Mike Denicola spent 30 years responding to health emergencies. Two years post-retirement, he responded to the need for fellowship and self-care by grabbing his guitar and chord sheets and joining a safely planned music jam in the Zachary Historic District.
The Music Tree Preparatory School’s Music Clubhouse, a gathering of adults, recently started meeting again after being sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. St. Francisville businessman and Fugitive Poets band member Adrian Percy facilitates a good time for that group that includes businessmen, scientists, a legislative IT specialist and a retired first responder. None of them are fanning the embers of a music career. They feel enjoy music and find strength in playing in the casual group.
Denicola spent 29 years as a paramedic in East Baton Rouge after serving as a firefighter. His calm and friendly demeanor reflects both on-the-job tragedies and the off-the-clock victory of being a "full-time" Papa to his grandchildren. This public health crisis brings love and work full circle. “I’ve seen so many things,” he said. “This pandemic is real and people need to take precautions, but the majority of the people do not care to take precautions so it makes it bad for everyone who does.”
But the Thursday night gatherings center around music and help create a sense of sharing and fellowship. “It’s a musical buffet or a potluck,” Denicola said. “Everybody brings something to the table.”
Will Perkins, a farmer and environment scientist with Georgia Pacific, sings “Old Man, Look at My Life,” while ecologist Seth Blitch sits cross-legged across the circle hugging his guitar. Florida native Blitch, the coastal and marine conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, enjoys letting his hair down and taking his shoes off during the Music Clubhouse jam session.
Blitch has been playing off and on for 40 years, but this is the first time he has ever played with a group. It was daunting at first, but he said it is something he always wanted to do. He has offered suggestions on safe places to play, including the Mary Ann Brown Preserve managed by The Nature Conservatory.
Blitch said he is self-taught on a couple of instruments. “I was a fine hobby hack,” Blight said. He added that he recently took guitar lessons at the Music Tree and now has the confidence to play with other adults in the Clubhouse.
The new kid in the Clubhouse has a white beard, a tattered straw hat and introduced himself as Waylon Jennings. St. Francisville businessman Z. Dave Deloach channels the spirit of his honky-tonk hero who has been dead for 18 years. He has honky-tonk history with a group that sprang up from the Adult Music Club founded by Dave Hinson, the Baton Rouge musician who grew up in Zachary.
Deloach earned his honky-tonk holidays from the shipyard and marine towing industry. A well-known leader and representative of the maritime industry, he built successful businesses that he has turned over to his daughter and one of his sons. A tough decision now is which of his 12 guitars to take when he goes jamming or honky-tonking.
Deloach took COVID very seriously and decided that places that required masks were too risky for him. “I just don’t go to places where you have to wear mask,” he said. “If you have to wear a mask, you ought not be there. If it’s a tight room with everyone wearing mask, I would just rather not be in there, but I will come out and play with these guys because we can space out.”
Percy might have deep, lofty aspirations for the group, but he prefers to encourage the fellowship and the nonthreatening power of group music ventures. “You know, that’s the whole thing about sitting in the circle,” he said. “You get one jerk and it blows the whole mojo.”
The group has one female band member who plays the violin and sings, and Percy would love to see more women as well as more singers and keyboard players. Thursday night jams are definitely back. “We are very excited, but cautious,” he said. “We have only gathered in outside, covered venues while striving for good social distancing. We are pretty much all at risk, so we will adhere to strict social distancing.”
The Music Clubhouse doesn’t play regular gigs, but Percy said they will perform when the opportunities present themselves. The pandemic ruined plans to perform at Percy’s Tunica Hills Music Festival and other events. “We get together to play and to get better at it,” he said. “We ain't gonna be on MTV, but we can still get better at playing as a group and have a blast doing so.”