How to Participate in a Jam
By John A. Dorman
How to Participate in a Jam by John A. Dorman (Huntington, NY Sam Ash Customer)
I'm a keyboard player not currently in a band, because… well, I really don't have time to be in a band. But Long Island, NY is a very mature musical environment, and practically every night of the week an open "jam" is happening somewhere. These are great opportunities to step up and play a few tunes on your instrument of choice. Not many people play electronic keyboards, so even in my diminished capacity, I tend to be a welcome addition. That is, depending on the "jam leader."
Every jam has one. He's usually a "he," who has convinced the owner of the bar/VFW hall/restaurant/church basement/community center/private home to lead the proceedings. He sets the tone, and the jam's success or failure generally is up to him. Some leaders are egocentric boors who trumpet their less than skillful renditions of classic rock songs, while others are more tolerant of the average Joe who plays music as a hobby, which is the most common personality at these events.
There are "do's" and "don'ts" associated with jams, and as an experienced jammer, I've learned how to roll with them. But it took some doing. Last year a bar opened up in my neighborhood with a new jam run by a retired guy who plays guitar. The music of choice was classic rock: Petty, Stones, Santana, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynrd, Allman Brothers, and of course, straight blues. Perfect Hammond music, right? I introduced myself, and then set up my Roland Di keyboard and Roland KC 150 amp both purchased at Sam Ash Music, my favorite store in all the world. I settled into a groove. I didn't know all the tunes, so sometimes I asked for keys from the bass player. "It's in A," he might say. Fine. Most of these tunes have three or four chords and a relative minor.
After three tunes, the jam leader came over and said, "You noodle too much. And don't be asking what keys the tunes are in. If you don't know the song, don't play it." OK. I thought I was doing fine. Other jammers had their eyes closed and heads bobbing when I was into my organ solos. But it takes a certain kind of ego to lead a jam involving strangers. A certain kind of "my way or the highway" personality. And if you want to play, you need to be hip to this fact. I thought I could ride it out by just showing up four or five weeks in a row. But each time it was the same deal: A lecture about how I was or wasn't fitting in. Now mind you, no one else said anything. Most seemed happy to have a keyboard sound backing up their guitar-driven songs. But after four or five jams, I felt that the leader had put the cuffs on me. I moved on.
A local sax player in a hot dance band started a jam in a bar not far from where I live. I was familiar with his band, and so were a lot of other musicians because the jam was packed. A keyboard was already set up, so I left mine in the car. I basically had to take a number. Any thoughts about becoming the resident keyboard player for this jam evaporated when another pianist took the stage. He was miles ahead of me in technique, being the actual keyboard player for the sax player's hot dance band. So pretty much by default, he became the house keyboard player. I was allowed to play three tunes. At least when I played there was a horn section behind me. What a thrill. But I want to play more than just three tunes. I moved on.
I always travel with my own book. It contains changes to dozens of rock tunes I've collected over the years, and after you've done this a while, a lot of the same songs come up again and again. "One Way Out" by the Allmans, for example, gets played constantly. Or "Dead Flowers" by the Stones. Or "Black Magic Woman" by Santana. Or "Brown-Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison. Often the jam leader will ask what you want to play. Don't propose an obscure tune by the Dead Kennedys. Jams are all about common denominators. And three or four chords.
Another thing I run into is, the jam leader gets confused about the difference between an "open mic" and a "jam." Two distinct concepts. Open mics are usually acoustic people getting up on stage with their guitars, singing a few tunes, followed by another singer/guitarist or maybe a duo, followed by someone who plays the flute with a guitarist, or a 12-stringer, followed by another solo guitar player. These are performances, not jams. As a jammer, I'm often wondering about when the open mic ends and the jam begins. Does it start after the last soloist warbles her final chorus? Is one of the soloists going to call me up to jam along with a tune he performs? Can these two concepts co-exist? Yes and no. A clever leader will let a solo performer sing a few tunes, then call up a jam group to play some tunes, then bring back a soloist, and so on. Kind of alternating between the two. Sometimes I'll ask an open miker if he'll let me accompany him on accordion or mandolin.
But this also happened recently: The confusion between "open mic" and "jam" led some performers to tell the leader that they didn't want to jam. They were there to perform their tunes, and that's it. The jammers were upset, because they had to sit around waiting for the open mikers to finish their sets. This cross-fertilization needs handling. I've had leaders tell me that so-and-so doesn't want me near the bandstand until they finish their set. My response is, "Well that's not a jam!" Sure, I can be a performer, but I would rather jam. Be aware of the difference, and keep your ears tuned to the format when you check out a music scene.
And do check it out first. Your local Craigslist is a good source of jam announcements. Find a place, and go listen. Leave your instrument at home. Check out the leader and his format. See who's playing and what's being played. If the tune "One Way Out" is on the set list, along with say, "Sweet Child of Mine," go home and download the chords and lyrics from the web. Run through the tunes a couple of times on your guitar, keys, bass, drums, or whatever it is you play. Familiarity breeds return appearances.
Here are my all time favorite tips for jammers: