Star Prairie Jam takes to the air
"This is the greatest thing I've ever been involved with. There are no decisions based on economic gain. There is no commercial advertising, no sponsorships. It's 250 people plus working for a common goal simply because they want to."
That was This Old Store owner and Star Prairie Jam Founder Jerry Ledo describing his latest venture, a weekly half hour television program on cable access station WITC Channel 6 in New Richmond/Star Prairie.
He's titled the show, A Box of Chocolates, "because you never know what you're going to get" promising each week to be completely and absolutely different and unique.
Ledo started The Jam, a musical stage open to any and all players, out of his store front in the heart of Star Prairie in 2007. It's grown from two guys playing on his back patio to more than 200 "regular" musicians stopping in to participate in an open jam session on Thursday evenings.
The popularity of the opportunity has attracted so many diverse and talented players that the jam expanded to include Tuesday evenings for acoustic only performers. Ledo chose Thursday nights so as not to interfere with the paying gigs many of the musicians have on the weekend.
"With their busy schedules, it also allows musicians who want to play together to hook and do so. I wanted the jam to be a working environment for local musicians," he said. "It's an opportunity to explore new music and new partnerships at a neutral location."
That working environment has resulted in the formation of at least four local bands -- Fifty Fifty, Raging Wood, 301 Main and Bridge Avenue.
The new television show is filmed live during the jam sessions with minimal direction. The show features only original music composed by various members of the jam and performed specifically for the show. Ledo cites a number of reasons for employing this approach.
"The jam was founded to feature the music, the song and the performance, not necessarily the performers," he said. "Music and musicians are the driving force behind all of this. The energy generated amongst musicians spontaneously performing a new song and their dynamic relationship with a live audience during that evolution lies at the heart of what a jam is all about."
Ledo has some background in television production so he knew exactly what he wanted to project for the audience, "because of the way I work the camera, you are standing amongst the musicians. You are in the band, a fly on the mic, You are on stage participating in the birth of a song."
The format for the half hour program is a contemporary take on a musical variety show. There is a brief introduction followed by the performance of three to five songs interspersed with brief interviews of both the songwriter and singer (sometimes the same person) to give the audience a chance to delve deeper into the head behind the song.
Because of the spontaneous nature of the performance, the mic is left on before a song and between songs so you can hear the exchange of ideas and the mutual education inherent in the process of birthing a new song.
The process can be as unpredictable as it is exhilarating.
"Even though the singer songwriter may be very familiar with this tune, the people standing on stage with him may never have played this thing before in their lives," he said. "They are being asked to put aside all of their inhibitions and play live in front of the camera. The audience sees and hears the songwriter as he shares with the band members chord progressions, tempo, etc. Then he turns around and starts to play and they follow. Sometimes you can see, and it's just humorous, on the faces of some of the old pros, they are in an absolute panic keeping up, especially with some of the newer music. And amidst that panic they're laughing, because it's like being on a roller coaster and they're having the time of their lives."
The television show is about sharing this whole experience with a wider audience.
As "father" of the Jam, Ledo has only one rule. "You must make the song as good as it can be by what you can contribute."
Ledo is quick to recognize that his dream could not have come this far without the support and expertise of the people he calls the core of the jam. Right hand man and local guitar legend Rick Vogelpohl provides professional quality sound engineering and post production. Jam performer, Nolen Chew has been there from the beginning acting as the sounding board for Ledo's ideas. Jam supporter and music enthusiast, Todd Naylor, created Carriage House Recording Studio, a 24 track professional quality resource available to jam members as another means to move their music beyond the walls of the jam.
Gabe Ledo, Jerry's son has provided both technical and emotional support to the project. And Ruth Happe, Ruthie, Jerry's better half who has enabled his crazy ideas from the very beginning and is the face of family Thursday nights at the jam.
Connecting with Josh Geving, program director at Channel 6, to get the Jam on the air was just the first step in a plan to expand the Jam's regional exposure. Ledo hopes to be able to develop a similar relationship with Northwest Communications to extend the programs reach further north and as far south as LaCrosse.
Ledo has eight programs "in the can" and plans to deliver as many as 50 programs over the next year. Exposing both the music and the musicians to a wider audience and possibly creating some opportunities for promising musicians along the way is what it's all about for Ledo.
With added exposure from television, he hopes the Jam will gain credibility with the radio market.
"I'd like to start building that market for them (musicians)," he said. "It's an uphill battle given the conglomerate nature of stations these days, but I'm hoping to convince some local stations to dig deeper into the local music scene, take a look at what's in their backyard."
Box of Chocolates, or the Star Prairie Jam as it appears in the TV schedule, airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on Channel 6 WITC in New Richmond/Star Prairie. Instant reruns can be seen on Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.