Children's Band Brings Diversity To Bluegrass

By  Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, December 2, 2016 - 9:35am
Updated: Friday, December 2, 2016 - 2:30pm

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The Jam Pak Blues 'N' Grass Neighborhood Band has been making music together since 1994. So far, about 200 kids have gone through the band, though many never really leave, even when they grow up.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, you can hear Anni Beach’s house in Chandler before you walk in the door.

It’s the sound of two dozen children, from kindergarten to high school, strumming guitars and bowing violins. A few little girls are plucking canjos – banjos made with one string and a soda can. And always, there’s Beach, leading the whole thing.

“I can understand every single word you guys are saying, and I can’t say that about a lot of professionals,” Beach said to her group the other day, smiling with her praise.

Miss Beach, as the kids call her, has long white braids and black, thick-rimmed glasses. The 73-year-old is tiny, far shorter than many of the students here, but she commands a big presence. She must. She’s been running Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band since 1994.

“We’re different,” she said. “We stick out. We stick out in the bluegrass world, especially.”

That’s because bluegrass – folk music that originated out in Appalachia – is known for being lily white.

But Beach’s band is a kaleidoscope of colors, and includes kids from all backgrounds and economic situations.

No one pays anything to be here, and everyone is welcome. It’s been that way since the very beginning, when 22 years ago, two little boys appeared on Beach’s doorstep. She had just substituted for their second-grade class and, like always, had brought along her mandolin.

“And they said, can we play some more music?” Beach said. 

Within a short time, Beach had 17 young, eager players. The thing kept gaining momentum – and students – and she kept shaping them into a band, thanks to a lot of help and encouragement from her late husband, Vincent Beach.

These days, Jam Pak wins awards and plays all over the state. Once total outsiders, they’ve become this force in the bluegrass world.

About 200 kids have gone through Jam Pak so far, and many are second-generation Jam Pak players.

Selena Haggerty, a 15-year-old mandolin player whose mom, aunt and uncle were all in the band, said she feels lucky to be there.

“Yeah, I really do,” Haggerty said. “I feel, like super privileged that – I don’t know – It makes proud to know that I’m here and I do this.”

This is not just about making music, but about making a tight-knit community, one that very few players ever really leave, even when they grow up.

Tons of Jam Pak alums stick around, maybe teaching the younger kids or spinning off into new bands.

Alasya Zeweldi, 13, who plays an old-time stringed instrument called the mountain dulcimer, describes the Jam Pak culture like this:

“It’s coming together to play music and becoming one, despite anything,” Zeweldi said. “Despite the differences that we all have. We all come together to form this beautiful thing.”

And is there a secret to creating that beauty? Anni Beach smiled and sighed when asked.

“Oh boy. There’s a great deal of love that goes into it,” she said. “Even if I get mad, anything, I love every single person who’s part of this.”

Miss Beach hopes someday, one of those people will take up the responsibility of Jam Pak and keep it going long after she’s gone.

Right now, she’s the one who drives many of the kids to and from practice, who cooks them dinner every night they’re there. She makes them all photo albums and hosts birthday parties. It’s a lot of work, Beach said, but it’s no sacrifice. It’s what she wants to do for the rest of her life.

“And I say, I want a pure heart and I want a pure focus from here until you guys are singing me out,” Beach said.

Jam Pak’s next big gig is the Tempe Festival of the Arts, Friday through Sunday, Dec. 2-4. You can learn more about the band at www.jampak.com.


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