Anni Beach Sits a Spell with James Reams

For those of you that already know Anni, you’re probably just as proud as I am to call her a friend. Various adjectives come to mind when describing Anni; words like passionate, patient, devoted, tireless, and ball of energy are just a few. She is an inspiration to everyone she meets…and she meets an awful lot of folks!
I am delighted to have this opportunity to share some of her story and words of wisdom with the rest of the bluegrass community in Arizona. Hopefully, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, you‘ll learn a few new things about the incomparable Mrs. Beach!

Anni had an unusual introduction to bluegrass music. She was on a freighter returning to the US from Japan, when she heard someone playing a mandolin. Turned out it was a Peace Corps volunteer returning from a stint in Indonesia. Not one to be shy, she introduced herself, and they talked at length about this fascinating instrument. Anni became enthralled with the mandolin after attending a performance by a mandolin orchestra at Tokyo University. She then became obsessed by it.

When her parents finally gave in and bought her a mandolin in 1966 (from Naples, Italy!), she instinctively connected playing mandolin with bluegrass music. Her music background up to that time was primarily with old Americana songs, spirituals, and church hymns. But that music didn’t feature the mandolin as prominently as bluegrass, so she bought a bluegrass music book and tried to teach herself. However, events like marriage, a new baby, and a return to college left her mandolin dreams buried in the closet for more than 25 years.

In 1992, Anni’s husband, Vincent, decided to try his hand at playing cello on the condition that Anni would practice her mandolin. So she dusted it off, tuned it up, and tried to teach herself to play again. It didn’t work. They say that those who can’t, teach. Well, in Anni’s case, those who can’t, find someone who can teach them!

She eventually found a teacher (“they weren’t plentiful,” she confided) from The Music Store in Mesa. Her name was Lori Cazan. Lori proved to be a wonderful teacher and had Anni working through the book, “Bluegrass Mandolin”, by Jack Tottle. According to Anni, “I could already read music, so I began to catch on with her help, and soon I could actually play the tunes and that made me so happy!” She struggled to learn the big chords and then moved on to bar chords, “not the standard bluegrass shapes”, she shared secretively. Her first venue was the Williams Air Force Base Chapel, and then at a little country church called Heavenly Power House. And I think that’s a divine revelation of Anni’s passion for bluegrass nowadays—she IS a heavenly powerhouse!

Most of you are familiar with the story about how the idea for Jam Pak was born, but I’ll share a bit about it here for those of you who don’t know about this wonderful teaching program and musical group that Anni and her husband founded. After learning the basics, Anni hauled her mandolin around with her just about everywhere, including to the local schools where she was a substitute teacher. After a day of substituting at the Galveston school just up the street from where she lived, two little guys came knocking on her door and wanted to play some more bluegrass. Never one to let moss grow on a rolling stone, Anni started the Jam Pak Blues ‘N Grass Neighborhood Band the following week.

Says Anni, “My confidence was building daily. I was playing with children every week and building canjos. But I was still missing the key to ‘real bluegrass’ and that was jamming.” A tip from a fellow music student about an organization called the Arizona Bluegrass Association changed everything. Next thing you know, Anni is showing up at Susan and Howard Anderson’s in Tempe for their jam sessions. Playing with other dedicated bluegrass musicians on a regular basis and actually making a reasonable sound was a total high for her. “It was thrilling the first time I played ‘I Saw the Light’ with the group,” Anni confessed. But her big thrill was just around the corner.

1995 proved to be the real beginning for Anni in the world of bluegrass music. She had the opportunity to attend a Ralph Stanley concert at the Red River Opry House but had no idea how important a figure he was in bluegrass circles. Before the show, while he was setting up, she asked him for a cassette of ‘White Dove’ and “he just went out to the trunk of his car and got me one! That really made an impact on me. I’ve since learned most of the songs on that cassette,” beamed Anni.

Now she tries to take those feelings from her past experience and share them with the kids of Jam Pak, encouraging them to participate and make highlights in their own musical life. “The big encouragement I try to give people is to not let age be a factor,” shared Anni. It has been her experience that many older folks are afraid to try to learn a new instrument, but bluegrass music is so accessible that even simple tunes and chords can sound enchanting or exciting. As far as Anni is concerned, “bluegrass music is the best thing in the world if you love music.”

So what advice would this intrepid angel of bluegrass like to share with the our community? “Playing with other people is absolutely the best,” she commented. “And, of course, that’s what bluegrass music is all about. Finding people to play with, listening to the music, going to live performances; it all helps further one’s musical passion.”

Frequently, young Jam Pak members show her YouTube videos of groups playing bluegrass. The music seems to be spreading everywhere, but it wasn’t that long ago that some of her band members were embarrassed to tell people what kind of music they played. Anni encourages her group, “I think there is an exciting future ahead for acoustic music, new songs, growth in style and all ages will be participating. One day this music will be the most important, and you’ll know how to do it!”

When I asked Anni if there was anything else she would like to share, she replied with such passion that I just had to pass it on to all of you. “One area of exploration that I particularly feel strongly about is the inclusion of all kinds of people in bluegrass. This is everyone’s music, but it has been portrayed as ‘white man’s soul music.’ We can do this. We can invite groups of other ethnicities to perform at our festivals and concerts.” In particular, Anni was taken by Jan Zale’s article in the July ABA Beacon about the ‘String Cheese Incident’ at Huck Finn. “The bluegrass community must be more accepting of the progressive music along with the good old traditional,” claims Anni. “There seems to be a big emphasis on songwriting and that means new stuff to play and sing. I am confident that bluegrass music, with proper education and promotion, will continue to grow and thrive.” Well said Anni! I believe your words will prove to be truly prophetic.