The setting is intimate, not unlike a living room in someone’s home. Softly-glowing lamps are lit near four musicians arranged in a circle on a rug in the middle of the room. The audience is seated on folding chairs around the outside of that circle, each chair just a few feet away from the performers. The musical styles the singer/songwriters play ranges from folk music to blues and everything in between, but the common denominator is that these are really good musicians. Each takes a turn performing, usually solo, sometimes in a duo, accompanied by acoustic guitar or keyboard. Going around the circle, there are three rounds of the same until an intermission is called, after which four different musicians take their place and another round of 12 songs plays out.
The occasion is the monthly—sometimes twice-monthly—John St. Jam that’s been going on in the Dutch Arms Chapel on John St. in Saugerties for nearly ten years now. Close to 100 audience members fill the room, the numerous return visitors evident by their arrival carrying their own seat cushions, anticipating the metal folding chairs they’ll sit in.
Jam co-founders Terri and Steve Massardo were inspired to create the John St. Jam after taking a trip to Nashville ten years ago. The Saugerties-based couple both have day jobs—Terri as personal assistant to a dermatologist in Cold Spring and Steve in quality control for a semiconductor manufacturer in Malta—but they’re also both performing musicians. Terri is a singer (she also plays bass) and Steve a bass and guitar player with a variety of local groups like Trio Mio (who retain the name despite becoming a five-member group when the Massardos join in).
And when the couple took that trip to Nashville a decade ago, with an assortment of friends and musical instruments in a rented motor home, they got a taste of what Nashville has to offer for musicians. “We were really impressed with the place,” says Steve. “We went to one bar after another and saw bands playing there that were just extraordinary. Any one of them could be—should be—on the radio and here they are toiling away. It was enlightening on some level and almost depressing on another.”
Terri was then—as she is now—very active with the Saugerties Reformed Church. She had already been thinking about how to help raise money for the church at the time after the nursery school that had been there pulled out and left a financial void behind. “She had decided to do something musical to raise money, and a regular event would be better than a single concert,” says Steve. “But we were involved with the Hudson Valley Folk Guild, which has regular open mics, and we didn’t want to compete with them or repeat what they were doing. We’d been kind of racking our brains about a format and how to make it distinctive when Terri saw a show in the round at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville [a similarly intimate setting where local singer/songwriters and musicians play acoustic in the round], and that was really the spark. It was less than a month later when we got back that we did the first Jam,” Steve says. “We went from performing in local bars and coffee houses to sort of creating one out of thin air.”
For the first two months, the Jam was an open mic. “But we’d been to enough open mics to know that musicians often leave when they’re done playing and by the end of the night there aren’t too many people left there,” says Steve. “We figured with our format of four people on stage, at the very least we’d have a few people around at the end. We also knew if we wanted to get non-musicians to come, we’d have to maintain a pretty high level of musicianship. So we just started inviting people and setting it up in advance. It was a lot less stressful than worrying if people were going to show up.”
Terri and Steve have been married for 20 years. They bought their house in Saugerties in 1996. Each has three children from previous marriages, ranging in age from 26 to 42, and they have nine grandchildren between the two of them. “We live by ourselves,” says Steve, “but together we spend a lot of time visiting and being visited by family—it’s great fun.”