One night last July, strains of Johnny Cash’s Big River and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah could be heard coming from Emily Aronow and John Cooksey’s front porch. While a few people knew each other, the majority of the six or so in attendance were strangers. Playing a variety of instruments ranging from banjo to standup bass, the Stapleton Front Porch Jam was born.
A musical “jam” is loosely defined as a meeting of a group of musicians to play for their own enjoyment. That definition fits the group of 15 members who meet monthly, primarily at Aronow and Cooksey’s home, drawn into the living room during cold weather. The idea for the Stapleton Front Porch Jam started with Aronow who had attended jams and thought it could work in Stapleton. She posted an invitation on the Stapleton Moms Yahoo site and received a lot of responses.
The tone of the Porch Jam is modeled after Cooksey’s grandfather and great uncles who “all played fiddle in a beat-up shack along a central Kentucky road.” He recalls stories told to him of people gathered around a warm stove, playing songs everyone seemed to know even though there were always different people in attendance. “There was laughter, stories, music and hard-working tobacco farmers concealing bottles of booze on top of shelves and behind their instrument cases.”
Beverages of choice (alcoholic and not) are not concealed at Stapleton’s version and are encouraged to be brought along with snacks. “We would like to create a community space for musicians to play, share and experiment with their own talents in a safe and fun environment,” explains Cooksey.
It’s rare that all 15 members are in attendance due to family and work demands. Usually various combinations of people, and therefore instruments, show up. At any given jam session there will be guitars, mandolins, banjos, violins and singers. Members come from a variety of professions and musical backgrounds, playing at different levels but are all drawn to the jam for similar reasons: the desire to continue playing despite busy lives.
Cooksey, an architect, started playing guitar when he was a teenager, playing rock, punk and funk music. He played with a garage band and then took up the mandolin, performing in festivals internationally while Aronow, a physical therapist, grew up with family gatherings that turned into sing-alongs. She played guitar after college, but once she started dating Cooksey, figured, since he played guitar too, she’d go in a different direction by taking up the bass. At Aronow and Cooksey’s wedding, both families joined for a big sing-along from a music book the couple assembled, which was the initial repertoire for the Stapleton Front Porch Jam. Other jam members have since added to the book, representing various musical genres.
For airline pilot Barret “Bear” Johnson, the jam is an opportunity to play music he otherwise wouldn’t have tried. “I’m heavily influenced by punk and rock music, so to turn to traditional and folk music has been a fun challenge for me,” he says. “Mostly I play for myself and my kids, but I joined the Jam because it was an opportunity to grow musically. Nothing is as challenging to a musician as sitting down with other musicians and being expected to perform. It has helped me come out of my shell a bit as a performer. Confidence can only be gained by facing your fears; playing an instrument or singing in front of people is definitely daunting!”
Manny Ladis, co-founder of a Cloud business, plays the mandolin and sometimes sings. He played in orchestras throughout school and then in a jam band in college called “Day Old Donut.” “Great times,” he recalls. Ladis says the Stapleton Jam “gives us the opportunity to get out of our comfort zone and pretend like we’re professionals! When you get a bunch of individuals that are off in their tune, we counter each other and it comes out beautifully. At least that is what we all tell each other!”
Singer and guitarist Windy Waite, a small-business owner and freelance art director and graphic designer, started out playing flute, changing to guitar and vocals in her teens and has performed with bands. “As a crazy-busy mom and business owner, I find it increasingly difficult to find time for music-making. Having found this group of musicians so close by, to jam with in a relaxed, casual setting, gives me another much-needed outlet for some occasional musical therapy.”
A more recent addition to the group, Laura Hockman, a psychologist, plays the violin and fiddle. She started out playing in sixth grade, played with orchestras and took lessons through college and beyond. “I joined the group to stay connected to the instrument and to push myself to play with others (I’m pretty shy and don’t like playing in front of other people). I really enjoy the group and it enables me not only to make new friends, but to also remain connected to music, and to gain comfort playing with others.”
While there are no definite plans to actually perform (except for the neighbors within earshot), Cooksey says it’s a possibility. “We hope that it continues and that people are relaxed enough to stretch themselves,” he says. With the warmer weather, the group will be heading out on the porch again soon for camaraderie and music-making.
All are welcome. For more information about the group or to join, contact Aronow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author note: Courtney Drake-McDonough sings with the group. Although her experience is in singing pop and jazz, she appreciates being able to expand her repertoire while meeting really interesting people.