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Where acoustic musicians go to improve their craft, meet other people and play tunes
They congregate just about anyplace that has room for an impromptu gig – in pubs, coffee houses and living rooms, on front porches and street corners, at neighborhood fairs and music festivals. They bring their guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and standup basses, squeeze into a circle that expands as more players show up, and take turns choosing bluegrass, country, old-time and folk songs for everyone to play.
Welcome to the acoustic jam session, an informal, unrehearsed musical happening that brings together musicians – beginners, semi-pros, those who play in bands, those who don’t – who want to learn new songs, meet other musicians and stretch their craft a bit. Most of all, they want to play tunes.
“I’ve heard there are three ways to get better at your instrument – jamming, jamming and jamming,” says Paul Drews, a 52-year-old software engineer for Intel who’s been jamming ever since he took up the banjo about 15 years ago (he’s also played the fiddle about 10 years).
Besides, “it’s super fun playing with other people,” says Drews, who lives in Gaston with his wife, mandolin player Kathleen Tyau. “The magic happens, and it just sweeps you away.”
Drews also organizes a Monday night bluegrass jam session at Papa’s Pizza in Beaverton, one of dozens of regular weekly jam sessions scattered throughout the Portland area.
Regular jammers at Papa’s Pizza include Rick Weitzel, a 54-year-old electrical engineer from Aloha who played jazz professionally before he took up bluegrass guitar. He also plays the mandolin and electric bass. Nowadays, jam sessions are about the only venues where Weitzel plays. “I’m one of those guys who jams 95 percent of the time,” he says.
“You’re free to learn a lot of new songs,” he says of jamming. And when you’re playing music with other people rather than solo, “your ears need to be opened up, so you need to be listening.”
Mason Smith, 59, a Portland resident who owns a small trucking company, first picked up the mandolin about eight years ago and took his first lesson two years later. He explains jamming this way: “You start out in the back and try to pick out the melody with whoever’s there until you get the courage to step in.”
Smith, who says he picks and chooses his jam sessions, hasn’t done much jamming recently except at the River City Bluegrass Festival, the annual three-day music extravaganza in Portland where impromptu jam sessions shared equal billing with the stage performances.
Jamming musicians filled every nook and cranny of the Oregon Convention Center, where the festival was held, and spread to nearby hotels. “The Canadians were having a jam on the fourth floor of the Red Lion,” says bass player Kathy Boyd, whose band, Kathy Boyd & Phoenix Rising, led the festival’s official jam sessions in the convention center lobby.
Two of the festival’s out-of-town headliners, Del McCoury and Rhonda Vincent, “were probably jamming at the airport,” Boyd mused. “I’ve been in an airport jam before.”
Boyd, 45, who lives in Tualatin and works as admissions coordinator for Odyssey Hospice, has played in bands for years, but she still loves to jam with other musicians. “There’s a joy and a camaraderie to it. Some of the best friends I’ve ever made I met at jam sessions.”
Another festival attendee – retired advertising writer Bob Flentke, 76, of Vancouver, Wash. – started playing guitar when he was 45. Jamming is a good outlet for musicians who don’t play in a regular band, says Flentke, who had a band himself for a while. It eventually dissolved, the casualty of too many scheduling conflicts among its members.
“We had a nuclear engineer, and he was in and out of town, and there was a computer science professor,” Flentke says.
With jamming, he says, “you show up when you show up.”
So you show up at a jam session and find a bunch of musicians playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” How do you join in? Kathy Boyd and Paul Drews offer the following pointers for beginning jammers (Drews also suggests playing at home with a metronome before going to a jam):
• First, size up what kind of group this is. If you’re at a music festival, “stand outside the circle to get a feel for it because it might be a band that’s just warming up for a gig,” Boyd says.
• Consider the other musicians’ skill and experience. “You want to pick a jam session that seems to be at your ability level,” Drews says. Boyd concurs: “If you’re a beginner and stumble into a bunch of really hot pickers, you might want to just listen.”
• If you decide to join the players, don’t expect to jump in right away. “People might not be able to invite you in while they’re singing, but try to catch their eye,” Drews advises. “You can also ask between songs.”
• Typically, participants take turns choosing a song to play. The person who picks the song sings the verse (if there are lyrics) while everyone else plays along and maybe sings harmony on the chorus. The spotlight moves around the circle from one person to the next. When it’s your turn, you can politely decline if you don’t feel up to it. “It’s amazing how hot it gets in the room when it’s your turn,” Drews says.
• If you choose a song, announce the key you want to play it in. And let your fellow musicians know ahead of time “if there’s a weird chord in the song,” says Boyd.
• Choose appropriate songs. “You don’t want to come in with a song with 18 chords that nobody else knows,” Boyd says. Drews adds, “At a bluegrass festival, people generally want to do bluegrass, so you probably don’t want to do ‘Nights in White Satin.’ ”
• Be polite. “You don’t want to hog everything,” Boyd says. “You want to take turns. It’s kind of like kindergarten.”
Where the jams are
In addition to jamming at music festivals, acoustic musicians can find a jam session somewhere in the Portland area most days of the week, often in the evening. The Rambling Bluegrass Jam, for instance, meets every Monday from 6 to 10 p.m. at Papa’s Pizza, 15700 N.W. Blueridge Drive in Beaverton. For more info, visit www.ramblingbluegrass.org.
For lists of other regular jam sessions, visit these Web sites:
• Oregon Bluegrass Association, www.oregonbluegrass.org
• Bubbaville, supporting traditional music and dance, www.bubbaguitar.com
• Portland Folk Music Society (song circles), www.portlandfolklore.org
“Some jams do not go through the summer as everyone is off jamming at festivals,” advises bluegrass musician Kathy Boyd. “It is always a good idea to call first.”
• Wintergrass, a four-day festival of performances, jamming and workshops – Feb. 21-24 at the Hotel Murano (formerly the Sheraton Tacoma) in Tacoma, Wash. Info: www.acousticsound.org
• Concert to benefit Operation Happy Note, a Minnesota-based volunteer group that sends musical instruments to servicemen and women throughout the world – Saturday, April 5, 7 p.m. at the Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 S.W. Sweek Drive in Tualatin. Kathy Boyd & Phoenix Rising will perform. Tickets are $10. Info: www.phoenixrisingband.org or www.operationhappynote.com
• Bluegrass Music Series at the Gresham Little Theater – Info: www.greshamlittletheater.org
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