NORMAL — Tim Szerlong didn’t know he would be discovering a new hobby when he bought his first ukulele so he could be a hula girl for Halloween. Four years later, musicians travel from other states to attend a popular monthly jam he co-hosts at Normal’s Fusion Brew.
“I learned a couple songs, and then I went crazy,” said Szerlong of Normal, who was taking guitar lessons when he bought his first “uke,” a Hawaiian instrument that has four strings and typically comes in four sizes.
“I thought it was a lot more fun than guitar,” said Szerlong.
Part of that fun, he said, is the friendships he has developed with other players.
More than 20 players packed the stage area at Fusion Brew for a two-hour jam Saturday afternoon, each bringing music to share. The selections ranged from ragtime to Irish drinking tunes to modern rock songs.
The players themselves ranged from four to 77 years old, with Szerlong coming from a few blocks away and Rudy Bocz coming from Stuart, Fla.
“It’s the most diverse group I’ve ever seen,” said Szerlong, who works at Illinois State University providing computer support.
Many in the group were strangers but laughed easily at each other’s jokes, which filled in the gaps between songs.
“Everyone is warm and inviting,” said Erica Walker of Indianapolis, who took up the instrument a year ago after buying one at an antique store.
Alex Holmes of Carbondale, who has played for four years, said the relaxed attitude of the players comes from the instrument itself.
“It’s a goofy instrument,” said Holmes. “It can be played serious, but it’s a challenge to get past its shortcomings.”
Szerlong said although the uke does take practice, it’s easier than a guitar to play.
And, while Bocz was once a studio musician playing the baritone saxophone in New York, all skill levels are welcome at a ukulele jam.
“If you say you play guitar, everyone expects you to be Jimi Hendrix,” said Szerlong. “With a ukulele, the expectation is a lot lower.”
Co-host Jim Callahan of Stanford has played for more than 30 years, and Saturday he welcomed new members as they arrived. Both he and Szerlong even bring extra instruments so audience members can try if they want.
“The more people we bring around, the happier people will be,” Callahan said.
The Ukulele Fun Jam is held the first Saturday of the month at Fusion Brew, 503 S. Main St. More information can be found at www.Ukeeku.com