By Ralph Zubiate
Anni Beach turns curious neighborhood kids into jam-band players.
Anni Beach is the kind of substitute teacher any kid would want. Fun-loving, kindhearted and uniquely talented, the teacher created a neighborhood band that’s been going strong for 23 years.
Beach was a substitute teacher in the Chandler Unified School District for years, moving from school to school as the need arose. One day, doing her duty at a second-grade classroom in Galveston Elementary School near her Chandler home, Beach hauled out her mandolin for a quick song, as she had done dozens of times before.
For some reason, the music caught the imagination of a few of the neighborhood kids this time. “They came to my house after school,” says Beach, who is in her 70s. “The two kids asked if I could teach them to play.”
She didn’t have time that day, but she talked it over with her husband, Vincent, who died in 2010. “He said maybe I should.”
The next week, the original two kids showed up with four others, friends and siblings. She taught them “This Land Is Your Land,” “Tom Dooley” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
The Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band was born.
Since then, the band has grown to include more than 25 members of all ages and races. They play their own brand of bluegrass, gospel and traditional country in shows and festivals all over the nation. They’ve won awards and been recognized nationally for the program.
The band even breaks down into various small-group configurations, such as Cabin John, Morning Fire, Fair Black Rose and The Would Bees. A professional band, Cisco & The Racecars, has even been born out of the group.
At first, instruments were hard to come by.
The Jam Pak kids began learning on simple instruments called “canjos,” which are empty soda cans with a stick and a string attached. Since then, they have been sponsored by Arizona bluegrass organizations and many individuals who have loaned or donated instruments and provided lessons and lesson scholarships.
The band’s website, jampak.com, drives home the point: It’s all about the kids learning music.
“It’s been thrilling to see the progress of various children who, with no particular musical background, have taken to bluegrass music and can play, sing, ‘take breaks,’ keep the rhythm, learn by ear and also play notes,” it says.
The musicians practice in Beach’s tiny house, finding corners to play in and a performing in the backyard. The band draws kids from all over. “They come to me; I don’t have to recruit or anything,” Beach says.
Terri Babick brings her two kids all the way from Cave Creek to play with Jam Pak. Benjamin, 14, plays mandolin and handles the sound board at some performances. Rachel, 12, plays the fiddle. It’s their fourth year in the group.
“My son especially became entranced with bluegrass,” Babick says. “He really wanted to play and jam with children.”
She scoured the Internet and finally found Jam Pak. “Mrs. Beach has created such a presence in this community of bluegrass music and festivals,” she says.
Babick says Benjamin jammed with the band at a senior center and loved it, as did the residents: “Imagine 20 of your grandparents giving encouragement.”
Ramon Meneses was one of Beach’s first students, then a precocious 4-year-old hanging out with his siblings. “My brothers and sisters came home with instruments. I said, ‘I want to do that,’” he recalls.
He played with the band until he was 16, then picked football over performing. Though he quit playing, Meneses will continue in the music field and hopes to be an audio engineer.
Meneses still has fond memories of his time in the band, and he still visits, like when Beach hosts a “Beach House Revue” with dozens of musicians and a lot of free food.
Recently, the kids took the stage in Beach’s backyard, playing and singing such bluegrass and gospel standards as “God’s Not Dead.”
Mismatched chairs invited neighborhood moms and dads, and visitors. Group after group took the makeshift stage, playing banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, guitars and basses. Beach’s dogs wandered the friendly crowd, greeting guests and looking for dropped hot dogs and chips.
The littlest kids may play or not, as they continue to learn by ear. They gain some experience and get comfortable on stage, knowing that, like their friends around them, their day will come.
“(Beach) has created a tribe of care and connection and love,” says Mark Hickler, a professional banjo maker who plays in Cisco & The Racecars. “The band’s motto is from her, and it’s ‘To make ourselves and others happy with our music.’”
“She’s a dying breed,” Meneses gushes. “She’s a gift on Earth in this city. You can see the openness. I always see her as a mother. Immediately, you fall in love and respect her.”