The story of the Red Hook Volunteer Jams, by Gene Bray

Hurricane Sandy was a storm of the century. Which these days means a storm that seems to hit two or three times a year. But that’s another story. Our story is about Sandy and Red Hook.

Sandy put us under two feet of water, plunged us into darkness for three weeks and thrust us into the national spotlight. Two young brothers from Michigan, Jay and Vaughn, saw Red Hook on TV and began packing suitcases and rounding up money. Their Black father knew not to waste his breath on his stubborn sons. But their mother, a Native American, looked at it as a test that young braves have always done. And Jay and Vaughn had surely done their share. She was proud of her sons.

TreepaintingMusic JamIce House

Soon, some friends came in a car and they were off. A young Black miss from Carolina, Tashanda saw the news and told her folks she was going to NY. They were against it, but she too was stubborn. They also knew she was not foolish, so they gave their blessing. And she left her comfortable home, got in her 20-year-old little red Ford and was soon heading north.For all it was their first time in NY. They all came to help, not sure how; but they knew they would figure that out. And of course, they came for the adventure. And they all ended up at 360 Van Brunt Street.

The bay abutting Red Hook was showing troubling signs that morning. Full of raging whitecaps. And the eye and the full moon were still twelve hours away. By noon, the bay seemed possessed by the devil itself. The water looked terrifying. Deadly. And the barometer readings were plunging to the lowest ever recorded. We didn’t know what low pressure meant. But we sure felt what it meant. Something we had never seen was Comin.

I headed up to my high-rise apartment in the projects as the eye was nearing. At about six the shrieking of the street cats startled me. I braced myself and looked out the window. It was like a hallucination. Water slowly pushing in. From everywhere. Soon it was flowing down the ramp leading to the basement. And the generators just kept coming and I just kept looking; like at a car wreck. And constantly checking back to the ramp. You didn’t have to be a mechanic to see this turning upside down soon.

But the electricity stayed on as the water kept surging inward. “Something gotta blow,” I thought. At nine the lights did just that. By the next morning, the water was gone. And so was the water in my sink. And the light in my refrigerator.

Well, the cats were back, though, acting as if nothing had happened. They were living good now, as people who had always ignored them were now leaving cans of cat food everywhere.

Yes, Sandy took our electricity and water. But she left us with the freshest air in a century. Each breath was like Mana. Nourishing us for the struggle ahead. The dark nights were comforting to me. I began falling asleep around nine. Sleeping straight through the night and awakening at dawn refreshed but also confused because of vivid dreams easily remembered. Sleep became an exciting gift, a journey to the unknown. Like a nightly LSD trip.

Soon spotlights went up outside my window, and my apartment felt like center field at Yankee Stadium. Cardboard in the windows didn’t quite work, as one shaft of light lit my place with a fake glow. But soon I got it right and brought back the darkness. At dusk, I began thinking thoughts impossible with lights and glowing screens and noise.

So anyway; two days later Jay and Vaughn walked up to 360 Van Brunt and saw Scott the landlord in a daze, working in slow motion. “Need some help?” Jay asked. Scott looked at these kids in spring jackets [it was Nov 2nd] carrying suitcases and his face lit up. He chuckled, and Jay and Vaughn beamed smiles. And the daze Scott was in vanished. Vaughn said, “Yea we came from Michigan to help out.”

And Scott realized that’s what his beloved Red Hook needed. A headquarters for help. And these two kids needed a place to drop their suitcases. The deal was sealed and the rent was waived. To be discussed later.

And the large sign Jay put in the window immediately started helping all who passed by. The Red Hook Volunteers.

Next day Tashanda saw the sign and waited for a volunteer to appear. Soon Jay and Vaughn walked up. Dirty, sweaty, worn out from doing clean outs. When they saw a very cute young black girl get out of a car with North Carolina plates, they were overjoyed. Never have dirty sweaty young men been so eager to meet a pretty girl. She was hired on the spot and given the cot and the back room. Pay to be discussed later. Adventurous young kids are very adaptable. Another hire was Alan, a white kid from Park Slope.

