is well-versed in local history.

Lindy Spring comes from a musical family on both sides. She began taking violin lessons at age seven, often accompanied by her published composer father on the piano. In college she played with the Rollins Baroque ensemble while studying with Alphonse Carlo, concertmaster of the Florida Symphony. Although trained classically, she grew up with traditional and bluegrass music in the mountains of North Carolina in the summer, and enjoys playing and learning different styles of music. She currently plays at various community productions, churches, and weddings in the Highlands, NC area.

Dusk Weaver has taught for Blue Ridge JAM since its beginning in Fall 2016, and he served as director of Jackson County JAM from May 2012 – June 2017. Dusk is well known in the region as a singer/songwriter and recording artist, having released two CD albums and a CD single of original music that reviewers coined “StorySong Americana.” His songwriting, music, and singing voice won hearty praise from the late Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame standout Mickey Newbury, who served as a mentor to Dusk. Mr. Weaver also studied songwriting under the direct tutelage of Berklee School of Music legend Pat Pattison. Dusk is an award-winning author and a featured member of the Poetic Genius Society. His illustrated children’s book entitled “Bill Willy the Wild (Who Isn’t a Boy at All!)” will be published in 2020.

Charles Wood has been a first-place winner in numerous banjo competitions including the Osippee Valley Maine Contest, the Rockygrass Banjo Contest in Lyons, Colorado, South Carolina’s Renofest State Banjo Contest, the Merlefest Banjo Contest in Wilkesboro, and the Winfield National Banjo Contest in Winfield, Kansas. He has performed professionally since age 18 when he began playing with ex-Bill Monroe sideman Curtis Blackwell and his band, The Dixie Bluegrass Boys, touring throughout the eastern United States. Since then, his appearances have included “A Prairie Home Companion,” two tours in Austria and Germany with The Lonesome Road Band, teaching at the Munich Germany Banjo Camp in Oct 2009 and various regional and national Bluegrass festivals. Wood was invited by Steve Martin to perform with him and Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, and Tony Ellis at the 2005 New Yorker Festival in New York City. With this group he made an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. Wood currently performs with Asheville-based band Nitrograss. Wood has recorded five albums. He teaches lessons to students in upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina and offers lessons online as well.

Norma Jean Zahner took “Beginning Guitar” as an elective in the public school system in Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to Highlands, NC in the fall of 1973. With encouragement and tutoring from her local high school teachers, Doyle Calloway, and other musicians she has been performing throughout the Southeast at public and private events for 40 years.

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