Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

Improv Jamming-Teachable?

This past Thanksgiving weekend, I had the good fortune to drive down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and attend the South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival. This year marks the third time I have been, and although the festival is relatively small compared to large ones like the International Bluegrass Music Festival and Merlefest, I have always enjoyed the lineup of performers and the musical community present. This year, I spent many hours out of each day at the festival jamming with other musicians. Usually, I would listen to some bands from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or so and jam until 5 p.m. I would then listen to a few more bands and grab a bite to eat. Around 7 p.m. I would continue jamming backstage with several musicians until about midnight, then climb into my bed and wake up the next morning to repeat the cycle.

Although my traditional jamming binge has not been altered much in the three years I have attended the festival, the setting changed in one particular aspect: this year, the festival hosted one of Pete Wernick’s “Jam Camps.” The idea is pretty simple: regional instructors are brought together to teach beginning and intermediate musicians the art of playing with other people in a jam context. While me and several older musicians were jamming in one room, the Jam Camp was taking place in the room adjacent. During our jam, I heard one picker joke about the Jam Camp: “I oughta go over to that Jam Camp and learn the Pete Wernick method! Then I’ll be good enough to play with y’all!” he exclaimed and then jokingly laughed. The other musicians laughed as well. From this encounter, I realized that many of my own criticisms of a Jam Camp were shared by other musicians. Mainly, these older musicians believe Jam Camps are superfluous and unhelpful because jamming is something you learn to do through casual interaction with other musicians. Jam Camps reduce the casual, improvisational nature of jamming by structuring the volume, tone, breaks, and other musical aspects.

Over the weekend, I got to witness several differences between the traditional jammers who I normally played with and the Jam Camp instructors. Late one night, I found myself jamming with a few of the Camp teachers by the bar at the convention center. I noticed that the Camp teachers usually let all musicians play a break during the song. This would sometimes cause the song to last for 6 or 7 minutes as there were about 10 musicians jamming. Camp teachers also played a lot of bluegrass material from the 1960’s and 70’s– songs from counterculture bands like Old and in the Way, the Grateful Dead, and Seldom Scene. Generally, the older, more traditional musicians played material from the founding generation of bluegrass pioneers (1940’s and 50’s) or from the modern, neo-traditional genre. These distinctions revealed that the Jam Camp teachers generally valued musical inclusiveness over quality. Contributing to this difference is the fact that this school of musicians performs newgrass and counterculture bluegrass musics as opposed to the traditional music that musicians like myself jam on.

To signify these distinctions, I’ve included two videos of songs that were performed in the separate jams. The first clip is of a reunion of Old and in the Way almost forty years after their band dissolved. Their music is full of minor chords and vibes that are not present in traditional bluegrass music.

The next video is of a song we played in the more traditional jam. This Russell Moore classic is one that pushed his band to fame in the 1980’s bringing in a new age of traditional bluegrass music.

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s very interesting that you brought that up. As a guitarist, I’ve been able to jam with many people, ranging from friends to world class musicians. Back home I’d play at bars with people I’ve never seen before and depending on their skill level and comfortability playing with different people, the jams would come alive.
    People back home in New York would ask me (mostly non-musicians) how I could play with a random stranger and make it sound good without having practiced. I still don’t really know the answer, although I can attempt to describe it.
    Exposure to live music as well as participation is crucial in order to develop the skills of communication on stage. Once you can hold your own on stage, meaning play comfortably at a relatively high level of technique and sound quality, communication is the next thing musicians have to develop.
    I think one of the best examples of jams in which there is a lot of exposure is the Berkelee Guitar Sessions. I attended them two summers ago and was very appreciative of these jams because it really left the responsibility of the jams up to the students. Students would gather in the respective building in which they want to jam, and sign up as a regular jam session would proceed. Then when you get on stage you have to decide what you’re going to jam on with you’re fellow bandmates for that night.
    They held the jams every night, and I think it’s a great idea because people need to learn how to play with other people, because if you don’t leave your house to jam with others “you’ll only be the world’s best guitarist in your basement”. This isn’t to be taken literally, rather the quote is meant to open musicians eyes to the different possibilities of playing with others.
    Anyway, why did I bring this up? To give an anecdote on the usefulness of experience in jamming in order to become good at jamming, thus being able to play with many people. And finally, my connection to your point, Scott. I, like you, don’t really think that jamming can be taught, although I think the process of learning how to jam can be catalyzed through experience and practice playing with others.

    • Listening to jam music has always made me regret never picking up an instrument just for the sole fact that it always seems like the musicians are having such a fun time while they are playing. Of course, I don’t know if I would have had the willpower at a young age to put in all the hours towards being able to jam proficiently on an instrument, but the concept of feeling a rhythm and being able to contribute to it seems exhilarating to me. Your post actually coincidentally comes at a good time for me, as today I have been binge-listening to the music of Can, a German krautrock band who released an album every year for a decade from 1969 to 1979, all of the first five albums being comprised off songs formed from some really intricate jams. Their first 5 albums, Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days are all highly regarded and contain some of the more energetic and varied jam music I’ve heard. When most people think of jam, the Grateful Dead are the first band to come to mind with their laid back guitars, and Jerry Garcia’s twangy voice of course. Can does not follow this archetype at all however, and instead were early pioneers of electronic sounds in music, and also had some of the strangest vocals from ever made because of Damo Suzuki. Despite the frequent nonsense of their songs, quite frequently they manage to create songs of strong intensity, and also high experimentation.

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