Wind blustering outside the crowded restaurant made it seem that much more cozy and welcoming. The crowd had an air of anticipation, focused on a group of people in the center of the floor. An eerie strain of violin music permeated the hush, quickly joined by other instruments and creating a lilting melody. “This is sacred to us,” said fiddler Leslie Williamson White just before she jumped into the piece.
Every Thursday night for over 30 years, Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake has hosted Celtic Jam, a place for musicians of all ages and skill levels to play lively Celtic music for an enthusiastic audience. Anyone is welcome to play at Celtic Jam, and the musicians range from amateur to professional, with all of them sharing a love of playing music with others.
“I wouldn’t have had the honor of meeting these people except for music,” said Tom Kantzler, a local musician who plays the Bodhran, a traditional Irish drum.
Mike McLean, a bartender at Sir Ben's, said that many of the same spectators attend Celtic Jam every week.
Restaurant owner, Antonino Coppola, spoke of his experience with his wife and co-owner, Aura.
“Every moment is wonderful,” he said. “We love it here.”
Many of these musicians play for pleasure and feel passionate about what they do.
One such player is Terrence Smith, a Minnesota State Arts Board member and a founding member of the Tamarack Dance Association. The Tamarack Dance Association is an organization that teaches folk dances while promoting self-confidence and equality, Smith said. Smith often teaches Celtic and folk jigs at Sir Ben’s during Celtic Jam night, as he has been doing for over 25 years.
“This music is supposed to be danced to,” Smith said. “It is made to be joyful.”
Smith has visited over 250 schools in the region, teaching folk dancing to several classes of students at a time. The school outreach workshops focus on acting as equalizers for the students, mixing ages and genders, while stretching comfort zones.
Circles are a common formation for the jigs, with symbolism attached to this form of dancing. Smith said circles give everyone equal footing and open the students up to one another.
Smith does smaller versions of these workshops at Sir Ben’s during Celtic Jam, randomly selecting audience members to participate. Smith said that dancing to this music was a way to show appreciation, unify the musicians and the audience, and energize everyone at the event.
One eye-catching and certainly energized instrumentalist is a man named Gary Johnson. Johnson is an instrument collector and Navy veteran who can often be found at the jam, sitting in his blue captain’s hat next to his large box full of instruments.
Both Johnson and Smith have been participating in Celtic Jam for over two decades. Smith and the other players making up this whimsical crew provide the heart and soul of Sir Ben’s Celtic Jam night.
“This is elemental,” Williamson White said. “We are having a musical conversation, and the notes on the page are not the music. We are the music.”
Click here to read about Sir Ben's Wednesday night Bluegrass Jams.