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Halls are alive with the sound of their music

All year long, the Pay it Forward Volunteer Band enlists musicians to perform in nursing homes around the L.A. area. Often they play for those present but far away, their minds clouded by dementia or Alzheimer's.

December 25, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Masaye Shigemura, 92, center, sings along to "Silent Night" with Gary Gamponia, founder of the Pay it Forward Band, at the Garden Crest Rehabilitation Center in Silver Lake. The bands constantly reconfigured small jazz combos perform year-round at nursing homes all over Los Angeles County.
Masaye Shigemura, 92, center, sings along to "Silent Night"… (Christina House, For The…)

The ads on Craigslist run repeatedly all year long, pleading to Los Angeles' musicians and singers.

Come, they say, play. You will not be paid.

In December, they seem to be everywhere.

"Use your talents to bring Christmas JOY to people who really NEED us!"

"Karma earned here! Join us in bringing JOY to sick, sad, lonely people."

And so men and women show up from all over the area, lugging their heavy drum sets, keyboards, amps. Singers come ready to belt out standards. Saxophonists and guitarists stake out their spots and scan the sheet music.

There are gigs and there are gigs. Those of the Pay It Forward Volunteer Band stand out.

The band's constantly reconfigured small jazz combos perform year-round at nursing homes all over Los Angeles County — at well-run, friendly places full of things to do and at forlorn spots where visitors and loving care seem sparse.

Often they play for those present yet far away, minds clouded by Alzheimer's or dementia.

They try to break through by reaching back to the hits of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosbyand Ella Fitzgerald.

"When I see someone whose lights are turned off," says the band's founder and driving force, Gary Gamponia, "I see it as my job to try to turn those lights on."

::

Three shows in a row on a recent Saturday start around 10:30 — a.m., not p.m. Strangers meet and, within minutes, start to play together.

There's a professional saxophonist, two film and TV composers on keyboard and guitar and a female vocalist who, in addition to her full-time job, also sings in a Pat Benatar tribute band and a swing band of JPL engineers. A college student on vacation from UC Santa Cruz has shown up to play the drums. Another, from Fullerton, is debuting on the upright bass. An East Hollywood entertainer and community activist has come with a keyboard too. Gamponia is there to sing a few songs but mostly to dance around and try to draw the audience out.

At Garden Crest Rehabilitation Center in Silver Lake, more than 40 residents fill a bright, airy room looking out on the Hollywood sign. At least half are in wheelchairs, blankets cradling shoulders and knees. It's sleepy as aides gently settle people in.

But then the band of seven — with saxophone, keyboards, upright bass, drums and guitar — breaks into a jazzy, jangling "Jingle Bells," sending waves of sound into every corner of the space.

Hands rise from a lap, fingers tapping out the beat.

Slippered feet start to sway.

A wheelchair rolls back and forth an inch or two.

And while a few people sleep and one or two stare straight ahead, lips are moving, mouthing old, familiar words. When Gamponia, in a red Santa hat, asks people what songs the band should play, a rail-thin woman in a blue cotton nightgown and red cardigan clutches her cane and calls out loudly from the back.

"Everything!" booms out Kathleen Belisle, 88. "Every one! All of them!"

::

Garden Crest is Gamponia's model nursing home. The staff cares. The schedule is varied and full. They welcome outsiders, and on this day, even L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti pays a visit to take a turn on the keyboards and sing.

Garcetti's grandparents were musicians, he says, and with his grandmother, "I just remember some of the last ways we ever connected were through music."

But even at the best homes, Gamponia says, he sees a hunger for what he calls "more abundant lives."

At the worst, he sees days reduced to a thin gruel — of bingo, TV and the occasional karaoke machine. That's not enough, he says.

He tends to dream big, utopian dreams.

A few years back, Gamponia, who has mostly earned a living selling insurance, tried to create a cooperative that would help musicians out and then have them return the favor by performing at community events.

He lent equipment, negotiated deep discounts on instrument repair and drove people to gigs when their cars broke down. But the giving was one-way, he says.

Then, around Christmas 2009, he had a simpler notion: Why not just form a band to bring music to the places that could use it most?

He called the office of his councilman, Garcetti, for ideas and got the names of several nursing homes. And he enlisted a ragtag band of old friends and new acquaintances made on Craigslist.

On the way to the first gig, the drummer's car broke down. Gamponia, fretting about how to replace him, slammed on the brakes, sending his speakers smashing through his windshield. At the second gig, the keyboardist dropped her car key down an elevator shaft. Racing to the third gig, one of the vocalists ran a red light at a red-light camera. The band sounded terrible, too. Some people couldn't even keep the beat.

But, oh, the response they got. "It just absolutely shocked us how big it was," Gamponia, 50, said.

So what might have been a one-time gesture became a full-time crusade.

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