Jim Wooster: The Live Wire Behind Club Passim’s Lasting Cultural Influence
Lake Street Dive, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and The Staples Singers. What do they all have in common? Club Passim, an underground music venue located in Cambridge for sixty years. Here, the musicians listed above, and many more, evolved into the greats they are today.
Jim Wooster is the man behind the madness. As Executive Director, Wooster makes it his mission to maintain a space that guides talented roots musicians, as well as the surrounding community. Operating now as a non-profit, Passim offers a music school, a farm-fresh kitchen, artist grants, and of course, an intimate stage.
Wooster’s main objective is to keep the place afloat, but he does so with a willingness to inspire. As an accomplished musician himself, Wooster knows the industry and what performance art can give people. We sat with him in the historical venue, a room that was once a Firehouse stable, and got an idea of what music and community is all about.
“That’s what we do here, we’re trying to present something extraordinary to entertain and inspire.”
Why do you think performance art is so important to our culture and community?
Our lives are getting so bombarded with all kinds of stimulation. And some of that is just noise. TV news has largely become people getting paid to talk, they have to fill up the hour or the two hours, so we’re just going to beat these issues to death.
Live music shows what people are capable of in terms of creativity. It can be very inspiring particularly when I hear a new artist I knew nothing about and the next day I come into work and I’m like, “Damn, that took me some place.” It inspires, it entertains, it takes us out of our mundane little struggles that we all have. It recharges our batteries and gives us faith in what people can actually do. That’s what we do here, we’re trying to present something extraordinary to entertain and inspire.
When did you take the Executive Director position here at Club Passim? And why did you decide to take the job?
I started September of 2015. I had been thinking about what would be fun to do next and certainly something with music, that’s always been my passion. And I wanted an opportunity to be in a leadership role as opposed to my prior job, where I’ve been more of a supporting role on the finance and admin side. So it was a chance to stretch my comfort zone in that regard: “Okay, now you’re the one who’s calling the shot.” It’s been a great opportunity to do that, to stretch myself in an industry that I know something about and feel comfortable in.
How were you already familiar with the industry?
I’ve been a musician my whole life. After college for about ten years, I played in a couple different bands that were making their way up the totem pole. We were Boston-based. Both of them were starting to tour a bit, getting out and seeing what it was like to try and build a following. So having that experience helps me to appreciate what our artists are going through today, what the challenges are. I’ve been a musician, I’ve been a fan, I was a board member here before I took over. I’ve seen it from different sets of vantage points.
Did you ever perform at Club Passim before you started working here?
Yeah, I did, actually. I played with another group of people in a band called Shecky, which was really fun. That was the first opportunity I had to play here. I was really blown away by the intimacy of it all. You feel like you’re in your living room and everyone’s just huddled around you. You get a lot more interaction when you’re that close than you do when you’re in a rock club with a big PA. In this room, the audience and the performer are on a similar level.
Passim is clearly an intimate venue. Your website refers to it as a “listening room.” Can you tell me more about that title?
I think the interesting thing about this venue is that there’s no TV and there’s no bar in the room. When people come here it’s with the understanding that they’re going to be quiet and listen and experience it in that way. You really do get a chance to appreciate how good the artists are and the artists can really appreciate that everyone’s listening to every word, you know, “I can’t fake this, this is my opportunity to get better at this and make a connection.”
Can you elaborate more on what Passim does for the community?
So step one is certainly just to entertain and to show people what this music is all about. Step two is that we’re really committed to helping the artists further their careers and move up to playing bigger venues. We had Rachel [Price] from Lake Street Dive here on Friday night with a guy named Vilray who is a terrific songwriter/guitar player. The two of them were doing something beautiful together on one microphone, which was much different from what she does with Lake Street Dive. We love giving our favorite artists the chance to push boundaries.
We also run a program called the Iguana Music Fund, which gives out small grants every year to artists to help them purchase equipment or finance a tour, it could be a lot of different things. And I know those things make a difference.
Step Three is to build a sense of community here so when people come they know they’re going to be welcome. There’s a really cool community of people who come to watch the shows –our regulars– and there’s also a really cool group of musicians who hang out and love to listen to their friends play.
