Avant-garde chaos to deep musical connections

People's Jam at the Layover in Oakland.

“How the hell did this happen?” asks Anthony (Ant) Anderson, sitting in Willard Park, Berkeley, on a sunny afternoon. Ant lives in a house not far from here known as Church, which is where his story – and his weekly jam sessions – began. The “this” in question is his role in both the evolution of Church, and the weekly People's Jam night, which pal Dustin Smurthwaite created at a club in Oakland.

Ant was invited to live at Church by his friend Erico Cisneros, who he met at a show in San Francisco.  At the house, Ant met Michael Shaun and Emma James – beginning in May 2011, the trio began to celebrate the end of each weekend with Sunday night jam sessions. John Burke moved into the house later and became a central part of the Church house.

A variety of local East Bay musicians began dropping by and providing instruments, expanding the group jams. "We have friends who have given us speakers and a PA system, people donate phones, professional soundproof phone pads to keep the sound in, and people bring food and drinks,” Ant says. “Once, our friend even set up a whole bar. People have just been so giving.”

Well-known musicians began stopping in as well, including David Satori from Beats Antique.

Enter partner in music, Smurthwaite: one night Ant was playing with local folk rock band Whiskerman (led by Graham Patzner, brother of Anton and Lewis, who perform string metal in Judgement Day), and Smurthwaite was in the audience. “Before I knew it he just hopped onstage and grabbed a spare trombone...while I played trumpet,” Ant says with a chuckle, his characteristic grin spreading wide across his face.

"I just saw the opportunity," Smurthwaite says from his practice space in an Oakland warehouse. "Most people didn't even know I played trombone." Smurthwaite is a multi-instrumentalist, who was more known for playing bass and keys back then. "All I had time for was basically giving Anthony a pat on the back before I began playing, and then we exchanged phone numbers afterward."

In addition to the Church jams, Smurthwaite had been playing every Wednesday with Steve Taylor’s band at the Layover in Oakland. At the Layover, Taylor was playing improvised music – not quite a jam session – and when he got too busy, he asked Smurthwaite if he wanted to take over the event.

Smurthwaite ran the club night for a month or so, then called up Ant to join him and come on as the official host. It now takes place weekly in downtown Oakland at the Layover.

So what kind of music should you expect to find on your average night at People's Jam? "The Jam is centered around funk, neo soul, hip-hop, jazz, and a crew of Balkan musicians who have also started coming through. We have numerous instruments regularly in the horn section, [we] often see a clarinet or two, and string players like cello or violin, when we can amp them. There is a strong Latin sound as well,” adds Ant.

The house band (known collectively as Bay Funk) consists of Ant, Smurthwaite, Cisneros on bass, Jesse Scheehan on tenor sax, Dan Schwartz and Patrick Aguirre on drums, Kevin Rierson on bass, Derek Yellin on piano. Vocalists Sarah Aboulafia, Sally Green and Povi Chidester also frequent the event, as well as Michael Shawn Olivera Cuevas, from the Church house, who is a poet, artist, and MC.

“It is all about communication with the band,” Smurthwaite says. “It's best to be as direct as possible.”

Smurthwaite points out that People's Jam has also been a great opportunity for people to express themselves during the Occupy Movement and economic crisis. “Your voice is amplified – people can here you. That’s a powerful thing,” he says.

"It's great because both [Church and People's Jam] are free,” Ant says. "Although Sunday and Wednesday are unconventional nights for such parties, it benefits musicians because they can also play shows on busier concert nights.” He adds, “Also Sundays can be bleak, the end of the weekend, so it works out great because after Church, you have this extremely festive and positive feeling makes you feel stoked going into Monday."

Both events – Sunday's Church jam sessions and Wednesday's People's Jam at the Layover – maintain a grassroots mentality.

“I used to send out literally 300 texts to everyone I know every Wednesday inviting them to the Layover. It was really slow at first, as we started invited people from Church to come and they became the main core of people who began to attend. Church and the People’s Jam, side by side, began creating a community of people – that is how we came up with a core group of musicians.”

I have never been at an event quite like the People’s Jam. There are open mic nights and there are concerts – but the Jam finds the perfect in-between. The majority of performers are confident and relaxed. You can dance uninhibited and never worry about being judged, but you can just as easily sit at the bar and watch the band.

It's a safe environment for self-expression, and Ant and Smurthwaite work hard to keep it that way. Smurthwaite explained to me how they make a point to incorporate the diverse array of people that come through the Layover.

“At first we had nights where the music was just unintentional avant-garde chaos, it was like, barely hobbling along on one leg, trying to make it happen with barely any musicians and no audience. The audience has transformed over the past year from no one in the bar to an absolute army of musicians, getting so into it," Ant says.

"I have heard at least five different people tell me 'This is the best party I have ever been to in my life', which I find mind blowing. A lot of people I know have met their significant other at Church or Layover, they have made friends there, formed bands. It is a constant thing I hear of, these new relationships and connections.”

People's Jam
Every Wed/10pm, free
1517 Franklin, Oakl.
(510) 834-1517