It’s been quite a while since I’ve picked up the banjo, so I got the itch to play recently, but didn’t really know where to find any local jam groups. In a previous blog, I wrote about my encounter with an old-timey family band. That conversation led to my discovery of a regular bluegrass and country jam group that meets on Friday nights in Rochester.
If you have not experienced a jam like this, let me give you a synopsis of the experience. In most cases, there’s a jam “leader”, someone who arranges for the venue, announces future jam dates, etc. Beyond that, the jam is largely self-run and highly democratic. Musical tastes vary, so a player or listener might hear a country song by Charley Pride or Merle Haggard, or a bluegrass song of Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs, even the occasional pop song.
Skill levels vary, too. I’d call this jam somewhere between a beginner and an intermediate jam. The folks here seem to have been playing their instruments for quite a while. A raw beginner would be welcome, too. It can be intimidating for the beginning player to try to play with a group the first time. This particular group is very friendly and welcoming.
Typically, the leader calls out the first song, including the key its going to be played in. You hear, “D – dog”, “E – echo”, “G – george”, for example. Why do we call it out like that? Well, depending on the age of the jammers (self included!), a person’s hearing may not be that good, so “D”, “E”, “G” all sound the same! The leader then kicks off the song, and everybody jumps in.
The leader of the current song will sing the verses, and the whole group is generally welcome to sing on the refrain, and add harmony if they want. In a jam that is at least intermediate level, the leader will sometimes nod to another player or call out an instrument to “take a break”. Here, the phrase does not mean “rest” or “stop playing.” :0) This phrase means that person plays the melody of the verse sort of like an instrumental solo. The jam I attended last night has a high enough collective skill level that there are quite a few people who “take breaks.” For those who haven’t attended a jam before, the song comes to an end when the song leader gives a special signal… the leader will “lift a leg”, meaning, “we’re just about done.” Our hands are busy when we play, so we have to use our feet to give the signal! :0)
This group has a nice mix of instruments. There are fiddles, guitars, banjos (tonight, all three banjo players owned Nechville banjos, manufactured in Bloomington, MN), mandolins, the occasional resonator guitar (sometimes called a dobro), and a bass (either electric or acoustic upright.) On this night, we had a percussionist who very tastefully played… well, a box! He had a well-constructed wooden box on which he sat, and with his left hand he held a brush that he tapped against the side, and with his right hand he simply slapped his palm. Now, drums are generally not welcome at bluegrass-style jams, but this fellow was clearly a regular and his playing was natural and tasteful.
I’ve since learned there are two or three jams of this type in Rochester. If you are a player, or a listener, check out one of thees jams. Visitors to the area, if you see this blog and know you’ll have some free time on a Friday night, contact me if you’d like information about this or other jams.