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Arts & Life

Kansas City Man Turns Backyard Into 'Jam Session Extraordinare' For Musicians And Fans During COVID

Performing on an improvised stage, trombonist Trevor Turla plays to the gathered crowd at The Raj Ma Hall, an outdoor concert venue in the Historic Northeast.
Julie Denesha
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Performing on an improvised stage, trombonist Trevor Turla plays to the gathered crowd at The Raj Ma Hall, an outdoor concert venue in the Historic Northeast.

Last year when local musicians faced months of lost gigs during the pandemic, many concert venues, like the Ship and Lemonade Park, curated outdoor performance spaces. And in the Historic Northeast, one man opened his backyard to musicians and their fans.

The afternoon sun peeks through the trees on a patchy lawn in Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood. People arrive toting lawn chairs while onstage a band finishes a soundcheck. A concert is about to begin.

The yard is distinctive thanks to three rustic houses built from reclaimed materials. They’re the work of Roger MacBride, the sculptor and artist who lives here.

“It’s like a jam session extraordinaire,” MacBride says with a hearty laugh.

MacBride calls it the Raj Ma Hall. He says this place is his greatest work of art. When COVID-19 shut down indoor concerts last year, he opened his backyard to musicians who needed to perform outside.

“We've already built in safety,” MacBride says. “We're not foolish. We still have a good time. You just gotta be careful.”

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Julie Denesha
After a quick huddle with musicians, Roger MacBride, a sculptor and former Navy Medic, checks out the audience settling in for the afternoon concert.

MacBride limits audiences at the Raj Ma Hall to 65 for safety. His experience as a former Navy Corpsman taught him you can never let your guard down during a pandemic.

“First round was never going to get you, it's always the mutations which you got to worry about,” MacBride says. “You know, if you can’t figure that out, oh well.”

“The sound is really good here,” jazz singer Erin Keller says. “Funnily enough. I'm still figuring out why.”

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Julie Denesha
Jazz singer Erin Keller takes the stage to sing and promote the next concert.

Keller helps MacBride organize events.

“Roger had this vision of having seating in his yard underneath these beautiful trees, but he didn't know how to create the tickets and the online presence and do social media and have a website and all of that stuff,” Keller says. “So I created the tickets. And before you knew it, we had shows.”

Now they’ve booked concerts into October and have plans to restart in the spring.

Keller says the space has a quirky charm.

“Once the show starts, there's just this kind of magical thing that happens because this ambiance is just too real,” Keller says. “And, there's a duck walking around and eating chips from people. It's just magical. It's such a great afternoon. You know, I spent a few hours on the internet during the week so I can have the sickest hang every weekend, and it's worked out really well so far.”

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Julie Denesha
Trevor Turla and Miki P. perform a ballad as the sun descends behind the trees.

Having safe places to play music has given a lifeline to local musicians like trombonist Trevor Turla.

“Out here was a place where you could come and watch a show and be socially distanced,” Turla says. “And, you know, that's what's kept musicians afloat. Really.”

Keller says people in Kansas City adapt to difficult situations.

"I have stage 4 colon cancer and he's a disabled veteran," Keller says. "Even though we have to deal with illness and like, physical difficulties on a regular basis, we're still able to create this magical space.”

“I just hope that inspires people who might be in the same position that you might be surprised at what you can accomplish if you just partner up with somebody else,” Keller continues.

Spaces like these are also important for audiences.

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Julie Denesha
A duck named Disco wanders through the yard, begging for handouts.

“People show up for musicians here,” Keller says. “When we created this atmosphere that was COVID safe , where it's beautiful outside, you're in the shade, you get to see really great music. People really responded because they understood that they actually need it in their lives in order to not lose their minds in really difficult times.”

For MacBride, difficult times are an opportunity to bring people together.

“I always come from ‘for the greater good’ and I live by that,” MacBride. “We try to do a lot of good for everybody. I like to share. It’s a lot more fun when you share.”

Erin Keller and Matt Carrillo perform August 28, at 4:00 p.m. at The Raj Ma Hall, 2829 E. 7th St. Kansas City, Missouri.

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