The pay fluctuated depending on how many clean outs they did. They were all hard workers but believed all work and no play was not the only way to live. It was weeks of candlelight and sponge baths. Scott saw how much this gang was helping, not by clean outs; anyone can do that. But with the twinkle in their eye and their easy going humor, making it much easier for people to throw out their possessions from cold dark rooms.

When the electricity came back local businesses got back to business and 360 Van Brunt was the most successful of all. Not financially as the rent was still waived. But spiritually.

Electricity meant phase 2 of the healing. First order of business by the Volunteers….The Friday Night Jams. Scott had many guitars gathering dust and was on cloud 9 as he dusted them off and laid them out. Tambourines. maracas, djembes, even a cow bell took up residence. And front and center; a drum set. 360 Van Brunt has huge windows in the front, and on Friday nights the doors were open and the music coming out was weird and crazy. Downright hypnotizing.

People were confused. “Is it great or horrible?” Actually it was both because great players were playing with bad players. A new musical genre was born. Flowing from good to bad throughout the night. Sometimes from minute to minute. But always full of feeling. No one was crit ical of another’s playing. It was refreshing for veteran players to just have fun. And their showed eyes showed that. Yes all of the eyes inside were inviting. Very welcoming.

360 looks like one of the many art galleries on Van Brunt with huge widows. But there was no art in there, and the people inside were all different. Young and old, rich and poor, white and black and everything in between. Old timers in worn out clothes next to young kids dressed up so nice. An unclassifiable hodgepodge.

And no charge. People passing by were dumbfounded. “What the hell kinda business is this”?

Rudy the homeless virtuoso trombone player. He was a pioneer of the instrument called the Air Trombone [with a stunning sound to boot]. And Francois, a professional trombonist with a real trombone. Alan our white bass playin drummer with rhythm and 2 foot dreads. Instruments constantly changing hands. No distinction between musicians and spectators. Singers and dancers amping up the players. A lady vocalist who would just scream. Didn’t need a mike that one. She quickly learned it was best to come late. An eye-opening crowd pleaser she was. And at the bus stop she was always so quiet, flashing me a knowing smile.

And Scott could see the healing beginning. For people from the projects who felt unwelcome in many businesses in their gentrifying neighborhood. For those who didn’t have basements or possessions to throw out. And anybody else too. Himself included.

The story of the Red Hook Volunteer Jams, by Gene Bray

It might start with someone on the African drum. Then Jerome would sit down and start strummin rhythm on his guitar. Jerome was always ready. Always the first to arrive and the last to leave. Then Doug would pull out the first harmonica that he ever bought. Which was a few days ago. He quickly learned that songs are played in different keys and soon bought 6 more. Then Scott would dance in with a devilish grin and hoist the fiddle to his shoulder. He was giddy, ready to erupt.

It was now T minus 1 minute and counting. And If Tashanda strolled to the drums it was 10,9,8. As she sat down7,6,5.As she wiggled in the seat, getting a solid foundation 4,3,and a deep breath and a smile which meant “Im gonna nail this” and 2,1….”Blast Off” and “Call the SWAT TEAM!”Sitting at the drums and bouncin up and down. Sittin and dancin at the same time. The drumsticks became part of her body and she used everything from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet to drive them into, or bounce them off of, the skins. Sometimes hard sometimes soft. Both feet tappin like Thelonious Monk.

You could see her temperature rising as her brown skin slowly began glistening and taking on a pinkish hue. Eyes half closed and mouth half open. The look of a lover. And her love was rhythm. Guitars. trombones. fiddles, dancin feet, sidewalk strollers; all were capsized in her wake.

But she never hogged the drums. A dozen different butts sat in that seat every night. All with their own rhythm. And all better than the drum machines we hear on our mp3s.

Polite and proper ladies who came late. Maybe had a drink and were soon swaying their hips like belly dancers. And short haired, clean shaven men….even they were tryin to look like belly dancers.

