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Lady Drums the Blues

Jayme Chilberti taught herself how to play the drums. But the Blues Brothers taught her how to be a blues drummer.

While attending a bass player friend’s house party 30 years ago, Chilberti heard the band’s album Briefcase Full of Blues for the first time.

“In the beginning of it Dan Aykroyd makes a speech about how if you don’t know what the blues are, then I suggest you really start paying attention to it because the only place you’re ever going to find it is at your local public library, remembered Chilberti, her voice still retaining more than a few traces of a charming Virginia accent. “I took it to heart. I started getting into it and started listening to it. It just became my specialty.”

Thirty years later, it is still her specialty. A recent transplant to Utah from California, Chilberti has played in a number of bands in the United States and abroad. And now, every night for the past five weeks, she has played drums for her (mostly) blues band The Rockin’ Jukes at the Woodshed, joined by Ray Rosales on bass and Gary Tada on guitar. Every week they are also joined by one or two invited local musicians, including guitarists from Blues on First and versatile Ogden harmonica player and lap slide guitarist The Rev. Bad Brad Wheeler. And while the band is new and the crowds still not very large, Chilberti says things are starting to pick up.

“It’s working out really good,” she said. “We want to have really good players come out and want to play with us. So far we’ve been really fortunate with that.”

In many ways, fortune also smiled upon Chilberti when she first picked up her drum sticks in the eighth grade. Born in Virginia as the son of a bass player father and a singer mother, Chilberti transferred to a public school from a parochial school at age 12 so she could join the marching band. Chilberti had grown up thrilling as marching band drummers pounded out their cadences during local high school football games and wanted to join them. But her father had other ideas. Not wanting to deal with the noise of a drum set, he insisted that his son take up another—preferably quieter—instrument.

Chilberti promptly checked out a trombone. It lasted her all of 24 hours.

“I was just doing the typical slide where you go ‘waah-waah,’ and after an hour of me doing that in the bedroom my dad said, ‘OK, forget it, you can play drums.’ He handed me a pair of sticks and a rubber practice pad and said, ‘Here. This is it. Beat on this thing until you leave my house, then you can have a set of drums.’”

Sticks in hand, Chilberti soon taught herself how to read music. Within two weeks, her teacher moved her into the junior band’s drum line. At the end of the school year she auditioned for and made it into the senior band, in which she marched from ninth to twelfth grade, eventually leading the band as a drum major in her senior year.

Chilberti graduated in 1972 and ran right into the Vietnam War draft. But instead of taking up a gun, she took her drums to New York City and played in the army’s band for two years. She promptly found herself playing with musicians in their early to mid-20s, many of whom held bachelors and masters degrees from such prestigious schools as the Julliard School of Music. Affectionately referred to as “the kid” because of her comparatively young age, Chilberti said she learned a lot from these “heavy-duty, studied players.”

Although the army gave Chilberti orders to join the first infantry band in Saigon, they reassigned her to the second infantry in South Korea as the city’s fall looked more and more likely.

“It was right on the edge of the DMZ, the coldest place in the world,” she remembered. “They call it The Land of the Morning Calm. We used to call it The Land of the Frozen Chosen.”

After a year of shivering in South Korea, Chilberti received her discharge. To support her “music habit” she took work as a plumber, work to which she had always gravitated as readily as she had to the drums.

“I come from a long line of plumbers on my mother’s side and my father’s side,” she said. “But it was just something in my blood. I just kind of haphazardly walked into that career. It wasn’t because it was a family thing.”

For six years she also played drums for The Little Big Band, a saxophone quartet whose name punned on the 1970 Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man. As she played big band tunes to packed houses every Friday and Saturday night, Chilberti also began wrestling with her gender identity.

Married to a Rockette dancer at the time, Chilberti remembers trying on her wife’s costumes. The marriage ended when she “first came out a little bit” by letting her soon-to-be ex-wife know.

“That didn’t sit well with her,” she said.

When Chilberti’s wife kicked her out, Chilberti joined her family who had long since migrated to California. Here she began seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Gender Identity Disorder, the diagnosis psychiatrists most often use to describe an individual who wishes to live as the sex other than the one identified at his or her birth. Coming out as transgender at age 43 wasn’t easy, however. The home improvement warehouse where Chilberti worked fired her when she refused to go back to dressing and identifying as male. Although her next employer concerned himself more with her ability at plumbing than her gender identity, Chilberti nonetheless fell victim to a lay off.

She currently collects state disability and describes herself as “semi-retired”—circumstances that she says make her happier than the constant search for work after transitioning ever did.

“It was too much for deal with because I was always treated like I was a freak,” she explained.

Today, Chilberti spends her retirement fixing up the backyard of the Salt Lake City home where she lives with her partner, another transgender person whom she met online and moved to Utah to be with. To date she has built a brick patio, a set of Adirondack chairs and matching tables and a “kick-ass gazebo” to accommodate her barbecue, which she is known to use even in the dead of winter. When not onstage at the Woodshed, she likes to invite friends over for an evening of blues and her tasty spicy wings.

And as far as she’s convinced, her rambling days are over.

“I love it here,” she said of her adopted state. “I love all the people I’ve met since I’ve been here. I’m actually living a better life than I ever have here. I love the mountains and the snow. Last winter I was in heaven. I make friends really easily. I’ve got a good personality, I know it. You’ve got to be able to carry yourself [if you’re transgender]. This isn’t something that’s easy.”

Not like drumming the blues when you’re a natural, anyway.

“I’m a dedicated blues drummer, that’s it,” Chilberti said. “That’s all I wanna play, that’s what I like to play. I play everything, but the blues I where my heart is.”

You can hear Jayme Chilberti and The Rockin’ Jukes at The Woodhouse Bar and Grill (60 E 800 S) every Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.

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