As mentioned in my last post, I’ve played in a lot of different jam sessions over the past few years, in different genres and different settings. I’ve gotten a feel for what works and what doesn’t. I keep fantasizing about starting my own sessions, but that’s not going to happen. Regardless, I thought it might be good to list some of my ideas for running a good, fun jam session.
The standard disclaimers apply. I’m still a rank amateur when it comes to jamming. I don’t pretend to be a good music organizer and these are just suggestions that might not fit every session or the goals for that session. These are not meant to be guidelines for jam etiquette. There are plenty of those online. I just know what has happened in the ones where I’ve been welcomed and have been allowed to learn and thrive, as well has have fun.
Critical mass is crucial.
You have to have enough players to sustain the session. It could be as few as two, but it really depends on the style of music.
I once went to an Irish session where there was just this one guy waiting for people to show up. He had a guitar and planned to play rhythm, which was what I was hoping to do. You really need rhythm and melody for an Irish session, so I pulled out my tin whistle and tried (unsuccessfully) to play some jigs and reels. The rest of the bar patrons stared wondering what the hell we were doing, or simply ignored us. It was…awkward. I never went back to that session and now the bar has closed permanently.
I’ve been to the Pickens Flea Market when not too many folks were there. I’ve played my banjo by myself until more folks joined in. There’s no real answer to how many are necessary.
There must be some experienced players, even in a beginner session.
This is what I’ve noticed at the Table Rock sessions and the Hagood Mill AMJAM sessions. You’ve got to have someone who knows what they are doing or everything will fall apart. Beginner sessions can be loads of fun, but not if everyone is struggling. Conversely, it’s not fun to be in a session where one person dominates everything and no one else can make suggestions or contribute. More on this in a bit.
There must be some mathematical formula that expresses both the need for critical mass and experience, but I’m not sure what it is.
The experience level of the group and expectations for the genre should be clear.
Everyone likes to know what to expect when they go to a session. I went to one session entitled “Calling All Strings.” They advertised it as a beginning session playing jigs and reels. It turns out that the “strings” in this case were the orchestral type and not what I would think of for a typical jam session. It turned out OK, though. I was accepted and I played guitar and banjo along with the violins (not fiddles) and cellos in attendance.
Everyone who can contribute and is willing to do so should have that opportunity to the extent of their comfort level and ability.
Having a clear leader or core group is fine. Having that core group exclude anyone else is not fine. I think the only exception would be if someone is trying to break into a closed session. That might happen more often in impromptu sessions that pop up in festivals, but I don’t see “closed” sessions that have been advertised. Opportunities to contribute may take the form of suggesting the next tune or taking a solo break.
I’ve been to a couple of sessions where I felt like an intruder. The group had their regulars and didn’t like anyone else sitting in. It made for a very uncomfortable situation. I tried to minimize my impact, but I definitely felt unwelcome.
By the same token, folks should be allowed to sit on the periphery and learn and not forced to do something for which they aren’t ready. I think back to the times I passed the mic to someone else at Perryville rather than pick a song. At that point I wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel like I really fit in with the group until I was ready to take a lead.
The whole purpose of having these sessions is to have fun. It’s not a rehearsal. You’re not striving for perfection, and attending a session certainly shouldn’t cause anxiety. The goal for any session is to learn, thrive, and enjoy.
Of course, that should be done within the context of the genre and the overall setting of the jam session. If your idea of having fun is to throw a monkey wrench into the works by doing something like bringing an electric guitar to an Old Time jam, then perhaps you should rethink your reason for attending. Sometimes even something quirky like this works, like bringing a banjo to an orchestral strings session.
I’ve been in some sessions where they take things so seriously that they suck the life out of the music. This happens most often in genre-specific session, especially Old Time, but I’ve seen it in others. There was one guitar session where the facilitator took 20 minutes explaining the dos and don’ts of jamming in a very passive aggressive tone. I left. If I’m not going to enjoy a session there is no need to be there. Life is just too short.
If I ever did start my own session I don’t think I’d ever post the above list in its description. These are are just my thoughts on what makes things work. As with anything, it really just boils down to respect. Respect your fellow musicians, respect the genre, and have fun while doing it.