When those two groups come together, it’s just really fun for both of them. The musicians end up meeting people who end up becoming supporters of theirs and help them with their Kickstarter campaigns, buying their music. And the patrons just love meeting musicians and being inspired by what it’s like. Those are the three things we try and accomplish. I think because we’ve been doing it for such a long time we’ve got a good track-record and a good momentum going.
Was it difficult to step into this position at first?
It’s fun and it wasn’t too hard to step in. Having been on the board was helpful. I can now look around and ask, “What else could we do, what else should we do? How can we enhance the experience?” Those are the things we’ve been working on lately. We just launched a new version of the website last Monday, switched to a new ticketing system, which will be better for our staff. The most challenging part of my job is helping to run the kitchen. I’d never experienced anything like that before. But we’ve got a great crew.
I’m seeing a lot of famous faces on the walls. Can you explain some of the history behind this venue?
We’re currently celebrating our 60th year. Club 47 was founded in 1958 by a couple of recent college grads who wanted to recreate a European coffee house. They started with jazz but it quickly turned out that folk was what people wanted to hear. Joan Baez showed up at age 17, got up on stage and played her first show there, the rest is history for her.
But along the way came Bob Dylan and on a local level, people like Tom Rush and Jim Rooney. After five years they got kicked out of their original location on Mt. Auburn St. and found this place, which had been a stable for the fire department across the street because it had a sand floor. They literally came in and got down on their hands and knees and put down bricks, which are the same bricks we’re looking at right now, and turned it into a performance space. It’s looked like this since 1963, for fifty-five years.
During the sixties, a lot of the blues acts from Chicago and the South came to the area for the first time and played here, people like Muddy Waters and Son House and The Staple Singers. They’re some great pictures of Joni Mitchell [He points to the wall behind me] who played here in 1967 before she released her first record. Jackson Browne and Tom Waits in the seventies; Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin in the eighties; and more recently people like Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive found their footing here and developed a base and very quickly took off. So that’s really satisfying to see those people find their stride. When we’re lucky they come back and play here.
“It’s the unexpected that reminds you how many talented people are out there. There’s so much good creativity in the world.”
Can you tell me about the music school you run here?
Yeah, we’ve been running as a non-profit for the last twenty-two years. So we’ve developed more of a community focus, more than just, “Hey we’re a nightclub!” It means that we’re not just here to make money, we’re here to be part of the local fabric in some way. We need to think more about what we do and how we do it and be more generous with our programming. That’s why we do the free concert series in the summer, for people to come out and hear music. For a lot of people in their thirties who are starting to have kids, it may be their only opportunity to go out and hear some of these acts.
So we’ve got a lot of families who come to the Danehy Series in West Cambridge. They are so appreciative at the end of the summer. The school is part of that too. It came as an extension of people sitting down here, listening to the music and thinking, “Wow, my kids have gone off to college and I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, how can I do that?” So we asked a lot of the performers who are playing here if they wanted to teach what they do.
That’s how it works: we teach basic guitar, banjo, violin, but we also teach some of the finer points of music like how to play in an ensemble with other people, and how to sing harmony. And we do cool workshops. If an artist is coming to town we ask them to come in and teach slide guitar or open-tunings, or it could be on the business side of music: how do you promote yourself? How do you promote clubs in other areas? We try and be a resource for people to learn those things.
What is one of your favorite Passim moments?
I think my favorite moment is always the last new artist that I have never heard of and stumbled across because I was free on Tuesday night to see the show and was just blown away. It’s the unexpected that reminds you how many talented people are out there. There’s so much good creativity in the world. My hope is that we can just continue to spread the word about that and invite people in here to experience it.
Is there anything specific you think the live music industry should do better?
Well, I would say pay the artists, but I understand how difficult it is to run a concert venue. One of the advantages we have that allows us to pay the artists as generously as we do is that because we’re supported by our community through memberships and donations, it allows us to help pay for the infrastructure so that when people come to see the show most of the ticket price can go to the artist.
As we know, artists are making more and more of their living on touring and merchandise rather than on record sales because of the way music has evolved. We’re providing a useful function by allowing them to tour and come in here to show what they can do.
Any final words?
It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of this place and be able to lead it. It’s a place that means a lot to a lot of people so we want to make sure it keeps flourishing.
(Club Passim is located at 47 Palmer St. in Harvard Square!)