I love jams – I love running them and I love playing at them. I love the people that go to jams, the professionals and the non-pros that are brave enough to get up on stage and play their hearts out. I love all the different instruments that come into a room – one of my favourite local jams has a guy who brings timpani drums – awesome! I love jams because of the moments you can’t rehearse which are created from some magical spontaneity and unity that appears only once and makes beautiful things happen. I love the unknown – the mystery – the lack of preparedness. I love the people that support the musicians and friends that want to try something new. I love when people tell me a song is on their bucket list, and we nail it together and get that feeling of ALRIGHT, life is GREAT!
About five years ago, a tiny restaurant serving specialty Montreal smoked meat opened in front of our farm. We met the new owners and quickly developed a close friendship. We almost immediately suggested to them that they obtain a music license so we could help bring them business by running a small jam with our band once a week to introduce their new place to the community. The focus became on creating a community jam because they were a restaurant and not a bar, where most of the jams were held and kids could attend. We always started early so the younger ones could go to bed by second set when things got “more grown up” and loud.
We began seeing young people come in a play almost immediately – and holy cow could they play! I remember this nine year old boy who came in to play drums one time. His parents had asked me to choose a song he could drum with the band. I always try and find “homogeneous” music that people can play to – and there are standards that everyone can find a beat on like Born on the Bayou by CCR- for a new drummer, is a really good repetitive metronomic song. So, I suggest to the boy we do Bayou – and he says but looks at his feet a little forlorn.
So I say “What’s the matter? Did you have another song you’d like to do?”
Yes he smiles up at me brightly – In French he says “J’aimmerais faire The Ocean par Led Zeppelin SVP”
Well – the kid nailed it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we all sat pretty astonished at his powerful rhythms. Awesome.
Later on more came – teenagers and kids who had been practicing in their bedrooms with their doors closed, Middle aged men dusted off their old axes. People were happy. Drummers came – djembe and we sat in semi circles mixing all of the music up together. Children played for the first time on stage with big wide half shy grins. The jam allowed for ALL kinds of music.
The first thing we did was to make sure that at least part of this jam, the beginning part, always began acoustic, for one hour. This gave a chance to the “softer” unplugged players, and very often original song writers to show their stuff without competing with a loud electric sound or the having the natural effect of a “dropped dynamic” causing a sort of downer feeling. There is a time and a place for every kind of music; you learn this very quickly and usually the hard way when you run jams.
A few young people began to put together bands, and today some of them are even recording albums and picking up speed on the larger pro musical circuit getting festival gigs and traveling to remote places to play their original stuff. This to me is SIMPLY AMAZING.
I do jams at other places as well. It was such an amazing thing to have been recently in Australia and really I learned everything about Australia through jams and the musicians I met. It was an incredibly open and loving place. I like to tell people that I was NEVER ONCE asked to play a cover, Janis or a blues tune while in Australia. Not once.
Australians LOVE their jams and they love spontaneity – they love to be surprised by the music – so they often ask for originals. It was fun to get to play new sounds and the added benefit was that if you made am mistake no one knew it ha!
Jams are awesome. But running jams – can be a real challenge. Take last night; I am at what we may consider a “pretty raucous bar” which often has jams that dissolve into frenzied guitar solos at ear shattering decibel levels. It serves as some form of therapy I suppose, for the frustrated normally male players – as most jams do. Whether here or in Australia, I encountered the same problem in every single jam I went to – this tendency to become over energized and focused on making as much noise as possible too early in the night.
Understandably, as an evening moves along and folks have a couple of drinks and loosen up- things get understandably more energetic and a good jam band will connect to this and allow music to get louder and harder. The increasing dynamic energy is one of the best parts of jamming – a great teacher for someone running a jam to learn how to stay connected to the energy of the musicians and spectators in the room.
Now the challenge for someone running a jam – namely often me 😦 is to find song for five virtual strangers, whose repertoire you are completely unaware of or how they play, what their play level is for difficulty of the song – it’s a real crap shoot. The first few notes are always a leap of faith for everyone. If it dissolves too late into the song to stop, then you all settle into trying to save a drowning song. Audiences are usually good natured about these “off ramp” spontaneity – and sometimes the “bad notes” can turn into a spectacular and spontaneous off the rails jam.
