Wednesday January 12 was the second anniversary of the phenomenon known as the Corktown Ukulele Jam – and my last night as its official host.
My buddy Steve McNie and I started the jam two years ago on a whim. The idea was simple: we were jamming on ukes, and we realized we were having way too much fun for just two people. We put out a call for fellow uke enthusiasts, and wow, did they answer.
Our first night had 18 participants, as I recall, all of them wide-eyed at the sight of so many fellow ukers and their instruments in one spot. The next week we had 35 in attendance, and it quickly grew to 50 weekly, then 60, then 75, and frequently more. Last night there were nearly a hundred crowded into the back room for the weekly session.
We made forays into the world at large too: renting a ukulele streetcar, paddling freighter canoes to the ukulele campfire, taking part in the Toronto City Roots and Winterfolk festivals, attending the launch of The Mighty Uke en masse, welcoming ukulele hero Jake Shimabukuro in our midst, and swarming into Convocation Hall to hear the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. We even built our own ukes!
Spinoff groups started in Kingston, Port Hope, Orangeville, Ottawa and elsewhere, fueled by our success.
The media loved the jam right away. Many reporters and personalities are among our members, and our social media connections quickly spread the word. Soon there were features on radio, television, and the internet, not to mention articles in the local papers. We really were a phenomenon – part of the craze we dubbed Ukulele 3.0. We still are. We’re successful and known around the world in the tight-knit but constantly growing ukulele community.
We celebrated that last night in our beloved digs at the Dominion on Queen with a “Greatest Hits” show featuring, as always, our own members at their very best on stage. Two years of weekly shows – what a run!
Through it all I enjoyed the great privilege of hosting. My role was to open the night, to say the right (or hilariously wrong, at least) things for every segue; to bring Steve to the stage for his superb and intense instructional sessions, to give everyone who ever performed on the stage the dignity of a more-or-less formal introduction, and to turn the audience’s attention to what mattered.
It’s not an easy job. Most people hate it. Being a Master of Ceremonies means mastering ceremony, for one thing, which requires an odd attention to propriety that feels stiff for many people. But it’s always come naturally to me, partly because I like to be silly and serious in the same breath. And it’s truly an honour, to do what I feel is my true work in a way that makes a difference for people in a live performance space.
The thing about hosting is that you cannot put anything into the room that wasn’t there to begin with, except perhaps awareness.
The attention comes from the audience. The acknowledgment comes from the audience. The appreciation comes from the audience. And ultimately, so does the applause. As an MC all I could ever do was point out what to be aware of, what was special about each person or moment as it happened.
It’s a role I see as sacred, because I believe the raw materials for the art of hosting are human creativity, receptivity, and spirit. There’s a kind of shamanic mojo that flows when I’m on the mic, and it’s quite wild. To be frank it scares me a bit. I’m never entirely sure I’m being appropriate or that I’ll emerge from any particular verbal maze without damaging someone’s ego. And as for my own… let’s just say all the worst bruises I’ve received on stage have been my own fault.
Being an MC is like being a rodeo clown: you have to put yourself in there when the bulls are running wild and there’s a rider down. You try to entertain the crowd while making sure no one comes out of the ring broken to bits. For the most part I’ve succeeded, and when I haven’t I’ve grown and gotten better because of it. I hope.
Anyway, a hundred gigs on the Corktown stage was like no other hosting or playing assignment I’ve ever had. Virtually everyone I introduced was an amateur, for one thing. It was a good challenge to find what each person’s gift to the gathering was, and try to draw attention to it. That was usually a delight, and it’s a pleasure to see someone beam and do their best because of a great introduction.
Not to mention the pure joy that erupts when people simply get in a room and make music together. It’s a fundamental human need, I think, and it feels great to see that need addressed.
Sometimes it was no delight to be on stage at all. The odd time, it was easier to draw attention away from whatever particular madness had just occurred; open stages, after all, are open. Sometimes what flies in is hard to shoo back out. And sometimes, it just felt like I was giving energy I couldn’t afford to offer up – with eighty people looking to be entertained. Feelings like that are warning signals, and I’ve had them in all areas of my life over the years. I paid attention this time.
Then there’s the relentlessness. Steve’s enthusiasm is apparently boundless, and he brings three times the work ethic I do to this and all his pursuits, which raises the bar very high. But for me the finer energies of the hosting gig started to strain after only a year, despite the weekly “ukulele miracles” that were so revitalizing to my spirit. After all, I did have a day job, and a daughter in Montreal, and a relationship and a house and all my other pursuits.
Several times I thought about moving on, but always came back for more, both out of love for the community, and out of a sense that you gotta dance with the one that brought you. The ukulele community has been very, very good to me. And every week I went home happy – even if I went home exhausted, broke, or drunk. Or all three.
Still, all things have their lifespans. In the time I’ve been hosting CUJAM I’ve moved on from a relationship, and been moved on from a job. I’ve finished up with the Shelter Valley Folk Festival board and been voted onto the board of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals. Roots Music Canada has emerged, grown, and become a full-time concern. I’ve got both an album, and a book on the go. I’m writing songs again like crazy. Plus I somehow ought to make some money!
Times change, things change, and people change with them.
As Michelle Shocked once sang, “The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go.” In my case, the time to go is now. I’ll take a back seat – literally – in the Wednesday night sessions now, as I’m able, amid my other commitments. I’m confident of the community’s continued success: after all, EVERYONE in the group has grown, and wants to keep growing. No worries there.
The love in the room – including a remarkable friendship with Steve – has always been palpable; that’s the main reason I’ve stayed involved all along. And that love represents, not just a period of time in my life, but an ongoing source of soul-satisfaction for me. I’ll always have this story to tell: a bunch of friends and I helped make a community, and it lives on. I have been fortunate to play a special role.
I know I’ll always have a home at the Corktown Ukulele Jam, where so many fine folks have been so good to me.
Now on to the next stage.