Despite the cold, pitch-black evening, 13 spry, spirited men and women gathered together for their weekly ukulele jam. Walking in the door of the Pebble Gallery at Featherstone, I was warmly welcomed by Ruth Meyer, Marilyn Scheerbaum, and the initiator of the group, Deidre DeCarion, who began the jam six years ago. Deidre recalls, “I just felt like there needed to be some music, and I love music. And I love playing the uke (known to us plebes as the ukulele). I spoke to Ann Smith [director of Featherstone] and said, ‘Ann, how about if we start a ukulele group?’ and she said, ‘Fine,’ so I said, ‘Great!’ We started with four or five of us, and it grew by word of mouth, and we advertise it too.” Currently, there is a beginner class from 6:15 to 7 pm, and then the rest of the gang arrives. “In the beginning,” Deidre reports, “it was a two-hour evening. The first hour was instruction because most of the people couldn’t play at that time.”
Marilyn Scheerbaum, one of the mainstays of the group, explained that their jam sessions don’t include musicians improvising solos and vamping on tunes, but rather the simpler casual type of social gatherings and communal practices. She said, “Deidre wanted this to be informal, open to anyone who has an interest, to always be free, and most of all to be fun! And the jam is fun. Most walk away with smiles. We have at least one member who claims this serves as his weekly therapy session. And it is a fine arena in which to find new friends.”
Like a lot of Island groups, the uke jam grows during the summer.
“The group averages about 12 to 15 during the offseason, but draws up to 40-plus during the summer months. Most people start on their own and wind up developing skills as they come to the jams,” Scheerbaum said. “Our members are great at helping anyone who is working on adding chord and/or strumming skills.”
Why the ukulele, one might ask. “It’s very simple; not a very difficult instrument. That’s what I like about it,” explains DeCarion.
Scheerbaum added, “Ukuleles are not expensive, and are small enough to carry around. Folks of all ages enjoy playing, so often you have a mixed group of people. How nice is that!?”
Once everyone had tuned up, the group jumped right off into one song after another. It was a democratic process in which someone rifling through their communal songbook would suggest a piece, they would all find the same page in their book, and away they’d go, counting off the rhythm and then playing and singing along simultaneously.
Some of the songs were unfamiliar to me, like “Wagon Wheel,” “Walking After Midnight,” and “San Francisco Bay Blues,” but sitting off to one side, I at least could add my voice to old favorites of mine, “City of New Orleans” and “I’m a Believer,” bringing back fond memories of group sing-alongs in my Berkshire camp days.
You can drop by anytime. They have extra ukes for you to borrow, whether soprano or baritone, but DeCarion assured me, “The fingering is all the same. And once you learn one of these you can play guitar, you can play mandolin, just about any stringed instrument. The tuning is different, though.” But whether you join to play or just come by to listen, heed her last words of advice, “Have music in your life!”
The ukulele jams take place every Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 pm, and the beginner class from 6:15 to 7 pm, at the Pebble Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts.