Bay Area

Band Brings Jazz to the Nursing Home

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It's not easy booking quality entertainment, especially at a nursing home. That's where the Pay It Forward band comes in. It's a mix-and-match jazz ensemble started in Los Angeles two years ago that specializes in nursing home performances. Lillian Mongeau reports Pay It Forward is expanding into the Bay Area--if it can stay together. Edited transcript:
LILLIAN MONGEAU: The members of the Pay It Forward volunteer band who first performed at San Jose's Willow Glen Center in March had one thing in common: they’d never played together before. Violinist Marty Honda explains how this is possible:

MARTY HONDA: Well, we play standard songs. So everybody’s probably played what we did tonight somewhere else, somewhere, right? And we have the charts that tell us where we are and everything and can read music and so on.

MONGEAU: All of the musicians were recruited for their talent. The thing about jazz is that if you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to rehearse to get your audience to say things like this:

MARGARET GUINNANE: Fantastic and I knew all of the songs.

MONGEAU: That’s 82-year-old Margaret Guinnane. She’s staying at the Willow Glen Center while she recovers from surgery. She says the staff is lovely and there are plenty of activities. Still, she wakes up at 4:30 in the morning for exercise and breakfast. There’s a lot of time in the day after that. Guinnane is exactly the kind of person the Los Angeles-based founder of Pay It Forward is hoping to entertain.

GARY GAMPONIA: How I define entertainment, real entertainment, is the kind of entertainment that you would actually pay money to go see.

MONGEAU: Gary Gamponia is an idealist. When you ask him why he’s spent the last two years organizing over 150 jazz musicians to play in every nursing home in L.A., Gamponia says it started as something nice to do at Christmas time. He got some of his musician friends together and they played at homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters and nursing homes.

GAMPONIA: And literally the only people that called us back to say when are you coming back were the nursing homes.

MONGEAU: And that’s it. That’s his reason for launching the massive L.A. organization and for pushing for expansion in the Bay Area, San Diego, and the Inland Empire. Gamponia has no personal connection to nursing homes. His grandparents never went to a nursing home. Neither have his parents, who are still living. In fact, Gamponia even turned down his 83-year-old mother’s request to play at her senior center. The Pay It Forward band doesn’t play at senior centers, he told her. Those people get to go home.

GAMPONIA: When you reach that point in life when you're in a nursing home, that's where you have to have care 24-7. There’s no independence.

MONGEAU: Gamponia wants top-notch performers. But he isn’t satisfied with great music. It also has to be the right kind of music.

GAMPONIA: Because when you’re 90 years old, those people were entertained by the likes of  Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Doris Day and Judy Garland. OK?

MONGEAU:  Gamponia ‘s vision for what counts as entertainment for the elderly has lead to artistic differences among the Pay It Forward musicians.

MELISSA DINWIDDIE: I’m Melissa Dinwiddie and I sing and I play the ukulele.

MONGEAU:  The ukulele is not part of Gamponia’s vision.  Dinwiddie didn’t know that.
She a respected jazz vocalist, and she likes to mix things up by adding the ukulele to her arrangements.  She's good at what she does, and she jumped at the chance to be a charter band member in Santa Clara County.

DINWIDDIE: My grandmother was in a convalescent home for maybe 15 years with Alzheimer's. It really does feel like I'm paying it forward to be able to give to these people what my grandmother, I don’t think, ever experienced.

MONGEAU: The problem, Gamponia says, is that Dinwiddie’s grandmother never heard a ukulele on her Frank Sinatra records either. Frank Sinatra didn’t play the ukulele. When word got back to Gamponia that Dinwiddie was playing the ukulele, she was out. Some fellow band members then quit, in solidarity with the singer. Gamponia is unapologetic.

GAMPONIA: The musicians absolutely need to put the needs of the patients beyond what their own musical needs might be.

MONGEAU: The Pay It Forward band has not disbanded. Some of the original musicians are still interested and others have joined in. You must be a nursing home resident or resident's guest to take in the free concert.  There will be no ukuleles.

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