Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What Makes A Good Jam Session

A good jam session is one of the more rewarding musical experiences. You participate in creating a unique performance, rarely recorded or preserved, usually for the personal enjoyment of each musician. Hopefully, everyone concurrently learns and teaches.

But a bad jam session can be an exercise in frustration, boredom, and irritation.

In theory, I suppose, a jam could be good for some, bad for others, but, in practice, I think this seldom happens. Most participants seem in tacit agreement as to whether things are going great, going badly, or just muddling along.

So, what makes a jam good? And what makes a jam bad?

Let's consider the latter first, since it's easier to wreck a decent jam than to rescue a bad one.

In my book, players of disparate abilities, where the less skilled are oblivious to the difference, puts the jam in immediate jeopardy. If you're located on the back slope of the skill curve, you can still participate, usually, if you're willing to flit around the edges, follow the more experienced players' lead, etc. But, the strong players don't hang around long when the less accomplished push to the forefront: "Hey, does anybody know this tune called 'Soldier's Joy'" or "Nobody knows that tune? OK, I'll teach it to you (on a banjo) only I don't know it very well myself". Arrgggggh.

Trying overly complicated stuff is a jam-killer. What's overly complicated will vary with skill and background of the players, naturally, but, when it's your turn to lead, don't expect to trot out something with 15 different strange chords over, which you've spent beau coupe hours of practice, and expect it to go well. Remember, you're trying to create an ensemble sound, not audition for a slot with the Hot Band.

Paper is a jam-killer. People with music stands and sheet-music, eyes glued to the print instead of the other musicians, tend to create a stilted atmosphere. And they have a tendency, probably fostered by faith in the paper, to introduce material they don't know well enough to lead.

OK. Let's list some things that you should do to make the jam go well when it's your turn to lead.

First, play something that some others in the jam are likely to know or be able to pick up on rather quickly. A few players decently in sync will build critical mass and enable others to find their place. If it's likely that you're the only one able to play this number, you've picked the wrong tune. This is somewhat tied to the overall skill level of the group, but also relates to the style preferences of the jammers. If you're jamming with a bunch of Kingston Trio wannabies, for example, and you introduce a fiddle tune, the group may have some trouble identifying the A and B parts. No, they probably shouldn't have trouble, but, yes, they probably will. You'd better be able to count on at least one pretty competent backup guitar player to help keep the rest of the group in line.

Second, pick something that's easy for decent players who don't necessarily know the tune to contribute. This usually means songs with choruses, or repetitive and predictable lines. For example, the Crawdad song:

You get a line I'll get a pole, honey
You get a line I'll get a pole, babe
You get a line, I'll get a pole,
We'll go down to the crawdad hole
Honey, babe of mine.

Doesn't take much to figure out what's coming, does it?

On the other hand, unless you're hanging out with a bunch of Iroids for whom the song Arthur McBride is a known item, you're unlikely to get a lot of participation, since the song pretty much procedes from start to finish in narrative ballad form.

Third, when it's your turn, know your tune pick backward and forward. In many ways, jamming is more difficult than public performance, since you have to contend with people fumbling their way, with instruments, as the song gets rolling. So, you have to know your choice well enough, and play it strongly enough, to ignore other people's mistakes and to make a decent recovery when things get out of whack. Your buddies will be trying to get it right, but they won't always succeed. If this will throw you, you've picked the wrong tune.

And don’t be afraid to pass, if you can’t think of an appropriate selection. In most song-circle jams, it’s OK to request a specific song from another participant.

The best jams in which I’ve had the pleasure of participating were at the old Coffee Cantina in Suquamish, Washington. The musicians were grouped in a circle at one end of the room, with the audience in traditional rows of chairs filling the rest of the room. The style was totally eclectic: traditional folk, singer-songwriter, light rock, fiddle tunes, you name it, we probably did it. The players, for the most part a very competent bunch, were respectful of each other. One regular played at electric bass with a small amp. This could have been a problem, but he kept the volume low and he was extremely quick at picking up a tune (with the sense to sit out the ones he didn’t quite get). The place had a mildly out-of-tune piano which we just sort of worked around when someone did a piano lead.

The Coffee Cantina Friday nite jams persisted for almost a decade. Over that time, most of the players got fairly familiar with the repertoires of the others, and some of the more oft-played numbers acquired a raucus polish, with the audience joining in. Trying to follow the chords and keys of the pop and rock tunes that many participants chose, taught me more about back-up banjo than most of the formal workshops I've attended over the years.

Jam cruelty: I've seen this happen a few times, mostly at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes up at Fort Warden. The neophyte trots out his hack tune at half speed and most of the other players don't do anything at all, they just sit there. The tune ties a fumbling premature death. I used to think this was disgusting behavior -- now, I'm a bit more conflicted. I still don't like it, but, in an open jam, how do you keep someone from degrading it to the point where it's not fun?

Well, this is a bigger topic than I intended when I started, so I'm coming back to it later.


Blogger Reloaded said...

saw you at the wired and unplugged cafe last night in snohomish. you three were great. my friend and i really enjoyed 'grandpa held the snakes'. thanks for a fun evening of music.

7:20 AM  
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3:06 AM  
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9:50 AM  
Blogger Strings3002 said...

I am one of those guys who ruin your jam by not being as good as you. I try and I work just as hard as you. I think your behavior is disgusting. Perhaps , people like you shouldn't bother to show up at all? Couldn't you just go to your gigs and leave the rest of us to degenerate the jams?

3:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Murray said...

Strings, I think you missed the point, which is too bad. One doesn't ruin a jam by being less skilled than another member -- the most skilled participant can ruin a tune by showboating and doing something other players can't follow. You can make a jam better by matching your skills with what the other players can do and are doing. Now, if you don't know the chords and insist on banging 'em out at full volume anyway... Well, your problems isn't so much skill as attitude.

3:35 PM  

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