Julius Cotter’s face lights up when asked about his harmonica and fiddle playing.
At lunchtime on a recent Thursday, the 94-year-old was seated in the back row of a hodgepodge orchestra that filled one side of a gym-sized room at Fleetwood Community Centre.
This is musical jam-session day for seniors, some of whom play while others listen.
“I’m one of the oldest people here, that’s for sure, and I’ve been coming here for years,” Cotter said.
“I just like to play along with everybody, and make music on violin and/or the harmonica – one or the other, because I can’t play them at the same time,” he added with a laugh.
On Sept. 5, 17 musicians played a wide variety of instruments, including mandolin, a couple of electric guitars, a small drum kit, violin, electric bass, piano, a clarinet and accordion. Some sat out a song or two, while others seemed eager to jam along to every tune.
— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) September 5, 2019
They played some Buddy Holly, The Turtles’ “Happy Together” and, led by Cotter on violin, “The Log Driver’s Waltz.” A version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was slow to come together, but eventually everyone picked up the chord changes.
Whatever the song, the two-hour sessions have proved popular among seniors who want to play music and socialize.
“On a bad day, we’ll get 12 or 14 players, all the way up to 22 or 24 of them,” said Mildred Davies, who helps organize the jam.
“We all take our turns and let people know what song it is and what key it’s in, and then we play,” she explained. “It’s all volunteer, and that includes the lunch program we have. There’s no charge to come and play and no charge to come and listen. It’s so good – so good for the players, to keep them active musically, and also the audience. The seniors here love music.”
The jam sessions happen Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 at Fleetwood Community Centre (15996 84th Ave.) – a chance to “come and tap your toes or dance to this wonderful group,” as a sandwich board at the front entrance says. A sandwich lunch is served for $3.50.
The session on Sept. 5 was the first of the season, with weekly jams on now until June.
“We take a break during the summer,” noted Davies, who also jams on guitar and sings.
“I come to play and fill in here and there, it’s really good,” she explained. “Whoever comes, they get to play. If there are lots of people, you might not get to play your favourite song, but we try to fit everyone in. Everyone joins in, if they know the song, or they’ll just sit out the song if they don’t know it. It’s very informal that way. It’s a busy two hours in there.”
The way Davies sees it, the sessions are a way to keep seniors engaged, using music as a connector.
Sure, there are some sour notes here and there, but that can be expected at any jam.
Dorothy Bonazew, who’s about to turn 89, does her part by spinning a wooden wheel that shows the jammers what key the current song is in. Seated in the front row, she also keeps the beat with a tambourine.
“This is my spot every week, pretty much,” she said. “I don’t play anything, I just make a noise. It’s fun, and I enjoy music, so if I can play a little bit of something, then that’s fine. You can’t really go wrong.”
Later in the jam session, she stepped to the microphone to tell a joke for the audience.
“My policy is to keep busy doing stuff like this, and you gotta have a smile doing it,” she said earlier. “They all get to be family, and friends, these people here.”
A similar jam session for seniors takes place Mondays at Newton Seniors Centre (13775 70th Ave.), from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
At the Fleetwood jam, Davies recalled one saxophone player who was 100 years old.
“He loved it, but sadly he has died,” she lamented. “I’m sure this is what kept him alive, coming to this event.”
Cotter’s been playing the harmonica since he was a kid, but only started strumming the violin when he was in his 70s.
“My wife, second time around, she’s 94, and she’s out there in the audience listening to me and the others,” Cotter noted. “She plays cards, not music,” he added with a smile. “I cut and polish stones as a hobby as well, along with the music here. I think the idea is to have something you enjoy doing and keep your life happy.”