Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Blues Jams are Important

Blues music is kind of like baseball: It is often passed from father to son, from sister to brother. Without that generational link it will wither. Blues is oral history… It is three chords and the truth.

Blues jams have been an important tradition nearly since the beginning of the form, with raucous head-cutting sessions among jazz and blues players in New York City, and jams from Delta juke joints to Chicago night clubs. The blues Jam I host on Sundays at Ziggies Saloon in Denver is at the end of a long, long train of blues relationships, and I expect it will eventually help pull more boxcars that hook up along the way. Blues jams are about keeping that train rolling.

One of the things I like best about hosting the jam is encouraging new players. Playing in front of a crowd can be terrifying, especially the first time. The newbies who come to the jam and bust out their chops on stage for the first time are my heroes. Every blues jam has a debt – an obligation – to nurture the music. That means attracting, helping and inspiring new blues players.

I’ve seen new and intermediate players blossom over the year and a half I have hosted the jam at Ziggies. Playing on stage every week with musicians of all levels, some of them develop a real talent for the music and the show. A few have moved on to working bands.

Accomplished players frequent the jams to see friends, to try out new chops or gear, or to just share the joy of playing the music with others. Blues is a performance art. Practice is just waiting.

One of my goals for every jam is to put together at least one killer feature set; a set that includes some of the best working pros who drop in, perhaps backed by members of my band. My main duty as a jam host is to put on a good show, and that killer set can bring people back to the jam and help inspire the new players. At jams, aspiring performers pick up riffs and showmanship and attitude from the more seasoned players. They hear great tunes to add to their repertoire. It’s about paying it forward. The blues will abide.

Blues jams are about doing a simple thing very well. They are about a shared understanding – a visceral instinctive joy – for the sound of the Delta, and Memphis, and Chicago, and West Coast Jump, and all the regional dialects of the blues language.

A big shout out to my brothers and sisters who host blues jams. It doesn’t pay much, it is often chaotic, and you have to deal occasionally with drunk and/or egotistical jerks. But it is service to the blues tradition. It is helping to keep the blues alive.

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UPDATE: People from all over the country have contacted me asking for permission to reprint this article. I am flattered. Anyone may reprint this verbatim with attribution. Please include a link back to here if possible. Thanks!

1 comment:

Eric Betts said...

Hi Rick

I am based in Sydney Australia but your blog post really struck a chord (pun unintended).

I play harp; left my shed and went to my first jam a few months back. I was one of those guys a bit hesitant, and unsure if he was worthy of going on stage with real musicians. Well I did and had a blast and have been going back. I have recently started busking as well. Guys like you do a great service to keep the blues alive.

On behalf of all the newbies out there, let me offer my heartfelt thanks (from Down Under)