Music makers

Saugerties couple gives Valley music lovers a unique musical experience at John Street Jam

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009

Steve Massardo of Saugerties loves music so much that he decided early on to never do anything to jeopardize that relationship. So although he lives somewhat of a double life – biomedical researcher by day, musician by night and weekends – he deftly handles both careers. Would you expect any less precision from the son of a concert violinist?

“Although I took music courses while attending Rutgers [the State University of New Jersey], I was afraid that if I made it my profession, I would stop enjoying it. I didn’t want music to become some drudgery,” says the 54-year-old. “I know a lot of musicians who can barely make ends meet. Today, I’m more immersed in music, the fun aspects, without having to try to scrape a living out of it.”

Perhaps his dedication to preserving the relationship with music also ultimately helped orchestrate the relationship with his wife. “Music brought us together,” says Terri, Massardo’s wife of 10 years.

Bringing a passion for music to the community

The couple’s interests and passions have meshed over the years. They’d rebuild classic cars and bring them to Watkins Glen on Vintage Weekend. Terri infused Steve with her penchant for motorcycles.

But old cars, motorcycles and Terri’s love of horseback riding have been put on the back burner for the past five years as they’ve shared another endeavor, one that brings harmony to others who may not necessarily be musical themselves. Terri is an elder with the Saugerties Reformed Church, on Main Street.

“It’s a beautiful building, designed by the same person who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, although a teeny, weeny version,” says Steve. Attached to the church is the Dutch Arms Chapel. The chapel was once used for services, but since the construction of the main church, it has become a setting for auxiliary purposes. In the ’60s, it was a coffeehouse.

Groups such as Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous have held meetings there, and it was the former home of the Seedling Nursery School. When the nursery school closed six years ago, the church was suddenly left with an empty building.

“Terri wanted to use that space efficiently, and as musicians we’re always looking for a venue,” says Steve. “But we didn’t want the same format. A lot of times, the only people in the room are the people performing at an open mic night – and at the end of the evening, there are only a handful of people left – and no ‘civilians.’ ”

During the time they were batting ideas around, Terri and Steve were called to Nashville to attend a friend’s graduation. They were taken to the Bluebird Café during their visit, where they experienced country music in the round. “This got Terri’s creative mind going,” says Steve. “I said ‘Holy cow, this is what we need to do,’” says 55-year-old Terri. 

Talk about coming full circle – literally. Steve recently realized that the “in-the-round” concept was exactly what he was exposed to as a child observing his father’s chamber music performances. “I appreciated the symmetry.”

So when the John Street Jam – the chapel entrance is on John Street – was born, this symmetry was key. The stage is a rug in the center of the room, flanked by four Victorian lamps. Four chairs are arranged in a circle, and the audience is seated in concentric circles that surround the performers. The Massardos invited a few performers to the Jam’s open-mic debut in January 2004, and planned a monthly event.

“There were nine performers, and it was a little awkward,” Steve says.

They began thinking … If they continued with an open-mic arrangement, what if they can’t accommodate all the performers on any given evening? What if the quality isn’t consistent? After the second month of an open-mic format, they fine-tuned their approach. “We invited eight people to do two rounds,” says Steve. “We knew 20-25 good musicians to get the ball rolling.”

And then they started recruiting from other venues. “We did a lot of bar-hopping, listening for other voices,” says Steve. “We now have 50 or 60 musicians on rotation.” Since its inception, scores of performers have played the John Street Jam. “They all want to come back,” says Steve. “It’s wonderfully symbiotic. They play for free before an audience of about 100 people who are totally involved.

They love it because they rarely get to play for such an attentive audience. They’re literally center stage.”
The audience wins, too. “They get two hours of eclectic entertainment,” says Steve. “We look for quality performances that transcend personal taste.”

Where the music began for the Massardos

With a hugely successful music venue on their hands, how did this couple pull it all together? For both Steve and Terri, the music started long ago. The musical notes in Steve’s early years began in Ogdensburg, N.J. The son of a concert violinist who began playing at the age of 3, Steve grew up in a home filled with classical music. “I had an older sister and brother.

By the time I was 8 or 9, I was always tagging along with my parents,” he says. “My father started the Sussex County Community Orchestra. I grew up with chamber music.” While he dabbled in violin and piano, guitar became his instrument of choice and companion through his college years. He majored in electron microscopy at what is now SUNY Orange and completed studies in biochemistry. “I’ve been a biomedical researcher for 33 years,” says Steve.

But music has always punctuated the science in Steve’s life. Shortly after graduation, he and  longtime friend Terry Seeley wrote a song for a mutual friend’s wedding. The photographer was so impressed that they were commissioned to write the music for a slide presentation. They’ve been writing music together for more than 30 years now.

While in his mid-20s, Steve was working in a molecular biology lab at Yale University. His boss, an expert in cell fractioning, or separating cells into individual components, was recruited to bring her expertise to a firm in Germany. “She agreed to take the job if I could come because she didn’t want to train somebody else,” says Steve. “I got rid of my apartment and sold my car. Halfway across the ocean I realized that for the first time in many years, I had no keys. That was quite a revelation.”

Upon his return from Germany, he started working in the anatomy department of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. An old college buddy was in Woodstock, and introduced him to that northern section of Ulster County. About five years later, he heard about a research foundation in Cold Spring, which was opening in a renovated monastery.

“The Orentreich Foundation for the Advancement of Science was established by a dermatologist in 1961 to put research on the fast track,” he says. Twenty years ago, the foundation’s focus was on hair transplants. Today, longevity is the goal. “We’re interested in the connection between diet and longevity, and diseases such as diabetes,” he says, pointing to research that hopes to turn up ways to slow down the biological clock.

Couple’s relationship starts out on musical note

About 15 years ago, Steve and Terri were coworkers at Orentreich and attended a party with Steve’s friend, Terry Seeley. “I started singing along with Terry and Steve,” says Terri. “Steve realized before I did that I could sing.”

In the early ’90s, the couple formed a band called Yankee Rose. Known for its “Americana” style, Yankee Rose has a bluesy, folksy sound that also draws from classic rock, country and bluegrass. Soon, Steve and Terri were making beautiful music together as a couple, and they married in 1998.

Terri grew up on a dairy farm in Waverly, about 45 minutes west of Binghamton. “My grandfather could play anything. My mother played a little piano, and I played my mother’s 45s of Elvis Presley,” she remembers. And she knows she inherited her biological father’s passion for whistling and humming.

“We can be doing a sound check and Steve will say, ‘Can’t you stop whistling for a minute?’ ‘No, I can’t.’”
After high school, Terri began her career in biomedical research at the American Health Foundation in Valhalla, which specialized in cancer research.

That position was a springboard to the Orentreich Foundation, where she landed a few months before Steve. They worked together, although in different departments, for about six years before they started dating. Music continues to be the refrain that grounds these busy people.

They’ve been members of the Hudson Valley Folk Guild for the past 10 years. Along with Yankee Rose, they are also a part of the Big River Band with three other musicians, which swings with that ragtime beat.

“We have a ball doing it,” says Steve. “It’s a treat to be able to express ourselves artistically – especially after the hours of commuting and working our day jobs.”

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you get sick of each other,’” says Terri. “‘No.’”

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

Categories: Feature Stories,Profiles

Tags: music,saugerties,John Street Jam,Dutch Arms Chapel

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