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Teens rock out at the Jackson Symphony Orchestra

Jolly Roger Walrus plays the Jammin' at the JSO concert series.
Jennifer Guerra
Jolly Roger Walrus plays the Jammin' at the JSO concert series.


Like a lot of Michigan cities, Jackson is hurting. The economy is in the tank, the unemployment rate is high, and stores continue to close, including the few places in town where teenagers could go hear live music. That has left those who live there with not much to do on a Friday night.

So a couple college kids are trying to make the local symphony orchestra the place to be on the weekends.

It's 6pm on a Friday and the under-21 set is filing into the Jackson Symphony Orchestra.

But they're not here to listen to Bach or Beethoven. They're here to see bands like Jolly Roger Walrus and Cardboard Cathedral. It's part of a new concert series called Jammin at the JSO.

Before the first band has even finished doing sound check, there are already about 80 kids in the audience, including 17 year old Spencer McKenna:

"I think it's cool! I mean, I wish there was more stuff like this in Jackson," says McKenna.

McKenna says she usually has to drive to Pontiac, over an hour and a half away, to see a good indie rock show. Aaron Wilson found himself running up against the same problem.

"In bigger towns, there's a variety of local music shows and venues to go to. But in Jackson there's only a few. Over the last years they all shut down."

So the 20-year old, who plays trumpet in a Jackson band called If I Were the Sun, teamed up with his band mate Wes Swartz, to look for venues.

They looked all over Jackson for a new place to play shows. Garages were out - too small. The only venues left were a heavy metal club and an arts complex called the Armory Arts project. Swartz says the metal club wasn't a good fit genre wise, and the arts complex charged too much to play there.

So in a last ditch attempt, Aaron Wilson knocked on Mary Spring's door at the Jackson Symphony Orchestra. Spring is the orchestra's development director. She admits that when Wilson first approached her about hosting an indie rock concert for teenagers at the JSO, she was skeptical.

"People don't know what to do with a group of kids that want to hear alternative rock. They think of all different kinds of scenarios in their minds: What am I going to do with these kids? How am I going to control them? Everybody likes to talk about youth, but when it comes right down to it what do you do with these kids?"

But she came around to the idea and offered Wilson and his friends the symphony orchestra hall one Friday a month for free, plus a four dollar cover charge to pay the bands. Spring says the first Jammin' at the JSO show in June was a huge success.

"And I'd like to say other orchestras ... the kids are so pleased to have an environment to go in. You just can't believe how well behaved and receptive they are to the music they're hearing."

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.