Anni Beach and Jam Pak are teaching bluegrass

If you were to visit Anni Beach’s house on a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon you would be well able to ascertain what is happening indoors, long before reaching the door of the humble home located in an immigrant neighborhood of Chandler, Arizona.

For inside there would be perhaps two dozen children, of all ages, some playing a guitar or violin/fiddle, mandolin, banjo, or dulcimer, others – those just starting on their musical journey – playing a ‘canjo’, a fun, easy-to-build instrument comprising an empty soft drink can with a wooden neck – fretted diatonically (like a dulcimer) – and a single guitar string. 

Mrs Beach, now a diminutive 75-year old with long, white, sometimes braided hair, and black, thick-rimmed glasses, describes herself on the front of her booklet about Jam Pak as the “band leader,” although she watches over a diverse gathering of wide-ranging ages, some of whom are physically bigger than her. One or two are even older than her, and some are second-generation participants, underlining the many values intrinsic to her organization. 

She has been running Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band, to give the group its full name, since 1994, initially with the support of her now-deceased husband, Vincent. 

Mrs Beach shares this about her background …… 

Anni Beach

“I’m Anni Beach, born and raised in Vancouver, Washington. I always was around music as my social activist mother was a wonderful harpist, and my funeral director father played the musical saw. Everyone did music except me. I struggled with piano for many years, but loved the old Negro spirituals and folk music that we learned from our elementary school music classes. That was about it. Who was Elvis? I just never got caught up in the popular music world.

I travelled and lived in Southeast Asia for a year while in college, and saw a Japanese mandolin orchestra. I thought it was the most beautiful sound next to a harp. Some more years passed and I ended up in the southwest on the Navajo Reservation for seventeen years. There in the dorms, where many Navajo kids lived in order to attend school, I created a play by number songbook for the piano, and played the little tunes that I knew and helped kids to do the same.

My big epiphany happened when I was nearly 50 years of age. My husband, who was a retired US Air Force bandsman, wanted to play the cello. I told him to buy the cello and I would get out the pretty mandolin that my parents had brought me from Italy in 1966. So that was the beginning of my passion, some might say obsession, with the mandolin. I finally had to get a teacher as I couldn’t learn on my own. She played bluegrass, so I played bluegrass, and that fit perfectly with my love of the old-time songs. They were simple enough to learn, I didn’t have to read too many lines of music, and the instrument was little.”

The Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band started when two little second graders knocked on Mrs Beach’s door after she had just finished substitute teaching at their school. They wanted her to sing and play more music with them. That was in April 1994, and life in the Beach household was never to be the same again. 

Starting out with six children playing harmonicas, she then introduced the canjo. North Carolina native Herschel Brown, the originator of the CanJoe (as the canjo became known commercially), donated several kits to encourage the little group in their musical adventure. The band grew and, with more than 20 members, played their first bluegrass festival in 1998 with canjos and a washtub bass.

Since then, thanks to the generosity of the bluegrass music community in Arizona, many instruments have been donated and all the band members have been able to play professional quality instruments. 

The Jam Pak Band, with a consistent membership of 30 and ranging in ages from 5 to 76, has performed at many festivals throughout the years, and for several Arizona festivals they are always on the program, which attests to the love the producers and patrons have for this unusual group of children playing the cherished traditional songs. Some of Jam Pak’s favorite venues have been the Pioneer Bluegrass Festival, the Tucson Bluegrass Festival, the Wickenburg Bluegrass Festival, the Blythe Bluegrass Festival in California, the Agricountry Bluegrass Festival in Casa Grande, and the Marana Bluegrass Festival. 

Emphasising the community involvement of Jam Pak, Anni Beach says, “The band also entertains at many other venues including senior living communities, city events and especially always fun is performing for the Arizona Bluegrass Association Holiday Party and being part of the band scrambles”. 

This video by Cox Media illustrates what it is like at Jam Pak meetings, notice the song lyrics with chord changes … 

Besides performing, the band was given such a vote of confidence when Ben Sandoval, the long-time producer of bluegrass festivals in Arizona and California, passed his stage clock to Anni Beach with the words, “You have a treasure-trove of young people who are intelligent and capable and can carry on when I am gone.” He passed away a year later and Jam Pak Productions took over the sweet festival in Arcosanti, Arizona, and continues to produce that festival as well as several other important bluegrass events,” Mrs Beach says of the bitter-sweet transition. 

In 2002 Vincent and Anni Beach were named “Parents of the Year” by the Arizona Parent’s Day Council organization, and then travelled to Washington, DC in 2003 for the national award “Excellence in Parenting” by the National Parent’s Day Council honoring their work in Jam Pak. Amid the perseverance and tenacity needed to make music and community and joy, Mrs Beach received the Arizona Governor’s Art Award for an Individual in 2014.

Bonnie Williams, long-time Arizona bluegrass advocate and friend of Jam Pak says this about the impact Mrs Beach has had…..

“Anni’s work has transformed lives. Beyond music. Her giving spirit and love for others has literally filled stomachs, minds, hearts and souls. The community she’s created and modelled has been a lifeline for so many.”

Someone else who recognized Anni Beach’s leadership talents is James Reams, of James Reams and the Barnstormers, when in 2013, he rewarded her with his Brown Jug Award   

“Meeting Anni Beach in 2011 when I moved to Arizona just inspired me. You know there’s so much talk about bringing young people into bluegrass; Anni has been doing it a long time. She has the answer; she instructs young people in bluegrass instruments and has them learn some bluegrass songs. Soon they’re performing in public with more self-esteem, they’re in a wonderful musical community, they form bands that create more community. And to me the most exciting part about it is the diversity. There is not enough multi-culturalism and acceptance in our world and Anni Beach is the poster child. If there ever was someone to hold up as an example of the future of bluegrass Anni is the person.”

The band has evolved over the years into a music community. Wrapped in the love of music, community, food, travel, and love itself, this unique band of all ages, races, and walks of life makes bluegrass music. They gather twice a week, practice, teach each other, dance, entertain and, at the center, maintain the singular goal to make themselves and others happy with their music. Mrs Beach’s philosophy, as stated in her booklet, Home Grown Bluegrass: A Guide to Making People Happy with Music, asks that attendees be faithful to the group, participate and treat each other as equals, help each other and form a community, and do the chores that help maintain that community.

Jam Pak has small bands within their big band and, as the youngsters hone their band skills, make their own arrangements and play together, these small bands including Cabin John, Morning Fire, Fair Black Rose, and The Would Bees make their own appearances and all with Mrs Beach’s blessing.  All of the small bands appear with Jam Pak on a self-released CD.  

Two professional-level bands have emerged from Jam Pak as well, one of whom is Cisco & the Racecars, whose members travel abroad on cultural trips. But that’s another story ….. 

Giselle Lee, fiddle player with Cisco & the Racecars, leads the Jam Pak band in a rendition of the song I’ll Fly Away ….

In 2017, in order to make the Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band sustainable now and for the future, the group became a non-profit 501(c)(3) endeavor, and has qualified as an Arizona Charitable Organization. The band has never actively raised funds, but rather relied on the philosophy that their needs will be met because they are faithful to their calling to make people happy with their music.

This arrangement ensures that Jam Pak has a healthy future and can continue after Mrs Beach as and when she is unable to lead the group. 

Anni Beach is among the names of those who are to participate in the IBMA Leadership Bluegrass class of 2019

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.