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National banjo champ Bruce Wurst keeps old-time music alive at Tempe bluegrass jam session

Every Monday at 1 p.m., there’s a bluegrass jam session at the Pyle Adult Recreation Center in Tempe. 

At the bluegrass jam, everybody sits in a circle. On the day I visited, with producer Amber Victoria Singer, there were at least five banjo players, six guitars, and a handful of mandolins, plus an electric bass and a keyboard. The jam runs for three hours, with no breaks, and it’s led by a guy named Bruce Wurst. 

"We say we’re a little jazzy here. And we do have the blues from grass!" said Bruce.

I first read about Bruce on the website for a store called Music Masters in Scottsdale. Bruce is a teacher there — and his bio is pretty impressive. This is the part that caught my eye: “Bruce holds over 250 first place trophies, for banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and he has received numerous first-place trophies for different bluegrass bands. He is a National Banjo Champion and an eight time Arizona State Guitar Champion … When he is not teaching music, Bruce is either tuning pianos, repairing pianos, teaching woodworking, or flight instruction at the different airports in north Phoenix.”

I read that and thought, “I gotta meet this guy.” But when we arrived at the jam, the first thing Bruce did was introduce us.

"We have Sam over here, Amber behind you. They’re gonna be recording you!" said Bruce. So they’re gonna walk around, and if they tap you on the shoulder, they just wanna talk to ya!" 

The music started up again. Amber and I started tapping people on the shoulder.

"Bruce is awesome," said Lawrence Fortney.

"I didn’t wanna sing or do anything else — but Bruce keeps giving me ideas!" said Valerie Lovelace.

"He even included us in introductions. We’re not even in the group, we just came to listen!" said Ruth Stulz.

When you ask Bruce to introduce himself, he doesn’t bring up the trophies or the banjo championships — not to mention woodworking or flight school.

"Let me start by asking you to introduce yourself," I said.

"All right. My name’s Bruce, I guess I’m just a normal musician here in the Phoenix area," he said.

He will tell you, however, that his goal with the jams is simple: "I try to help everybody out that I can help out."

Back in the circle, a man in shorts and a baseball cap is standing in the center of the group with his guitar. He’s bent low at the waist, leaning into the lyrics of "Lost Highway."

"[Singing] … are you sorrow bound? Take my advice, or you’ll curse the day…you started rollin’ down, the lost highway," said Scott Baker.

When the song ends, he introduces himself as Scott Baker — or Scotty B, as they call him at the jam. Scotty B’s baseball cap has a bible verse printed on it.

"My inspiration really comes from a heavenly realm, that I’m given the inspiration to write these songs. It’s almost downloaded, some way," said Baker.

Another guy arrives a few minutes late. He stands quietly listening to the music for a while, and then starts unpacking his guitar from its case. He tells me he met Bruce at another jam session in Glendale.

"I just like the camaraderie, and to be with other people that play music," said the man. "I’m alone, my wife died a year ago, and I’ve got all my instruments, and that’s what I’m doin’ now, is playin’ music. I just wanna play music and enjoy life with people."

As Amber and I move around the circle, my eyes keep drifting to the keyboard player, who looks to be the oldest person in the group by far. Eventually, I make my way over and sit down next to him. 

"I’m Ed Wurst," he said.

"Is Bruce your son?" I asked.

"Yes! No, he’s my father," as he laughs.

"How long have you guys been playing music together?" I said.

"Since he’s two and a half. And I’ve been playing since I’m about 5. And I’m 92 now!" he said.

"So, one of the other things that was really incredible about coming to the jam was that I got to meet your dad. And he told me that you have been playing music since you were," I said.

"Three. He’s a music teacher, and all us kids had to play," said Bruce. "I started on guitar, did piano and saxophone."

"So between the three of you — at this young age — you were playing nine instruments?" I asked.

"At least, yes," said Bruce. "Every summer school got out, we jumped in the motor home and left until school started back up in September. We would go anywhere other than here. And mom and dad loved traveling around the country - every place we went we would find someplace we could put a show on."

"So you were a proper family band?" I asked.

"Yes, my brother and sister and myself," said Bruce. "We used to travel all around, we used to hit the national parks, this was when the parks didn’t have money, so we’d offer them a show, started playing all over the West."

"So would people give you money?" I asked.

"Yeah, people gave us money — the national parks would set us up with a free place to stay," said Bruce. "One park would call up the next and say, hey, we’re gonna send these guys over to you. We loved Bryce, Zion, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone ... two weeks here, two weeks there ... they didn’t just allow us to play, they gave us the meals."

"Did any of this ever feel like an imposition?" I asked. 

"We loved it. Every day was different. It wasn’t the same thing every single day. Never know where we’re gonna be — when we got tired of one place, we left and went to the next place," said Bruce.

When I first read about Bruce, I was sort of surprised that such an accomplished musician would want to run a weekly jam session. Not that there’s anything wrong with jam sessions, but I guess I just assumed that someone with his level of accomplishment would want to play with other, well, banjo champions. But when Bruce said that thing about never wanting two days to be the same — it occurred to me that that’s the reason Bruce himself comes to the bluegrass jam. And that maybe it’s why he’s able to create this space that can be so many different things to so many different people. Bluegrass music, he says, is about letting the music be whatever it needs to be. 

"If you do it the same way twice in a row, you should quit. That’s something dad always said. It should — be different every single time you play it," he said.

I asked Bruce's dad why it felt important to you to have his kids play music.

"I just wanted ‘em to have another language," said Ed. "... You can express yourself with how you play. To me, I can spend hours entertaining myself every day, just playing. You’re not gonna be a millionaire, but it’s fun. And I’m still alive, so I can’t complain."

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.