Ya just never know.
Of course, there are certain songs we all rely on – sort of universal industry standards like mustang sally, Bobby McGee for women with a certain forceful voice who have smoked too much like me, pride and joy for exuberant guitar players, hoochie coochie man for anyone with a harmonica – and other songs carry us through jam nights. Most jammers, again whether here or in Australia use these songs, or open blues jam songs, to “feel each other out. Then once in while you get a lunatic like me who likes to pull out originals that no one has ever heard before and have people spontaneously add their feel into it, live. This is insanity – but sometimes you can just feel that the circumstances are right.
I really have massive respect for the musicians that jump into scary spontaneity with an open and willing heart – because very often, especially in the case of original tunes, you end of expanding the song in a really cool way. Someone will play an unexpected beat or a sound, and suddenly the entire song has taken a new direction or has an added dimension. Sometimes even a new riff or even a bridge can materialize where one didn’t exist before. Jamming is amazing for this – but it takes courage and an abject lack of ego – ie: willingness to sound like shit abnd that’s ok kind of attitude.
Those are the real players – I have discovered. The old school guys who are willing to make any kind of sound and find it inside themselves rather than relying on structure or the “way things always have been”. Those that brave the outside of the box and dabble in the alchemy of new combinations of sounds.
But’s running jams is not all roses – and I have never learned a thing in Disney Land – right?
Take last night…when I lost my mind.
I was running a tough jam at a place that has this history of difficulty – drunken patrons, hecklers, arguments between musicians and of course the unraveling of the decibel levels. So, I went in determined to keep the energy receptive and pretty acoustic for the first 3 or four songs, and then start to let up electric and drums and stuff. A gradual increase right? Makes sense. But anyone who knows me will tell you – I have never been able to follow a set list – so “planning’ for me is futile.
What ended up happening is that (unlike usual) no drummers showed up nor did any lead electric guitar players. So to continue the flow of the night I just had to keep playing, and playing and playing.
Some folks got up and it was simply great – we got some extraordinary sounds, and some real fun on old tunes like James Taylor stuff and some raunchy old acoustic blues.
The acoustic went on longer than I had anticipated – but again it’s a JAM – and anticipation is not all part of the formula. People with control issues – for example – don’t really enjoy jamming I have noticed. 🙂
Suddenly a man I know, a friend actually, comes up to me annoyed and says something like:
“Well I guess I brought a gun to a knife fight” or something like that weaving his electric guitar in the air a little at me.
I say “What do you mean?”, blank faced.
And he says “well – are you even going to have an electric jam??” He spits obviously irritated and angry. Bad timing.
I immediately have a completely unreasonable reaction to this poor man’s simple desire to play some loud guitar. Suddenly I am annoyed at ALL of the jams I have been to in ALL of the weird places around the world where I have seen one woman or acoustic player after another pushed off stage by guys that want to get their yaya’s off by playing screechingly loud music.
OK I know – I enjoy some serious rock too! After all I am a rock singer. But there is a time and place for everything – and unfortunately I had forgotten to bring along the filter between my brain and mouth, so I say something horrible like:
“Oh for shit’s sake! I’m so tired of all you guys just wanting to hear your loud screechy crap on stage and not listen to people who just want to make music”.
I storm off to the bathroom and come out having taken a moment to laugh at myself in the mirror and find the poor man I had been so scathing with tattling on me to the bar owner. 🙂
“I am REALLY sorry”, I smile sweetly at the owner and say straight up –
“Yup – he’s right” I say to the owner “I was totally nuts”, I pat the guy on the shoulder and smile going back inside the bar. I turned to look at them and they were speechlessly watching me walk back to the stage through he windows.
Sometimes you’re just human I figure. And let’s face it, jamming can sometimes be enough of a challenge to make you a little wacko. Luckily we all seem to accept that about each other and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. Watching it give a chance for people, even like the loud guy, to play and exert that energy outwards and express themselves, come together to make a beautiful thing – yes it is all always worth it.