Jam Bands 101

Hold on to your hacky-sack! Jam Bands are not exclusive to the psychedelic, red-eyed or the tye-dyed. Although most closely associated with the Grateful Dead and PHISH; the Jam Band scene is perhaps the most inclusive, exciting and dynamic music genre in today’s music.

Improvisational spur of the moment expression through music is pure magic. It’s the sweet stuff that both listener and musician strive for; dynamic and responsive to the moment – the moment changes and so does the music. It’s where the lines between performer and listener start to blur. The evolution of Jamming to Jam Bands is an interesting one – pull up a chair.

The first known use of the term “jam band” was in a 1937 glossary of terms stating “A jam band depends entirely on improvisation, using no written music”. Close, but no cigar.

The true Fathers of Jam Bands were the Jazz musicians of the 1940’s – the “Jazz Cats”. It is said that Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and others were schooled after hours at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City during the 1940’s and 1950’s. It makes sense, Jazz was the most experimental and most improvised music at that time. Sometimes from these Jam’s or Jam Sessions there was competition. Musical battles such as “Cutting Contests” where musicians could display their musical prowess against each other were legendary at Minton’s. Usually “Cutting Contests” involved piano players.

“Cutting Heads” or “Head Cutting” or “Head Hunting” usually involved Blues Guitar players. In the 1991 documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, blues musician Johnny Shines describes a headcutting battle he had with blues legend Robert Johnson on opposing street corners in Helena, Arkansas in the 1930s – to draw away each other’s onlookers. Movies such as Crossroads (1986) and Cadillac Records (2008) display some Head Cutting scenes.

A Jam Session is when musicians play and improvise without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements. Jam Sessions (or jamming) can be based on existing songs, improvisation to develop new material or just plain enjoyment. Jam Sessions occur with musicians at all levels, from kids learning to play in their drummer’s basement to epically talented musicians providing sophisticated improvisational music.

For the most part, Jamming and Jam Sessions were exclusively products of live music. Jack Kerouac describes it well:

“Here’s a guy and everybody’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody else’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his belly bottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT.”

So through the 50’s and into the 60’s Jamming and Jam Sessions had been going on for a while, The Jazz Cats, Bluegrass and Blues Musicians have been doing it and to a lesser degree Rock and Folk – but almost all the jamming is done during live performances. (Another reason to go see live music).

Enter into the 60’s, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass influences mix with the psychedelia of the time. Acid parties become all night jam sessions; music becomes improvisational for the sake of being improvisational and in turn experimental. The hippies free their minds and their music as well. Into the late 60’s and early 70’s the Grateful Dead are dedicating portions of their show to pure improvisational “space” jams. The Allman Brothers, Traffic, Jefferson Airplane, Jimmie Hendrix and Cream are starting to improvise more. Through the 70’s the Grateful Dead tours extensively – Dead Heads are born, the Jazz cats, Blues and Bluegrass Artists are still jamming and now the rock guys are jamming in the form of extended solos. The over-the-top rock guitar solo is born. Almost everybody is jamming, in one way or another.

Remember that in the 60’s and 70’s and into the 80’s music genres were still pretty defined, there was not a lot of crossover. The most notable of Jam bands were the Hippy Bands. Into the 80’s bands like PHISH, Edie Brickell and Bella Fleck started to appear. Jamming became more prominent in other music genres. The fan base of the Grateful Dead grew, Dead Heads followed them from show to show as no show was ever the same. Many other bands began to play in a more expressive and sometimes unstructured way as their musicianship grew.

Enter the 90’s: Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Wide Spread Panic, Rusted Root, Government Mule, Leftover Salmon, Galactic and many others. The fan base begins to grow even more, festivals start to Pop up and collaborations of musicians crossing over genres become more common. Much to the horror of the true Dead Heads the Grateful Dead became mainstream and the term “Jam Band” was coined. This is where people assume when Jam Bands started. In 1995 Jerry Garcia, the inspirational and spiritual icon of the hippy movement, had passed. The Grateful Dead became the Other Ones and many Dead Heads began to explore other bands and music genre’s. PHISH was huge, pulling tens of thousands at a time to their festivals.

2000 and beyond, music genre’s blend even more as technology advances, people are experiencing new bands and new music over the internet. The Jam Band scene begins to flourish. Moe, The Disco Biscuits, Umphrey McGee, Keller Williams, North Mississippi Allstars, John Butler Trio, Madeski Martin and Wood, Les Claypool, STS9, Lotus, Perpetual Groove, many other bands and any kind of collaborations you can imagine. More established musicians like Steve Kimock, Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes, Levon Helm, Greg Allman, Buddy Guy and Bela Fleck collaborate with upcoming musicians. Festivals pop up everywhere: Bonaroo, Jam Cruise, Higher Ground, Jam in the Dam (Amsterdam), Rothbury, All Good, Mountain Jam, Wakaroosa, and 10,000 lakes are just a few. In 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine stated that Phish “was the living, breathing…..definition of the term” jam band”, in that it became a “cultural phenomenon”

One of the most exiting things in music today is the crossover between music genre’s. and the Jam band Genre seems to attact and infuse many other genre’s. You can find elements of: Blues, Jazz, Bluegrass, Folk, Rock, Cajun, Afro, Cuban, Tecno, Funk, Rap, House and World Music in the Jam band music Genre. Jam band music crosses genre’s, demands improvisation and is played by some of the best musicians out today AND it’s still not mainstream. What does that mean? That means that you can still see some mind blowing music at the smaller clubs.

So, what is a Jam Band? Good Question. I think the term is limiting. What we are really talking about here is music that is structured but includes improvisation- oh, and with a groove (very important) So whether it be a Jam Band or a band that jams, get out see some live music and experience it for yourself.