On a recent single-digit-cold Sunday night, I made my way to Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street in Princeton, where the windows were steamed up from the heat of the bodies and the beverages.
I walked in to a warm, welcoming space and inhaled the aroma of coffees, teas, cider, and chai, then looked around for evidence of the monthly Princeton Bluegrass Jam, which happens the second Sunday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m., with the next jam session coming up February 12.
Just before 7 p.m., a few people of assorted ages arrived (mostly men, but one young woman), settled in the upstairs corner of the coffee house, and unpacked their guitars, as well as a banjo, a mandolin, and a fiddle.
After a few minutes of talking and tuning, the group launched into the old favorite, “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” with the banjo player (who was wearing a Phillies 2008 World Series baseball cap) taking a couple of decent solos.
For the next song, the mandolinist took the lead, the fiddler did a fine solo, and the harmonizing got sweeter. A latecomer with a guitar played some very nice acoustic slide guitar, and the banjo player announced the great song made famous by the Carter Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Next up was “That Good Old Mountain Dew.” The night was just getting started.
It was not a perfectly polished evening of music that you might hear in a concert hall, because, of course, it’s not supposed to be perfect. The Princeton Bluegrass Jam is truly a “jam,” short for “jamboree,” which basically means “fun.”
I could hear the steady heartbeat of a bass and craned my neck to see the large instrument you’d normally see with a bluegrass band, but there was none. Only later did I learn that the usual bassist was absent from the jam, and Princeton resident Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff was playing something called a U-Bass instead.
“It’s actually a bass ukulele, called a ‘U-Bass,’ and Kala is the leading manufacturer,” Sidamon-Eristoff says. “In addition to being portable it has special plastic strings which are very easy on the fingers. It’s tuned like any other acoustic or electric bass, just smaller, and with these plastic strings.”
“It sounds wonderful, and it blows people away because it’s so small; it doesn’t look like it should give that kind of sound, but it does,” he adds. “It’s a new innovation but very popular because it’s so portable. You can easily take it to a jam or a festival, where packing an upright bass can be a bit of a challenge.”
Sidamon-Eristoff is, in fact, the man behind the Princeton Bluegrass Jam, and launched the popular jam sessions in 2010.
“I moved from Manhattan in order to take a job in New Jersey, and had been a member of a couple of jams,” he says. “I looked for some local jams in and around Princeton and wasn’t able to find any, so I used the online community organization tool Meetup to create the Bluegrass Jam.”
“I knew some people from the area, so I got them to join, and also did a little publicity,” Sidamon-Eristoff says. “The word got out: we started with just a handful, and now we have a mailing list of well over 200. Usually 10 to 15 people show up every month, which has been very gratifying. It looks as if it’s become a regular thing, and I like to think it’ll be self-sustaining.”
The jams were first held in a music room at Princeton Day School, then at the Alchemist and Barrister restaurant and pub, just steps away from Small World. Sidamon-Eristoff says the current venue seems to suit the players, as well as the listeners that come.
“We liked Alchemist and Barrister, but they did some renovations and changed their music configuration,” he says. “Small World Coffee was amenable to our coming here, and it’s been wonderful.”
“It’s so nice for us, but also for anybody who is there to listen,” he continues. “Some are our friends and family, but others are just there because they love this kind of music. A coffee house is a perfect location.”
Even though it’s going into its seventh year, the bluegrass jam is so casual Sidamon-Eristoff still only knows most of his fellow pickers by their first names.
“I don’t know much about them, but that doesn’t matter,” he says. “The jam provides a venue for people to come together without a lot of outside contact, just to have a good time. There are a bunch of regulars and then some who come less often, but it’s a nice mix and it stays fresh. They’re dedicated souls.”
Sidamon-Eristoff muses that this 21st-century interest in American roots music might have been sparked by the 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” with its period folk music and a storyline that revolves around the fictional bluegrass group, the Soggy Bottom Boys. (American musician, songwriter, and soundtrack and record producer T-Bone Burnett masterminded the soundtrack, which won a Grammy award for Album of the Year in 2002.)
“Of course (Virginia bluegrass singer) Ralph Stanley was featured on the soundtrack to that movie, too,” Sidamon-Eristoff says. “I think it gave renewed interest in bluegrass.”
“However, I would credit Pete Wernick and his development of the jam camp model, creating a sense of community, and ‘evangelizing’ bluegrass among amateurs,” he continues, “Pete and his wife, Joan, have held hundreds of jam camps, and now he has developed the Wernick Method, so he teaches other teachers his methodology, and he provides the back office support.”
“Now there are dozens of Wernick Method jam camps around the world every year,” Sidamon-Eristoff says. “I like to think that the whole idea helped music festivals and jams became more popular, and kept it going. It’s a nice community because it’s a bunch of amateurs.”
About 15 years ago Sidamon-Eristoff decided to dig deeper into bluegrass, dust off his guitar and play in the bluegrass style he loved. He had time to “woodshed,” so he found a DVD course by a flatpicking master and basically taught himself. (“Flatpicking” is the technique of striking the strings with a pick held between the thumb and one or two fingers, in contrast to fingerstyle guitar.)
