Nobody was going off on Jerry Garcia-style guitar solos, but the Grateful Alive Band was hard at work rehearsing for an upcoming gig on a recent Monday afternoon.
Swapping “Truckin’” and “Friend of the Devil” for tunes like “Tuxedo Junction” and “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the band of 16 or so senior volunteer musicians practiced in a room at the West Chester Senior Center. Charles “Ozzie” Aldworth sat in the back of the room, watching his keyboardist wife, Mary, lead the band.
Charles Aldworth, the band’s self-proclaimed “roadie,” helped everyone pack up at the end of the rehearsal.
“It’s a good contribution for the community,” he said of the band.
They have a rehearsal or a gig each week and play mostly for senior centers and nursing homes, or travel to places like the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center. They also recently played for the senior group at Temple Sholom in Broomall.
Nearly every instrument — sans percussion — was present: accordion, violins, saxophone, trumpet, even a standing bass.
As they rehearsed, Mary Aldworth called out encouraging comments, like, “that sounded good,” or, “that was better.”
“It’s a nice group, everybody’s very nice,” Mary Aldworth said. “We have people from all walks of life, different backgrounds.”
There’s a former mayor in the group plus retired teachers — even a rabbi.
“It’s a real joy to be part of this group,” said Rabbi Sue Greenberg, who plays the violin. “I hadn’t played with a group in a while, but when I heard about this group, I decided I needed to join it.”
Greenberg, a retired chaplain who belongs to Kesher Israel Congregation, has played violin since she was 9 years old.
For her, what the group does expresses a key act of Judaism.
“Aside from having fun oneself, you’re doing a mitzvah,” she said. “We’re performing a mitzvah. It’s that simple.”
They notice the audience, who may not always be in the best shape, will perk up as the music plays.
“We joke sometimes about some of the audience not being really awake,” said Dean Rasmussen, who plays the trumpet, “but when you look around … you see their toe tapping or something, and it’s really gratifying because you know you’re making a difference in their day.”
“Music does reach parts of the brain that don’t normally function, so in some of these facilities it’s the only thing that gets them alive again,” added violinist Mona Bloom.
Greenberg introduced Chanukah and Passover music to the band’s repertoire.
“It’s a real kick that while we’re enjoying ourselves, we’re doing good for somebody else, too,” she said. “We’re pretty upbeat as you can tell from the music, and it’s a chance for us and a chance for them; we interact with them. So it gives them joy and it gives us joy.”
Jozef Bobik, 95, is the oldest member of the group. The rest are “young whippersnappers,” he said with a laugh.
The violinist joined in as part of the first seven members. Immigrating to America in 1927 from Czechoslovakia, he has played music all his life.
When he was a child, his grandparents asked Bobik if he wanted to learn how to play an instrument.
“I said, ‘Yes, trombone,’” Bobik recalled. “So they went out with my father and came home with a violin.”
He learned to play by ear and has since picked up the harmonica, piano, clarinet and saxophone. If he can hum a song or sing it, he can play it, he said.
“I don’t know how to play the trombone,” he laughed. “The one instrument I wanted to learn how to play, I haven’t learned how.
Playing with the Grateful Alive gives him a chance to be around people who love music as much as he does.
“It’s social. It’s camaraderie; you’re friends. It gives you a chance to go out and you’re doing what you love to do,” he said. “If I’m not playing the violin, I’m whistling or singing or humming. … I enjoy the group, and I would encourage every parent to have their children learn some music. It’s the universal language.”
Carolyn Barker, 88, joined the original group in the late ’80s after a friend wanted her to meet some people.
She went to a coffeehouse and met one of the men who started Grateful Alive.
“When he found out I played the violin, he said, ‘You have to come to our rehearsal.’ And I said, ‘You haven’t heard me play yet!’” she laughed. “He said, ‘Just come.’ So I did, and that’s how I got into the group.”
The name of the band, she said, came from one of the original violinists, Virginia Love, who died in 2014. (“The name gets everybody,” acknowledged saxophonist Tom Chambers with a smile.)
The group has since grown from its original five members, but the value in what they do remains the same.
“I just love the music, and I love the camaraderie of the group. We have a wonderful band, we really do. We have fun,” she said. “I hope that [the audiences] just enjoy the music, the rhythm of the music. We’ve seen it happen where somebody is practically comatose and then when the music starts playing, they get into it. It does revive people — maybe temporarily, but it’s nice. I just hope that they — and I know they do — respond to us.”
For some in the group, like Chambers, the former mayor of West Chester, playing with Grateful Alive gives them a chance to revisit instruments they haven’t played in a long time.
When Chambers, 71, joined about two years ago, it was the first time he picked up the saxophone in 58 years.
After Mary Aldworth “bugged” him for a while to join, he eventually gave in. A former Marine, he especially enjoys being able to play for the VA hospital they frequently visit.
“Being able to see the satisfaction you get out of watching people react to the music is just wonderful, and that’s why I like to do it,” he said.
For other band members, the group allows them to play an instrument they had wanted to for a long time.
“I told my husband [for] 50 years, ‘Someday I’m going to play the accordion.’ Now that I’m this age and try to carry it around, it ought to be a piccolo,” laughed Judy Wadsworth, 79.
She and Greenberg stood together after rehearsal was finished and reflected that sometimes the performances are emotional. They finish each gig with songs for the armed forces, always ending with “God Bless America.”
The group has a good time doing what they do, Greenberg added.
“[The audiences] relate to us because we’re about the same age,” she laughed.
Wadsworth pointed to their dedication to play.
“People don’t miss it if they can make it,” she said. “You don’t stay home from Grateful Alive. It takes something important to keep us away because it’s a big part of our lives.”
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