Scott would eagerly give guitar lessons to anyone any time. Jay took to the slide guitar quickly. Scott said its the easiest string instrument to learn but I think his teaching style had more to do with it. And Avi from India who had never seen an electric guitar and soon was blowin us away. But those 2 were more interested in figuring out how to prosper with their wits. And they sure had some wits.

Doug began taking harp lessons online, learning tongue blocking and the 12 bar blues. But at the jams he forgot all that and just wailed. This was the atmosphere for learning music. Jay emceeing to a funky back beat, going slowly around the room, giving everyone a chance to shine in the spotlight. With the cheering rhythmic support of all; why it was impossible to hit a bad note. You could learn how to play there quicker in one night than a year with a critical music teacher makin you nervous focusing on mistakes.

There were no mistakes here. Only bridges. And Scott saw real healing taking place in Red Hook and it was at his place. The kind that happens in a precious few churches where preachers sermonize about integrity, tolerance and forgiveness in worn out clothes. Who welcome free rides and free Sunday dinners. Unlike most of todays preachers in silk suits and Rolex watches who give sermons about giving your tithe, and then leave in BMWs.

Doug was a middle aged white guy who moved to Van Brunt Ave a year to the day after Sandy. After settling in, he and his sons headed for the projects to try to score some weed. They passed by a Volunteer who asked these strangers “How ya doin”and somethin about him got an honest response from Doug. “We’re tryin to get some smoke.” “No problem” and they were invited to the office and the shutters were drawn.

These kids came to help but they weren’t Mormons, some having a healthy appreciation for mind expanding plants. When Doug and his sons got home they looked out their window to see the first Barnacle Parade pass by.

But weed was never smoked at the jams. That’s disrespectful to those who don’t smoke. But a whisper and a nod led to the back room for that.

360 was open every day; a drop in center for anyone, any problem. The staff quickly grew, all unpaid volunteers. But getting money from grants was hard for these wild eyed youth. Government agencies feel more comfortable dealing with people in suits, I guess. But they never stopped tryin.

The action slowed and the staff dwindled. And Scott could see and feel the end of the road was nearing. He used some tough love to push them off to new adventures.

I remember the last jam. At 2 AM the instruments were put down and the shutters closed. And the dozen or so who were left; the heart and soul of the jams, moved to the back room and a bottle was opened.

At 4 am the talking was over. We sat mostly in silence. Silence is considered a gift to Native Americans. At dawn we left the last jam. The only holdout was Vaughn, who wanted to stay in Red Hook. More tough love from Scott who locked the front door to him. But the backroom cot was still available.

Waiting for the bus at 6 am across from 360 I often saw Vaughn. Slowly swaying down the street coming from who knows where. Still in his spring jacket, oblivious to the bitter cold. Stopping to light a cigarette. He looked like a defiant Cherokee warrior; unwilling to submit to the white man’s 9 to 5 world. And then he too vanished.

I saw the jams as an oasis. A place to escape my humdrum life, where I could transform from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. I could dance as if I wore a mask.

Now I realize that at the jams we took off our masks. We weren’t boring, dull androids after all. Using music was a perfect prescription. Music not concerned with notes but with feeling. Not about perfection but just fun.

Way better than a psychiatrist with psyche meds. But just being with those kids awhile; as they pointed their heart at you and looked deep into your eyes. They saw who we were; not what we had become. Yea those crazy Volunteers did a fine job.

And Jay and Vaughn’s mother, well she knew it all along…..

And so Scott waited patiently for the next tenant. Then one day a man in his 30’s pulled up in a rundown truck filled to the brim with albums. He was looking for a place to sell them. And much more. What that more was, well he wasn’t sure yet, but he knew he would figure that out.

When Scott saw the twinkle in his eye the deal was done. And another handmade sign was hung in the window. And that sign showed all that Magic had struck 360 Van Brunt once again. It said; The Record Shop

A post script Some 7 years after Sandy all of the Volunteers and friends of our story are fine, and the friendships made then still strong. Except Rudy. Rudy is gone. The finest air trombonist ever.