Spread the Jam: How One Music Group Builds Bonds and Breaks Barriers at BC

Jammin’ Toast is a regular sanctuary for student musicians who want to play together more than they want to compete against each other.

I’m standing outside a forest green door in the basement of the most poorly-regarded building on Boston College’s campus, and Katharine Callahan has forgotten the code to get in. A sign above her head reads Boston College Student Agencies. I have never been here before. The door is one of the ones where you punch in a six-digit number. Add that number to the suite door codes, PIN numbers, and social security numbers already rattling around a frazzled student’s head, and it’s pretty easy to forget.

She finally gets it open, though, and with a heave and a sigh, opens it up. Inside, a ripped Dunkin’ Donuts bag sits on top of an amp. An acoustic drum set lies dismantled on the floor. There’s a dusty desk and chair with a stage light. Across from the desk, a row of silky crimson robes hangs, not a wrinkle in sight.

She grabs the drumset. I grab the wrinkled Dunkin’ Donuts bag with a kick for a kick drum inside, and we head across campus to Gasson Hall, BC’s centerpiece, the only building on campus that can be seen from across the reservoir. On the top floor of the building, we’re the first people to arrive. But minutes later, people start trickling in, carrying guitars, bagels, and coffee. This is Jammin’ Toast, the start-up club that brings together student musicians who just want to jam. Callahan is their fearless leader. (Disclaimer: She’s also a past suitemate of mine. She isn’t new to me, but this whole Jammin’ Toast experience is.)

“Are we yamming?” one of the members asked.

“Yamming toast,” the girl next to him replies.

“Wait, for our Thanksgiving special, we should do ‘yamming roast.’”

The conversation devolves into the differences between a yam and a sweet potato.

Jammin’ Toast almost didn’t make it this far, to this high-ceilinged, yellow-tinged classroom on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March. The group started during the 2012–13 school year, by two boys — Nate Schlein and Scott Johnson — who were fed up with getting in trouble for playing instruments in the hallway of their dorm. They formed a group, secured some funding from the administration, and started off playing in the O’Connell House on Upper Campus. At the beginning, they brought sheet music for participants to learn. “It was very Kumbaya,” Callahan says.

A few years later, things started going downhill. Schlein graduated in 2014, and with that, his friends who had come for his outsized, magnetic personality, stopped coming. Then, in spring of 2015, Johnson left the University to pursue music production. The organization had been going downhill prior to that, Callahan says, but his departure made it impossible to book rooms or secure funding, and they lost the funding for the fall 2015 semester. With the help of another dedicated member, Cora Ives, Callahan and her cohort were able to go to the training sessions required by BC and secure funding for the spring 2016 semester. In the meantime, the group was helped by the Music Guild, another student organization that acts as a focal point for student musicians. There is a lot of overlap between the groups.

Callahan, who grew up in England, started playing music with piano when she was younger, and eventually turned to singing and guitar. She never wanted to study music, she says, because she didn’t want to reach the point where what she loved would feel like work to her. Now, getting to play with her friends is the highlight of her week.

“I love the moment where you really get something with another musician,” she said. “When you’re creating music together and you could be singing a song together and you’re really singing at the same time or there’s this moment where, I really feel like your voices combine into one, or your instruments.”

The Fulton Debate Room is adorned with the names of preeminent student debaters, from 1863 until 2015. Scholars like Demosthenes and Cicero look down sternly from the gold-flecked ceiling. Confusingly, the room isn’t in Fulton Hall, across the Quad, but in Gasson Hall. But Saturday afternoons, it is devoted to containing the music that bounces around, from guitar, to drum set, to kick drum. Today, the few people in the tall room are trying to find a happy song to play at a rally for Climate Justice at Boston College, and they’re having trouble landing on one that seems appropriate. Eventually, one of the student musicians, Peyton Spencer, starts picking out the beginning to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

“This is, like, the only happy song I know,” she says.

Someone else suggests “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. Not exactly cheerful, but it fits the theme.

“Joni Mitchell? No one knows who Joni Mitchell is,” Callahan says.

Next to her, a freshman boy is softly tapping out a rhythm on the drum set, which was finally assembled and turned on after what seemed like hours spent fiddling with the uncoordinated parts. As Callahan and Spencer pick the tune to “La Vie en Rose,” he breaks in with the drums, a somewhat jarring addition to the bubbly acoustic set.

Spencer is inspired by Joni Mitchell, and Gregory Allan Isakov — ”for guitaring,” she says. Like Callahan, she started off playing piano, then switched to guitar. Also like Callahan, Spencer doesn’t plan to make music into her career. She would like to take some time off before grad school — she’s a chemistry major — to play around with music, though. At Jammin’ Toast, she gets to play songs other than the folk music she’d play by herself.

“When you come to Jammin’ Toast people are not competitive, everyone just plays what they want to play and everyone joins in,” she says.

On this Saturday, the group is still collaborating, still looking for that sad song, and Kamau Burton — member of the e-board and guitar and vocalist for prominent campus band Juice — has just walked in. Callahan says Burton is her favorite person to play music with. Today, he came to Jammin’ Toast an hour into the two-hour session. But he sits down, and suggests that the group play “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

As the drumming, guitar playing, and voices come together, the song shifts. Though it started as a straight cover, it dissolves into a slower, more emotional take on the Queen hit. It almost sounds like John Legend or Ed Sheeran — funkier. The musicians in the room had shifted the piece without any signal to each other.

The voices and playing had combined. And Callahan says that’s her favorite part of playing music with people.

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