Keeping tradition alive at a house jam in Berkeley

Blair Kilpatrick and Steve Tabak

Blair Kilpatrick and Steve Tabak at a house jam in their Berkeley home. Photo: Dorothy Brown

By Dorothy Brown

It was a warm September afternoon when I approached Blair Kilpatrick’s Berkeley home. The sounds of Cajun accordion and fiddle floated out through the open windows. Inside, the living room was littered with instrument cases, and in the small dining room musicians sat side by side. They played music that some knew well and some were learning, but it was music they all love.

It was a house jam. It’s a musical tradition that Cajuns and Creoles brought with them to the Bay Area when they settled here during and after WWII. It’s a way that music is taught, and learned, and shared among like-minded people.

House jams are a musical tradition that Cajuns and Creoles brought with them to the Bay Area when they settled here during and after WWII. Photo: Dorothy Brown

When Blair discovered, and became obsessed with, the accordion in the 1990s, she learned from Cajun accordionist Danny Poullard. She and her fiddle-playing husband, Steve Tabak, attended Danny’s weekly jams in his Fairfield garage. Blair writes movingly of her journey with this music in her memoir Accordion Dreams. With Danny’s guidance, she gained confidence and skill, until the day she and Steve were ready to play for a wider audience. They formed a Cajun band called Sauce Piquante.

Photo: Dorothy Brown

When Danny Poullard died suddenly in 2001, it was Blair and Steve who understood that the jams must continue. This type of Roots music encompasses a whole culture. It’s a musical genre, yes, but it is also a community.

Blair writes: “It is a hard thing to understand, until you have made music with other people, and have felt it: that powerful connection that feels so intimate — and at the same time impersonal, linking everyone to something larger, outside themselves.”

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Not everyone wants to form a band and perform in public. Some just want a chance to play with other people. And this house jam, hosted by Blair and Steve, offers a friendly and supportive place to do just that. It was a wonderful thing to witness.

You can hear Sauce Piquante play at the Kensington Farmer’s Market on Jan. 19, 2014. Find out more about Blair’s book, Accordion Dreams.

This article was first published on Dorothy Brown Photography’s blog, Small Stories from Real Life, where you can see more of the beautiful photographs taken at the Berkeley jam session.

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  • http://slovenianroots.blogspot.com/ Blair Kilpatrick

    You did such a beautiful job of capturing the energy and spirit of a Cajun-Creole jam session, Dorothy. Thank you! We feel so fortunate to be part of this vibrant local music community.

  • Hilary

    Dorothy has a way with words and photos that just pulls you in to learn about a slice of someone
    elses life that puts a smile on your face when you are finished reading. Thank you for sharing.

  • guest

    The first cabaret license issued in Berkeley was at 2108 Berkeley Way, mid-50’s. It was a folkie joint.