Gulfport Grass – the new event for bluegrass musicians and fans alike – is now happening regularly on Gulfport’s Courtyard stage thanks to a local who has checked off an item on her retirement bucket list.
The entrance to the venue is located between 2908 and 2914 Beach Boulevard.
“I wanted to do this to give local folks a place to jam through the summer months,” said organizer Kathy Jaeck of Gulfport.
Influenced by her dad who played the banjo, Jaeck started playing guitar at age 10. Then, she too picked up the banjo in her late teens. But, work eventually got in the way of her music.
When Jaeck retired three years ago, she started getting back into her banjo. And, she added the upright bass and most recently the dobro to her repertoire to increase her opportunities for playing frequently in bluegrass jams.
“In order to have a good jam, you want to have at least one of each of the instruments and you’ve got to have a bass player,” said Jaeck.
Traditional bluegrass instruments include the banjo, guitar, fiddle and upright bass with variations like the dobro, dulcimer and the bass washboard tub.
Right now, the plan is to jam on Wednesday nights from 6 to 9:30 p.m. through October, said Joan Weesies of Gulfport, who is the local jam promoter. Depending on its popularity with musicians, the jam may continue past October and be either once or twice a month on a night of the week that does not conflict with other jam opportunities in the area.
Some of the musicians know each other because they belong to the Tampa Bay Bluegrass Association’s Facebook page. Others hear about jams through social media and just show up.
Jaeck’s vision for the local jam is to keep it open, technically simple and laid back when it comes to organization.
“Open means that musicians at any level can participate as long as they play a traditional bluegrass instrument,” said Weesies.
Jaeck prefers the acoustic approach for jams without the use of amplifiers and microphones.
“It’s not a band or performance to spotlight people focused on a microphone,” said Jaeck. “It’s a true jam where you’re playing music with other musicians. It’s not about playing for an audience though that kind of thing ends up happening because in Gulfport we are standing on stage instead of sitting in a circle or semi-circle in someone’s home. We would do it whether we had an audience or not.”
There are two electric floor fans “because they are desperately needed this time of year due to the heat” and an extension cord that powers two strings of small stage lights, said Weesies.
Bluegrass jam organization has an understood etiquette, especially when a stage is involved and the musicians are standing in a line not facing one another.
Everybody gets the chance to pick a song and lead it, said Jaeck.
What that typically means is the leader will sing a verse then the chorus while others contribute with harmonizing. Next, based on the leader’s nod, another musician will step forward to play a solo, which is also called a “break.” During this time, the backup instruments play more softly to emphasize the soloist.
When the break is done and the musician steps back to their place, the lead will sing another verse and chorus and then a different musician will play the next solo. When it’s time to end the song, the lead will give a visual cue so everybody is aware.
“This is what makes it easy for us to get together and play even when we don’t know one another,” said Jaeck. “Bluegrass people understand the pattern.”
Liam Joyce, his wife Erin East and their 7-month-old son Aiden, all of Gulfport, enjoyed listening to the sound of 11 bluegrass musicians who took turns playing on the small courtyard stage. Joyce and his family were among a crowd of about 30 people enjoying the music on a recent jam evening.
“It’s great music,” said Joyce, also a musician who enjoys playing Irish songs. “Bluegrass is a piece of Americana that is kept alive. It’s relaxing. I love it.”