In the beginning, there were the Brute Red Trash Cans.
The simple, plastic buckets were among the first instruments utilized by the Vienna Jammers, along with PVC pipes, bits of metal and other construction materials lying around Vienna Elementary School.
Fast forward about 17 years, and the student percussion group is getting ready to perform on actual marimbas, hand drums and more with Madonna’s former DJ at Capital One Hall in Tysons for the Big Jam, an annual fundraiser and year-end concert.
Set for 6 p.m. this Saturday (May 13), this year’s concert will celebrate the Jammers’ 10th anniversary as a nonprofit and feature a guest appearance by Eric Jao, also known as DJ Enferno, a Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology alum who has also worked with Shakira and Rihanna.
“It’s gonna be a big blowout. We’ve got lots of cool things planned,” Vienna Jammers Executive Director David Reynolds Jr. said, hinting at team-ups with the Legacy Dance Institute and a marimba-playing robot designed by one of the Jammers’ older students.
Though the performance venues have gotten bigger, and the instruments more polished, the Vienna Jammers haven’t lost touch with the scrappy, experimental spirit that fueled its creation.
During the 2005-2006 school year, Reynolds was working as a music teacher at Vienna Elementary when James Madison High School junior Dave Cohen — known by the group as “Dr. DC” — approached him and proposed starting a percussion ensemble for kids as a community service project.
The Jammers began as an after-school activity with about 20 fifth and sixth-graders playing instruments available in the school, from Orff xylophones to the aforementioned trash cans and construction materials.
Reynolds says the initial focus on “found sounds” and non-traditional instruments came partly out of necessity and partly as a nod to the international group STOMP, which closed out a 29-year run in New York City in January.
“The beauty of the marimba for me and percussion is that I can teach a simple part to one group and then teach another simple part to another group, and then you put those two groups together and it sounds like a very complex piece of music,” Reynolds said. “…It sounds like professional quality stuff, but it’s being created by kids, and so I think that kind of adds to the allure of it.”
That approach evidently resonated, because the Jammers grew to the point where 75 kids were auditioning for 20 to 25 spots. After visiting the leader of the Louisville Leopards, a similar group in Kentucky, Reynolds decided to turn the ensemble into an official nonprofit in 2012.
The Jammers now boast 135 participants from 25 different schools, ranging from second graders up to seniors in high school. Most are based in Fairfax County, but students have joined from D.C. and even Bristow.
To get into the group, kids first participate in a summer camp that serves as an audition, but once they’re accepted, they can stay as long as they want, moving to different ensembles depending on their age and how often they want to play. The high school-aged ensembles are limited to kids who got involved starting in elementary school.
However, not long before Covid hit, the organization added a “Jammers Tech” program that’s open to any seventh through 12th graders interested in audio and video production.
“It just so happened to work out that we were just getting that off the blocks when we really needed to kind of tie in that live-streaming and those sorts of things,” Reynolds said.
Looking back over the Jammers’ first decade, Reynolds says his goal has ultimately boiled down to creating opportunities “for kids at a young age to experience some really incredibly awesome things.”
In addition to performing at local events like ViVa Vienna and the annual Halloween parade, the group has provided halftime entertainment for the Washington Mystics at the Verizon Center, and the guest artist at last year’s Big Jam — the first at Capital One Hall — was South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, who was part of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album.
“For me, this is awesome,” Reynolds said. “I get to go and make music with a bunch of kids, and we get to share that music, and we get to try to do it in bigger and better places and travel and just open their eyes to the world.”
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