A number of times I have spoken about “jam sessions” as a good thing, especially for players who are just starting out. It occurred to me that I haven’t really said anything about what a jam session is, what’s in it for a player or how to get into them.
If you’ve tried to find out what a jam is by looking in a dictionary, you most likely haven’t had much luck. Some definitions of jam do seem appropriate – “A crush or congestion of people or things in a limited space”, for example, especially when a jam gets going and the stage is packed. Just try getting a drum kit, a double bass, keyboards and the usual leavening of guitarists and singers on a four-metre wide stage!
Perseverance might find “to play in a jam session”, which sort of sends you back to where you started. So a quick search on jam session finds “An informal gathering of musicians to play improvised or unrehearsed music”, and now we’re cooking.
For any player, a jam session is a chance to stretch themselves. It is a challenge and a learning experience to go up against musicians you have never played with, who might be better or from a different genre than you, and see how you go. Occasionally a major musician might wander in for a jam.
The jams, especially if run by a club such as Sleepy Hollow, Geelong Folk or Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society, are friendly. They are more likely to be welcoming to new players and provide tips, new chord fingerings for the guitarists and new keys you haven’t dared or had the opportunity to try, than to expect you to be a fully seasoned player. Most of them started out in jams and know the feeling.
In the course of an item, you’ll experience banter between the players, get a nod to take a solo, debate about the key, time or pace. This is the essence of a jam session. The payoff is when it all comes together and you bring the house down as you all meld into a timed and harmonious performance. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does…
It’s not quite as anarchic as it sounds. Most venues have a jammeister, who tries to make sure everyone gets a fair go. Each group of players is usually limited to about three items only (unless they’re like Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ which clocks in at 18 minutes!). The jammeister will set the order, and the jammeister may allow extra items in a set if the event is quiet.
Sleepy Hollow has a whiteboard where you can write yourself in for a set. There’s a nominated contact, and it’s polite to check whether, say, a crumhorn would be welcome. The jammeister usually knows some of the regulars and can help here.
Once you’re up on stage … “Everyone know ‘Crossroads’?” “Yep, can we do it in G, I forgot my other harp?” “G is cool.” “OK, this is the beat.” “Ian, count us in.” And you’re away…
It doesn’t have to be in a group. Occasionally a solo will get up and run with it.
Either way, it’s a great way to get started, improve your playing, or maybe even meet some people that you’ll end up playing with for a long time.
Written by Dr John Lamp. Presented by The Sleepy Hollow Blues Club