But it was one of those Wernick jam camp experiences that really stoked Sidamon-Eristoff’s burgeoning interest. He describes it as an immersion in the music, but also the culture — the easy-going, non-judgmental environment of meeting like-minded people, sharing, playing, and loving this traditional music.
“You can have amateurs, professionals, and semi-professionals playing together, and if everyone observes a few ‘rules of the road’ you can make music that is fun and sounds good, even if you haven’t met the person or persons you’re playing with,” he says. “Bluegrass is a genre of music that lends itself to this, and this was the revelation at the first jam camp I went to.”
“Playing with someone I’ve never met is as much fun as playing with an old friend, and now these people have become good friends,” Sidamon-Eristoff says. “I’ve been going to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (in Oak Hill, New York) for 10 or 12 years and only see these people for a week or so once a year, but they are very good friends now.”
Born in New York in 1963 to a “not really musical” family, Sidamon-Eristoff says he sometimes wishes he had come from a long line of musicians, as he would have sharpened his skills at a much earlier age.
“My mother played piano and my sister played cello. And I was exposed to piano lessons as a kid, but I never practiced. I didn’t enjoy it,” he says. “I regret that now because, like languages, you can learn music so much more quickly as a youngster than you can over age 50. Had I started much earlier, I might have gone further in my musical abilities.”
But the family did listen to records and music, and Sidamon-Eristoff’s older brother and sister, especially, introduced him to country rock and the singer-songwriters of the 1970s.
“Groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were pretty big when I was in high school,” he says. “I taught myself a little bit of guitar and played occasionally, but not seriously. Had I been disciplined about learning more (when I was a child), it would have been easier.”
Sidamon-Eristoff’s late father was a lawyer who held several interesting positions in high level municipal and federal government. In the 1960s and early 1970s he worked for New York City mayor John Lindsay as transportation administrator, and later served as an administrator for the EPA for President George H.W. Bush.
Although his mother did not work outside of the home, she was (and is) a civic-minded, socially conscious woman; she was a former chairman of the American Museum of Natural History, former chair of the New York Community Trust, and served on a number of environmental organizations as well.
Sidamon-Eristoff graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a B.A. in politics in 1985 and received his law degree in 1989 from Georgetown.
From 1993 to 1999 Sidamon-Eristoff was a New York City councilman representing the Upper East Side; from 1999 to 2001 he was Commissioner of Finance for the City of New York, then he was (New York) state commissioner of tax and finance from 2003 to 2006. He then served as New Jersey state treasurer from 2010 to July 2015.
His wife, Carolyn, was a managing partner with Morgan Stanley, and is now retired. Sidamon-Eristoff jokes that she is “extremely tolerant” of his penchant for picking and adds, “actually, she’s very supportive of my vocation and doesn’t mind that once a year I go off to the bluegrass festival. She doesn’t play but sometimes comes out to listen — she’s more of a Motown fan.”
The couple has three children, daughter Anne Elizabeth, 19, and sons George, 17, and Andrew, 15. Apparently George has picked up his father’s interest in bluegrass and old-time music. “He plays a little bass and enjoys it, and in fact he comes to the annual Grey Fox Festival with me, too,” Sidamon-Eristoff says.
Sidamon-Eristoff names Ricky Skaggs as an influence and a favorite to listen to, as well as Norman Blake, Doc Watson, the Gibson Brothers, Crooked Still, and the SteelDrivers, among many others. “There are so many I enjoy, and I listen to XM Bluegrass Junction radio, so that’s my exposure to what’s new. My tastes tend to be more traditional, though,” he says.
There is one slightly off-key note to the Princeton Bluegrass Jam: drummers, woodwind, and brass players should leave their “axes” home, as the bluegrass jam is for stringed instruments only.
Wait, not even a jug? “We really do try and keep it in the general area of stringed instruments,” Sidamon-Eristoff says, diplomatically. Of course, all are invited to come and listen.
Other than that instrumental restriction, “We invite anyone who wants to play bluegrass and old-time music to join us and give it a try,” he says, “That’s the whole point, to keep people involved in the music.”
“It’s a lot about music, but it’s also a lot about community. That’s why it’s important for it to be open,” he adds.
Sidamon-Eristoff also wants to stress that the jam is a jam, not a concert, and the idea is not, “sit down, be quiet, and listen to us,” but rather, “bring your instrument, come and join us.”
“Among my friends who don’t play music, they confuse a jam with a band,” he says. “We’re not a band. We’re an open, traditional jam. It’s different from telling people to ‘come and hear my band play’ — this is a participation sport.”
Summing up the sessions, Sidamon-Eristoff says, “Sometimes it’ll be phenomenally good because we might have a few professionals, and sometimes it’s not as good, but it’s always fun. That’s the really special thing I discovered later in life: just how much fun it can be to play music with other people.”
Princeton Bluegrass Jam, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Second Sunday of each month (February 12, March 13, April 10, May 15, June 12, July 10, with a usual break in August), 7 to 9 p.m. 609-924-4377 or www.smallworldcoffee.com.
More on the Princeton Bluegrass Jam: www.meetup.com/Princeton-Bluegrass-Jam.