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How to Participate in a Jam

February 27, 2012; 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:

  • Go to the venue and listen; check out the action first before stepping in to play. Leave your instrument at home or in the car. This might not be your scene.
  • Note down a couple of tunes being played, then go home and download the chords & lyrics (if you don't know them already). Music stands are permissible at jams, so don't worry about memorizing chord changes.
  • Let the leader know you're there. Have at least three tunes people can jam on. Remember they shouldn't be more than three or four chords, and maybe a relative minor.
  • Bring a small amp. Jams come in two flavors: electric and acoustic. But even the acoustic is usually plugged in. They may patch you into the PA system, but you will need a pick-up on your acoustic to be heard.
  • You will be called upon to take a solo. If you're not up to it, just shake your head "no." The leader will move on to someone else. If you go for it, try an arpeggio in a pentatonic scale –e ither major or minor depending on the tune's key. You can't go wrong. The best solution is to stay very close to the melody of the verse, but that's not always possible, particularly if you're playing the tune for the first time.
  • Help with the singing. If you come to a jam be prepared to sing one or two songs that are easy to follow. You are more valuable to the jam and will be more welcome in the future.
  • Watch the guitar player(s). Assuming they are competent, you will notice when the chords change, and you will see which chords are being played. This is an invaluable skill!
  • Ask questions: Don't be shy! After a tune is finished, ask a friendly-looking person a question or two. "What was that chord change you played in the second part?"
  • Don't "noodle" between tunes. Others will just think you're showing off. If you want to practice or try out a lick you just heard, wait until you get away from the group or until you get home.
  • Lay back: If everyone is playing a frenzy of solo notes, and it's natural for a player to believe that the only way he or she is contributing is by playing a lot of notes – then what you end up with is an overly loud, tone cluttered, one dimensional rendition of a tune. Listening to others, while focusing on the artful interplay between instruments, adds that extra dimension to the playing of a tune. In other words, tone it down. Playing louder than the lead player or the singers is rude and unmusical.
  • Try new stuff. Once in awhile, a jammer may suggest an original tune, or one that is out of character with the jam, or a song not easily followed by the group. This is OK occasionally. Just don't overdo it.
  • Be encouraging to all. Everyone should have a positive experience.
  • Have fun.



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