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Jam 'n' Bean: A Hub for Young Musicians

As a 16-year-old sound technician, musician and junior at Forest Hills Central High School, Ben Chase knows how hard it is for young rock bands and fledgling solo artists to find places to perform and to find audiences for their music.

As a school administrator and parent, Forest Hills Central assistant principal and former band director John DeStefano knows how hard it is to support band programs financially and to have teens enjoy themselves in a safe environment.

A one-of-a-kind coffeehouse fashioned from a 157-year-old building in Cascade Township has taken an impressive swipe at all of these concerns.

With the new school year well under way, Jam ’n’ Bean Coffee & Café at 6860 Cascade Road SE (just south of Old 28th Street SE) aspires to not only serve as a supervised hangout for Forest Hills-area teens, but it will continue to stage performances by young musicians on its spacious outdoor deck, even hosting DJ-led dance parties.

More critically, owners Doug and Paul Lee have committed 10 percent of all proceeds from the coffee shop to support Forest Hills Central Band Boosters, with a goal of raising enough money to send more than 200 marching band members to band camp next summer.

“It’s really cool. Every time I go there, you see our band kids there hanging out on the deck,” DeStefano says. “There’s nothing more important than to have a group play in front of other people. Grand Rapids has some venues to do that, but if you’re not a known commodity, it’s difficult to get in. This place does that. And it’s not just rock bands. There are string groups that have played there, theater groups. It’s all-encompassing of the arts.”

Chase, a tuba player in the marching band who serves as Jam ‘n’ Bean’s “official sound guy” for open-mic nights and concerts, adds: “Kids can come hang out, listen to music, and some smaller garage bands that will never be able to make it any other way can come and play in front of a live audience on the deck. It’s a great venue for experienced and inexperienced people, and gives everybody a chance to share their music.”

That’s precisely what Doug Lee had in mind when he and his brother opened the café last April next to their Taro Systems Inc. real estate software business, later adding a 3,000-square-foot entertainment deck.

The elevated, 200-seat “Cascade on the Boardwalk” deck has hosted regular open-mic nights, outdoor movie showings, contra dances and full-fledged concerts, and has been the site of high school football pep rallies, marching band performances and post-football gatherings for students this fall. Lee even hopes to add ice skating in the winter.

The indoor café specializes in fresh-roasted coffee (along with sandwiches, soups, light breakfast items, and fruit smoothies) in a revamped 1,200-square-foot building that had been vacant for several years.

A longtime parent volunteer for the Forest Hills Central marching band in which his four children have been involved, Lee says he recognizes the financial difficulties that schools encounter with arts programs due to state cutbacks and the importance of boosting participation in band programs.

In his view, students involved in music and arts programs simply are more well-rounded and have better outcomes than those who aren't. He says it’s the brothers' opportunity to help out in a different way.

“It’s been satisfying,” Lee says. “It’s being a passionate parent. It reminds me more of a church than a business. There’s no way you could look at this as a business investment. It would take me 30 years to recoup the investment.”

DeStefano says the Jam ‘n’ Bean contribution can’t be underestimated. “The district runs into financial issues every year with less money given to us by the state. We’ve always wanted to find a way to be self-supportive of our programs,” he points out. “It’s very expensive to run a band program if you do it the right way. Our boosters have stepped up. ...Doug has been part of those conversations and he knows the needs that are there. He’s a big fan of music and he knows how important that is in fostering kids’ lives.”

As a prerequisite to having their camp costs covered, marching band members are required to do 40 hours of community service.

“For me, it’s more than just getting the money, it’s about giving back to the community,” DeStefano says. “You’re not going to find any better kids. It’s just what you get when you get involved in those programs. We say, ‘Go out and help one another and foster that kind of relationship in our community with people.’ ”

Better yet, Jam ‘n’ Bean enhances the fellowship that band programs foster in school.

“Our kids in band are kind of a close family,” DeStefano says. “They spend a lot of time in classes together and the band room at lunchtime has 30 or 40 kids together. There’s always somebody in that room even when class isn’t going on.”

That special “camaraderie” also is evident after-hours at Jam ‘n’ Bean, with students spending time on the outdoor deck, enjoying everything from rock to jazz played by their classmates and other young musicians. Chase insists some of those performances can be unexpectedly compelling.

“There was one small-looking, quiet girl who was up there once and she completely wowed me with the power of her voice and her singing,” he recalls. “It was really cool to see people turn their heads and look, and say, ‘Wow, what’s going on up there?’ ”

Ultimately, it’s a place where “kids can go and have a safe environment to hang out and enjoy being with one another, and parents know they’re going to a pretty safe place,” says DeStefano, who hails yet another signature Jam ‘n’ Bean feature.

“I haven’t found a better cup of coffee yet.”

(For more about Jam ’n’ Bean and a schedule of events, visit the café’s website at www.jamnbean.com.)

Music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics comments on the local and national music scene at localspins.com, and spotlights artists at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on Local Spins Live on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW).

Photography by Adam Bird

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