Music to soothe the soul

Police detective relaxes by learning to play the banjo
and performing with a gospel group
Monday, October 20, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:28 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

On a typical day, Columbia Police Detective Jeff Westbrook works to combat domestic violence and counsel victims of such abuse. At night, however, Westbrook can be found on his porch working toward a different goal — mastering the banjo.

Westbrook began playing the banjo two years ago and has since joined the local bluegrass band Gospel Salute.

Westbrook said he’s wanted to learn the banjo since 1982 but because of work and family commitments, he never had time to take lessons. Two years ago he decided to make time and signed up for banjo lessons with Leela Grace, an area banjo teacher.

On Friday, Gospel Salute, also known as Bluegrass Salute, performed at the “Grand-Dee Gospel Sing!,” a concert held once a month at the Calvary Baptist Church.

Gospel Salute opens and closes each show at the church and invites a different bluegrass band to perform on the bill each month. Friday’s concert, which featured Ironweed, was the fourth “Grand-Dee Gospel Sing!.” Gospel Salute hopes the monthly concerts become a fixture at the church.

Gospel Salute will also play Tuesday night at D’Agostinos Italian Restaurant & Bar, its first gig at a venue other than the church.

Westbrook said he has learned a lot from the other musicians in Gospel Salute. The band is made up of five men, each from a different walk of life.

Lanny Seifert, Gospel Salute’s fiddle player, works for Midwest Block & Brick. Dobro player David Dean White is a social worker at Fulton State Hospital. Lead vocalist and guitarist Charlie Boyer used to work for a phone company and is now retired.

Boyer said he enjoys the interaction the band has with the audience and being able to spread the gospel message through music.

“When you hear the crowd’s response, it makes it all worthwhile,” Boyer said.

Westbrook said playing the banjo helps him deal with the stressful aspects of his day job. As a detective in the department’s Domestic Violence Enforcement Unit, he often counsels women who have been victims of domestic violence.

Westbrook said many officers take up a hobby in their off hours to help them relax. While other officers hunt or visit a shooting range, Westbrook picks up his banjo.

Over the summer, Westbrook spent a week in West Virginia, studying the banjo with Dwight Diller, a musician devoted to preserving the traditional music of Appalachia. Westbrook said Diller is one of the top five banjo players in the country.

Music runs in the Westbrook family. Westbrook’s 16-year-old son, Jake, plays the electric bass in a band with friends from Rock Bridge High School. The alternative rock band, Twelve Cent Masterpiece, recently performed at The Music Cafe and the Twilight Festival, and it is recording a compact disc. Cherri Westbrook, Jeff’s wife, said father and son attend each other’s performances when they can. Last year, in honor of Father’s Day, Jake took his dad to see Bela Fleck, a banjo player whose music is influenced by a mixture of bluegrass, jazz and funk.

Cherri said music is a fixture in the Westbrook home. While Jake’s band jam’s away in the basement, Jeff can be found playing his banjo on the front porch.

“It’s interesting — it’s fun, and it makes for a very entertaining household,” she said.

Jeff Westbrook continues to practice and learn all he can about the banjo. He said learning to play the banjo is just like anything else — it takes hard work and dedication to succeed.

“Well, you know if there’s something you want to do well, you’ll get there if you keep working at it,” he said. “Success doesn’t come overnight — it takes work and going after something to get where you want to be.”

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