Come Jam with me, Come Jam Let’s Jam Away by Jonny Steiner

Posted: June 1, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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I should start with an apology. Michael had suggested that my columns were too academic, that I do not write as I speak in normal conversations. He wanted me to get angry, and to call people out. Well I tried and failed, miserably. As it happens I was way too insulting to be allowed to write in such a manner. It was because of this that I could not get out a column last week and for that I am sorry. The purpose of this column is not to insult and get angry, I write to share my love of music and the ideas I have about it. I do not know if I ever told you the story about how this column got its name. If I did I am sorry but it bears repeating. There is an introduction to a “Far Side” collection by Robin Williams. He mentions that while some cartoonists sit in their favorite chairs happily sketching next to a crackling fire, Gary Larson works in a laboratory waiting for lightning to give his creations work. I told Michael that I felt more like the guy in the easy chair writing about music with my best headphones on, as I relax. He suggested the “Rocking Chair” and the rest is history.

Where were we? Ah yes The Grateful Dead. It is interesting that in the scope of their career, and much of the other bands in the Jam scene, their concerts are so iconic that their albums are almost glossed over. To these bands, an LP seems to be little more than a necessary tool in order to prepare for their live shows, where improvisation and free form movement are key. The Dead had only one top 40 hit in their career, and of course any die hard Deadhead will tell you that “Touch of Grey” is not a real Grateful Dead song. Trent Reznor for example feels in his element in the studio, making sure every sound and note come out to his exacting specifications. Conversely many Jam Bands feel confined by the need to be concise and economical in the studio, preferring the on-the-spot inventiveness of a live concert to get their real point across.

The word Jam Band was used as early as 1937 when it was published in a glossary of Dance Orchestra terms. ”A jam band depends entirely on improvisation, using no written music.” Interestingly the term did not become synonymous with the movement until the 90s when it was used to refer to Phish and the second generation of jammers. Bands like The Dead and the Allman Brothers were referred to as Jam Bands retroactively. The definition from the 30s is about as apt as you can get to describe the technical side of the music. It is very much focused on free-style improvisations. The songs themselves are used as jumping off points into other musical regions, and provide a landing point when the band finally finishes. Stylistically speaking Jam Bands work from all over the spectrum. Blues Rock Country Jazz Psychedelic even Electronica, many Jam Bands carry a smattering of these themes throughout their music.

Interestingly the term Jam Band which has become an all-inclusive term stylistically also distances it from the styles it so heavily borrows from. Blues is known for its improvisational techniques. The main way that manifests itself in the music is with long guitar solos over a steady backbeat. Hardly the full on intensity of a Phish or any other band Jam. The most interesting stylistic comparison between Jam Bands is with what is called “The American Classical Music” Jazz. On the surface the improvisational methods that are inherent in both styles seem to make the two almost indistinguishable. Each are based on a Blues downbeat, both have free improvisational themes, and the two even sound similar in some ways. The differences come in Jam Band’s extended palate of sounds. This primarily speaks of the presence of psychedelic sounds in their music. Use of keyboards and synthesizers also make the music sound less focused and more spacey. Additionally, Psychedelic themes are largely influenced by Eastern music and Asian sounds, so in that respect the music is vastly different from Jazz which is firmly entrenched in Americana. It is hard to break down a Genre of music that so effortlessly blends so many styles together, but when looked at closely the thread starts to unravel.

The influence of this style of music on music culture at large is profound. From the first days hanging out with Ken Kesey in San Francisco in the 60s, the Grateful Dead had a dedicated following. To say that this has continued into current times is to grossly underestimate the scene. Fans of these bands are so devoted they take months even years of their lives in order to follow their favorite bands all over the country. Phish were famous for causing major traffic jams surrounding their New Years shows in Florida. What is so fascinating about all of that is that these bands did it all with little or no radio support. Phish were able to have a lucrative career any artist would be jealous of, playing the music they loved, and not compromising in order to sell more records. They solidified their presence on the Pop Culture lexicon of the US when Phish appeared on a 2002 episode of “The Simpsons.”

Of course every great musical movement has its’ downside. And as I am sure you can guess here I am going to speak about drugs. I am not going to say that the scene is only about that because there are thousands I am sure of fans that enjoy a clean and sober lifestyle. I will say however that the presence of drugs primarily Marijuana LSD and Mushrooms, are the most popular because of the way the experience interacts with music. The fact that many of the Jam Band concerts take place in open natural environments the possibility for sneaking and taking drugs is prevalent and astonishingly easy. It can be argued that the main corruptors of the scene are the misguided youth who don’t truly understand the music, and just use the venue as a place to do drugs. I would point out that many of my friend’s parents who were into the Dead in the 60s and 70s did their fair share of drugs as well. LSD and Pot have been present in the scene forever. It is only now that Cocaine and ecstasy and MDMA, and other harsher substances have grown in popularity that they have become more widespread in the Jam Band scene.

It is truly remarkable that a style of music that came from 60s hippie culture is still thriving, and with almost no label support at all. The music is so eclectic it is almost impossible to classify and yet that it was makes it so dynamic, the ability to play a sixty show tour and change up the jams is a testament to the artists skills and the reward for the fans who follow them all over.

What I am listening to: Jean Luc Ponty – Cosmic Messenger

Combining many styles into his 1978 release this album also showcases his growing control over his instrument, the electric violin. This album will be entertaining for fans of Jazz, Fusion, and Rock music alike.

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