Halls are alive with the sound of their music


The ads on Craigslist run repeatedly all year long, pleading to Los Angeles’ musicians and singers.

Come, they say, play. You will not be paid.

In December, they seem to be everywhere.

“Use your talents to bring Christmas JOY to people who really NEED us!”

“Karma earned here! Join us in bringing JOY to sick, sad, lonely people.”

And so men and women show up from all over the area, lugging their heavy drum sets, keyboards, amps. Singers come ready to belt out standards. Saxophonists and guitarists stake out their spots and scan the sheet music.

There are gigs and there are gigs. Those of the Pay It Forward Volunteer Band stand out.

The band’s constantly reconfigured small jazz combos perform year-round at nursing homes all over Los Angeles County — at well-run, friendly places full of things to do and at forlorn spots where visitors and loving care seem sparse.


Often they play for those present yet far away, minds clouded by Alzheimer’s or dementia.

They try to break through by reaching back to the hits of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosbyand Ella Fitzgerald.

“When I see someone whose lights are turned off,” says the band’s founder and driving force, Gary Gamponia, “I see it as my job to try to turn those lights on.”


Three shows in a row on a recent Saturday start around 10:30 — a.m., not p.m. Strangers meet and, within minutes, start to play together.

There’s a professional saxophonist, two film and TV composers on keyboard and guitar and a female vocalist who, in addition to her full-time job, also sings in a Pat Benatar tribute band and a swing band of JPL engineers. A college student on vacation from UC Santa Cruz has shown up to play the drums. Another, from Fullerton, is debuting on the upright bass. An East Hollywood entertainer and community activist has come with a keyboard too. Gamponia is there to sing a few songs but mostly to dance around and try to draw the audience out.

At Garden Crest Rehabilitation Center in Silver Lake, more than 40 residents fill a bright, airy room looking out on the Hollywood sign. At least half are in wheelchairs, blankets cradling shoulders and knees. It’s sleepy as aides gently settle people in.

But then the band of seven — with saxophone, keyboards, upright bass, drums and guitar — breaks into a jazzy, jangling “Jingle Bells,” sending waves of sound into every corner of the space.


Hands rise from a lap, fingers tapping out the beat.

Slippered feet start to sway.

A wheelchair rolls back and forth an inch or two.

And while a few people sleep and one or two stare straight ahead, lips are moving, mouthing old, familiar words. When Gamponia, in a red Santa hat, asks people what songs the band should play, a rail-thin woman in a blue cotton nightgown and red cardigan clutches her cane and calls out loudly from the back.

“Everything!” booms out Kathleen Belisle, 88. “Every one! All of them!”


Garden Crest is Gamponia’s model nursing home. The staff cares. The schedule is varied and full. They welcome outsiders, and on this day, even L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti pays a visit to take a turn on the keyboards and sing.

Garcetti’s grandparents were musicians, he says, and with his grandmother, “I just remember some of the last ways we ever connected were through music.”

But even at the best homes, Gamponia says, he sees a hunger for what he calls “more abundant lives.”

At the worst, he sees days reduced to a thin gruel — of bingo, TV and the occasional karaoke machine. That’s not enough, he says.

He tends to dream big, utopian dreams.

A few years back, Gamponia, who has mostly earned a living selling insurance, tried to create a cooperative that would help musicians out and then have them return the favor by performing at community events.


He lent equipment, negotiated deep discounts on instrument repair and drove people to gigs when their cars broke down. But the giving was one-way, he says.

Then, around Christmas 2009, he had a simpler notion: Why not just form a band to bring music to the places that could use it most?

He called the office of his councilman, Garcetti, for ideas and got the names of several nursing homes. And he enlisted a ragtag band of old friends and new acquaintances made on Craigslist.

On the way to the first gig, the drummer’s car broke down. Gamponia, fretting about how to replace him, slammed on the brakes, sending his speakers smashing through his windshield. At the second gig, the keyboardist dropped her car key down an elevator shaft. Racing to the third gig, one of the vocalists ran a red light at a red-light camera. The band sounded terrible, too. Some people couldn’t even keep the beat.

But, oh, the response they got. “It just absolutely shocked us how big it was,” Gamponia, 50, said.

So what might have been a one-time gesture became a full-time crusade.

Now — 270 shows later — he’s got a roster of 130 volunteers who play when they can, including a 9-year-old girl who sings. This month alone, they’ll put on 44 shows. Next Christmas, he’s aiming for twice as many. And over time, he says, he hopes the band can spread a message about the importance of regular, high-quality entertainment at all nursing homes.



Stop two is a Westlake nursing home run by a chain. The activity room looks out on a Ross Dress for Less.

Aides wheel about 20 people in and then mostly wander off. An old woman in a wheelchair asks again and again for a tissue, then gives up and lifts her shirt to her nose.

Her hair is gray. She wears gold spectacles. Her shirt is covered in roses. Her pants are lavender.

She looks meek and grandmotherly until the very first note is played. Then she shouts, “Sing it, Daddy!” — a chorus she vigorously keeps up, in various forms, as she claps with the music for the next hour.

She says her name is Antonia Cook, that she might be “170-something,” that her mind is such that “I forget about you and what I’m supposed to be doing.”

But when the band closes out its concert with “Feliz Navidad,” she reaches out for hands to hold and lift to her lips to kiss.


“I had a ball,” she said. “I really did. Thank you! Thank you! God bless you all.”

The sun begins to go down at the band’s third stop, a grim one-story building in Pico-Union with a large outdoor smoking area. On a plastic patio table, packs of Marlboro Reds are lined up in a box, marked with residents’ names. Each smoker gets a pack a day, says a worker in a leather jacket and jeans. Near him, old men sit slumped over deep ashtrays, clutching burning cigarettes and coughing.

The activity room is so small, it can barely fit both the band and the audience of fewer than a dozen. An emergency exit looks out on cars. The room’s walls are covered with the details of the schedule — store outing, Let’s Take a Walk, coffee social, TV and dominoes — and the crayoned coloring-book pages that constitute arts and crafts.

One resident is falling sideways over the arm of his chair, unnoticed. Another wears sweat pants that are soaked through waist to thigh. And before the band is finished playing, staff members who say they need to clock out begin wheeling people away mid-song to go to dinner.

Still, for an hour, the few who manage to stay put hear saxophone solos and guitar riffs, and old favorites such as “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland.” And maybe for that short stretch and as long as the memory of it lasts, their minds drift to happier places and happier times.