The Lure of the Riverside Jam

Bluegrass musicians in Riverside Park on Sundays kept spirits up during the pandemic

| 19 Jun 2021 | 05:14

From her apartment, Nancy Snyder walks down the street and into a musical tradition.

She’s a regular at the bluegrass-themed Riverside Jam on the Upper West Side. On Sundays (or sometimes Saturdays, if weather intervenes) from 2 to 5 p.m., local musicians gather at 102nd Street in Riverside Park to play music they love. If it rains, area residents hear the same sounds at the 79th Street Boat Basin.

Snyder, a retired registered nurse who has lived in her building more than 30 years, heads out each weekend equipped with her fiddle. “I love to play,” Snyder says. “I love the music. And I love the social aspect to it as well.”

Talents like Snyder are part of the city’s interconnected music scene, which some found all the more critical during pandemic times. These jams migrate around the city and beyond, with friendships forming along the way.

Snyder’s husband, Gary Ardan, plays the dobro in the same jam. These Sunday shows are something they can do together. Her own jamming origin story starts on Second Avenue, she says, at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar at 29th Street. That’s where she first got to know a lot of the musicians she still plays with.

“Jams don’t always last,” she says, “but the one at Paddy’s has lasted all these years.”

Roots Music

The Riverside engagements are “90 percent bluegrass,” according to organizer Ronald Zwerdling. Bluegrass is a strings-centered mainstay of American roots music. “Anybody who wants to play can play,” Zwerdling says, evoking an inclusive philosophy repeated by others involved. He and fellow organizer Liz Wolfe spoke on a Zoom call the Monday morning after an outdoor performance.

“The etiquette is to be welcoming. Pick a song that’s not too complicated,” Wolfe says. Common picks are in the keys of C and G.

Jamming is a great way to get started playing with other people, especially for those who have previously only thought of music as a singular activity. “If you have four or five people together, that’s a jam,” Wolfe says. “Over the pandemic, Ron and I were committed to keeping the music going.”

There are two types of jams, Wolfe explained, and she has firsthand experience with both. Intimate sessions give each player more chances to pick and lead songs. “I happen to really like playing in groups of 10 or less,” says Wolfe, who plays the ukulele. A larger group has gifts of its own, and the park afternoons offer an especially inclusive feeling.

“You can sit on the outskirts and somewhat participate directly and still get to play,” Zwerdling says. Passersby watch — and sometimes even dance.

Creating a Sense of Community

With thousands of musicians in the city, such shows are popular and arguably essential. Wolfe started collecting people’s email addresses years ago, and used Meetup to create a sense of community. Over Labor Day weekend, Wolfe, who lives in northern Manhattan, hosts a “camping jam.” Zwerdling, a Riverdale resident, has played in Red Hook in Brooklyn and Astoria in Queens.

Guitar player Missy Cohen, an Upper West Sider, looks forward to being part of the Riverside groups every summer. The gathered come from all kinds of careers. There’s an SAT coach and a cartoonist, and players range in their levels of experience and ability.

“I’m not a religious person,” she says, “But I imagine that this what church is like for some folks — to be surrounded by that love and music.”

A couple of Sundays ago at the Riverside Jam, Cohen, a freelance music editor for film and television, had a homecoming with her musician pals. She had been away caring for her mother, who died on May 24 of brain cancer. Quietly Cohen told the group about her mom’s passing, and she asked for some extra help singing that day. She chose “You Are My Sunshine” to lead, thinking it’s a simple, three-chord tune.

“I didn’t really pick that song with my mom in mind, but I picked it because it’s easy. The poignancy came out as I was singing it,” she says, recalling the moment. “When I stopped singing, I heard every other voice. The fact that they all sang so gently with me made me realize that I couldn’t stop.”

Interested in getting in on the musical action?
Information on bluegrass jams:
Learn about a Labor Day weekend camping jam upstate, featuring NYC musicians: