The Troubadours of The Justin Veatch Fund

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Sort of an era ended in Yorktown this month with the closing of First Fridays Cafe, a monthly open mic night for teens.  First Fridays opened its doors at the Yorktown Community and Cultural Center in December of 2009. It was the brainchild of Helena Rodriguez who had just founded the Yorktown Teen Center and was co-sponsored by The Justin Veatch Fund which my family created following the death of our 17 year old son, Justin who had died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008.

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

First Fridays gave teens opportunities to display their artistic talents as well as honor the legacy of Justin who had been a wonderfully talented songwriter and musician. That cultural seed Helena and I had planted turned into a tree that bore amazing fruit for several years.

Birth of First Fridays Cafe

First Fridays was run with no money and all volunteers. The Teen Center secured the venue from the town and The Justin Veatch Fund put the word out and employed a sound system and keyboard that I had purchased for Justin to help fulfill his talents. I was the first emcee and Justin’s equipment, later expanded with floor monitors and several additional microphones, served us well as First Fridays became a beacon of sharing as well as a builder of talent and collaboration. Sadly in the past two years attendance and participation had diminished so much the few who benefited were simply not enough to justify the work of the volunteers and the efforts of The Fund.

Photo by Jeffrey Veatch

Photo by Jeffrey Veatch

Inspired out of community need

“I was searching for ideas for activities the teens might enjoy and wanted to reach out to non-athletic students,” said Rodriguez, now retired, who adds those who participated in the earliest open mics have since made their marks on the music scene. “Esteban (Rivera) has been playing with his band internationally. Zerena (Lupo) has also played professionally in Nashville and Kristina (Koller) in New York City.  Mark McIntyre played the Blue Note in New York City where I used to go when I attended NYU. There are many others.”

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

Among the others is Melissa Frabotta who went on to record her first album. McIntyre, also now an NYU student, was recently invited to perform in an ensemble of national jazz standouts at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC.  These talented musicians have also been part of the opening acts for headliners at Justin Veatch Fund concerts and most have been recipients of Justin Veatch Fund scholarships.

Teens inspired to take the plunge

In the early days First Fridays attracted a full house of some 130 teens on a steady basis as it became the thing to do on a certain Friday night in Yorktown. There were more who wanted to perform than we had time for in a given night so we limited the acts to 12 or 14 so everyone would have a chance. Those who signed up too late were put on a list for the following month. The ambiance at First Fridays was well dressed with background props and mood lighting providing a supportive feeling that gave first-timers who were often nervous the confidence they needed.  It brought out the best in all and had a huge and lasting impact for some who later admitted their decision to take the plunge changed the direction of their lives.

Photo by Jeffrey Veatch

Photo by Jeffrey Veatch

From singing to comedy

“My friends and I didn’t talk about IF we would be going, it was EXPECTED,” says Brian Pulling who performed and is now a senior at Ithaca College.  “There was a rush for performers, an excitement, a thrill, and even fear…of putting yourself out there, and sharing something so personal as a song with strangers.  Those years, being 14, 15, 16 years old are a time when self esteem tends not to be so high. But that room was a safe place to take a chance.”

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

 

When Pulling gained enough confidence he switched from his guitar and singing to do stand-up comedy for his first time. “I went up and performed stand up comedy that I had never performed for anybody else.  And, best of all, I didn’t get booed off the stage! People laughed!  And you’re crazy if you think I didn’t put that on my college resume.”

Jazz to music therapy

“First Fridays really helped me get through high school,” says scholarship recipient Kristina Koller who is now pursuing a graduate degree in music therapy as well as performing as a jazz singer in New York City. “Every month First Fridays would give me the opportunity to practice something new and perform with my ukulele, guitar or even with a band. Without this experience I wouldn’t have become the confident, independent jazz musician I am today.”

Photo by Tom Falcone

Photo by Tom Falcone

 

Koller tells about one open mic that she says was a life changer. “I performed Yellow by Coldplay accompanied by my ukulele and not only was Chris Bro from 107.1, The Peak in the audience but so was an autistic kid who seemed to really enjoy my performance.  That night I left with a smile on my face because not only was I given an opportunity to perform on The Peak but I touched someone’s heart through music.”

 

Filling a void

There have and will be other open mics like First Fridays in other communities and it’s my hope that they continue to come about to fulfill the needs of our artistic youth. These talented young people should be recognized by their peers and the community just as much as their talented athletic friends who take part in organized high school sports programs.  I know The Justin Veatch Fund will be looking for a new program to continue in the spirit of First Fridays.  Stay tuned.

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About Author

Jeffrey Veatch has been a news writer at ABC News Radio for 40 plus years. He moved to Yorktown Heights in 1996 with his wife and two children. In September, 2008, Veatch’s life took a drastic turn with the death of his son, Justin, to an accidental drug overdose at age 17. In 2012, Veatch created a multi-media talk called “A Message from Justin,” which tells Justin’s story. By last year, Veatch had delivered that talk to more than 20,000 young people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. In November 2014, Whispering Spirits, a documentary about Justin and the Veatch family, premiered at The Jacob Burns Film Center.

8 Comments

  1. I will miss the First Fridays Open Mic at the Yorktown Teen Center. It was one of my early live appearances, the Open Mic was one of the first few performances as a singer/songwriter that I ever got to do. I remember the sound system was first rate, the audience was attentive, and the lighting was cool. Since then I have played The Bitter End in New York, The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville and The House of Blues in New Orleans – but I will always have a fond memory of the First Fridays Open Mic.

    Here is a youtube video of me doing one of my songs at the Open Mic (a song that ended up on my EP “5@15”:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-ot4g1B5Sw

    Chloe

  2. I truly loved these open mics- when I was in high school, the open mic really served as a meeting place for all of our friends. It was a cozy space and we would pack the room! There weren’t really many venues to perform around Yorktown at all, and these open mics really gave us something to look forward to. It was one of the first places where I performed my original music to a live audience, and I’m sure this is the same for many other participants. People really rallied around and supported each other here, and this support fueled the open mics from month to month. It wasn’t just an open mic, it was a social scene. It is sad to hear that the open mics are ending, however I’m sure there will be a new wave of eager artists, musicians, comedians, and poets right around the corner who will be looking for a space to showcase their talents, and I know that The Justin Veatch Fund will do their best to create a new program that suits the needs of these young budding artists! Until then, I can only hope that Yorktown kids keep on a’ rockin’ and a’ rollin’, strummin’ and singin’ along to music they love.

  3. You know, Justin’s impact on the world reaches out much farther than 2008.. When the community came together to start the Justin Veatch Fund Open Mic, that was the spot. It was exciting and vibrant and people from all over the trip-state area came out to play and hear. I am very proud to have been a part of that and be a product of that nurturing. I had a chance to play my songs at their formative stages and perfect them, as well as grow as a musician and meet other like-minded musicians. Now I’m in Colombia representing the rich history we had in Yorktown and Westchester at #7 of VivaColombiatop100. I hope to one day be able to go back to Yorktown and play a killer show for the youth there and hopefully visit future open mics. Yorktown is a small town, but if you think big, you’ll make it big. Thank you to Jeff Veatch and the Fund, Helena and everyone that was such an integral part of that culture. We’ll all reunite one day.

    -Esteban Rivera of Last Exit In New York

  4. The First Friday Open Mics were very special, and I feel that it is a loss to Yorktown that they are ending. Seeing these old pictures of the heyday of the First Friday Cafe bring back a lot of memories-it’s really a trip to see all the younger-versions of friends I have today. The open mic was a social and musical scene that was something to look forward to every month, and it allowed me to meet and perform with many of the musicians that I continued to play with all throughout high school and beyond. I still remember the feeling I had from watching people like Melissa Frabotta, Esteban Rivera, Tossing the Apple Core, Andrew Sacher (+many more)–the memories are palpable and vivid, and all of those performing were an inspiration. These open mics were also some of my own earliest performances, with various groups I was a part of and still am a part of today. We all just wanted to play and show this little community what we were up to. It was really ideal: a dimly lit room where a bunch of unique high schoolers hung out and were all really excited about listening to each other–were were all really lucky to have this. Many strong bonds were formed because of it. Throughout high school, I think it’s very possible that I went to every single one of these open mics while in highschool, and I think I am better for it.

    The Justin Veatch Fund, however, will certainly keep doing good in our community and beyond. There will always be the fire to play music for generations to come, and I know they will find a way to keep helping the youth bring it to their community. Keep on rockin’!

    • Mark was an important member of this very unique community that probably exists in every town in America. The Yorktown Teen Center and The Justin Veatch Fund created an artistic space for young people outside of the public schools. At a time when arts are being cut from school budgets these efforts should be acknowledged and supported by school administrators, which was not the case in Yorktown.

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