Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 5, 2010



I sat in on a few numbers in a blues jam this week. It’s after-hours at the music store where I take my guitar lessons, and I brought along my harmonicas. The instructors who give lessons there stage the jam once a month for the benefit of their students, who are mostly teenagers or pre-teens, to give them a supervised introduction to the experience of standing up and playing in a live ensemble. An instructor leads the session on guitar, so that, come what may, there’s someone who can always carry the group. It’s an excellent idea, and during the couple of years they’ve been doing this, it’s been fun to watch the kids, who are growing up and getting better by dint of lessons, also become more adept in the business of jamming.

The instructors are all professionals, and not only teach private lessons, but in schools, too. Most of them also work in a variety of musics groups, recording session work and even some L.A.-area symphonic ensembles. (Few professional musicians have a single, regular gig that can pay all the bills.) Most of them toured earlier in their careers, and have left that part of life behind so that they can enjoy things like houses, families, meals eaten at a table: all that stuff. These men and women have the ability to show up for a date, sit down in front of a new chart or score, and play, whether it’s a jazz combo or a chamber music ensemble. They know that developing the ability to adapt quickly to a new piece of music, a new set of musicians is critical to any serious music career. A blues jam (or a jazz jam, which they also do, and in which my skills do NOT qualify me to play) is a fun way to develop some of those chops. You learn to stretch what you already know about playing into other keys or new arrangements, you learn to listen to what’s going on around you in the other instruments and fit in, and you extend your repertoire. Being able to do this in a friendly environment with helpful instructors who are willing to let you make mistakes and explain what’s going on in the inevitable bridge section in which the key modulates into some weird minor sequence is invaluable.

It’s confidence-building. There’s nothing more daunting than stepping into a bunch of players who are unknown to you, playing a number you’ve never heard, and being expected to carry your part and even step out on a solo. You can practice at home to records all you like, but it’s different when you’re crammed onto a crowded little stage and everything’s louder than you’re used to and a bunch of self-proclaimed hotshot musicians are all out to prove themselves.

You learn a lot of things quickly when you’re standing next to an accomplished player and you can watch and listen to what they do during their solo turn. “Ah, so that’s what he’s playing. I get it! I know that riff!” And the next time you copy what you heard the pro play, and the next time after that, you take it in a new direction and make it your own.

There’s a lot of this sort of generosity in music. Most musicians are eager to share what they know, and understand that they are standing on the shoulders of the people who taught them. Although music is written down and recorded, the playing of music isn’t generally learned in a vacuum, especially when it comes to matters of playing in anything except a solo setting.

My first experience of this sort was decades ago when I was taking some bass lessons. My instructor invited me to come down to sit in with his band at the Fuzz Club in Newport, across the river from Cincinnati. Newport was at one time one of the wildest, wooliest towns anywhere, though by that time it had settled down to mere “unrespectable” status. The Fuzz Club, as racy as the name sounds, got its name because it’s owner was a former cop. Although I knew the song I played on, and although I had whanged away in my own little rock group, I’d never had an experience of playing with a set of complete strangers who knew everything about the number they were playing, inside and out. I did not do well.

I got a charming look at a more formalized approach to this same sort of thing when a trip I made to California coincided with a recital by a jazz combo that included my sister, Piano Nan. As part of the music degree she was pursuing, she had to play in all sorts of ensembles, including a jazz group. It was completely outside of the formal symphonic world in which she had learned the piano, which consisted of playing the music precisely as written on a score — precisely. Here, she had to improvise. I got a big kick out of hearing her kick out the jambs a little on an Ellington number. That experience obviously didn’t inspire her to start frequenting smoky piano lounges and little jazz joints in cellars, and she’s continued to grow as an outstanding pianist.

L.A. is full of jam sessions of every description. If you’re willing to drive, you can hit at least one and maybe two or three on any weeknight somewhere across the metropolis. Some are “pro-only,” and some are truly “open mic.” L.A. is, of course, full of musicians, and these sessions can be friendly or they can be packed with cats trying to prove something. It can be very hard to get your turn onstage if you don’t know someone. These sessions aren’t always the place to see that collaborative, friendly spirit of music on display. Best thing to do is to go on in and put your name down, then sit and listen (you’ll have to buy a drink, probably – the bar owner is not putting on this jam out of philanthropy; she’s trying to put a few dollars in the till on what would otherwise be a slow night). You’ll quickly get a sense of whether or not this is somewhere you want to play. The best thing is to talk to some of the other cats around you, who also are waiting to play, and take a look at the cases they’re carrying. If you’re a guitar player and there are already 17 guitar cases in the place, you may have a long wait. Leave if you don’t like the vibe. Or, stay, if there’s great music being played nonetheless. You’ll probably learn something that way, too.

I’ll end with a name-dropping warning. My greatest jam. I was attending the Augusta Blues Week in West Virginia. 5 days with accomplished blues musicians who give instruction during the days, put on a couple of concerts, and little informal jam sessions pop up night and day. Late one night out on the lawn under a summer moon, I dragged my string bass into a circle that included all pros: Rich Del Grosso, Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, John Cephas and Harmonica Phil Wiggins. I was never so nervous and I don’t think I’ve ever had a greater time, just playing quarter-notes behind those guys. Louie Bluie and John have passed away since then, and I treasure that moment. I see on the Web site that Rich and Phil are still teaching at Blues Week (you’ll see more about them at the link above), and I’m glad that plenty of other aspiring musicians are getting the chance to learn some of what those cats know.

Get out there and jam, kids.

Has anyone had enough coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf? They should call the NPR program, “Oil Things Considered.” I realize that it’s a catastrophe with far-reaching effects that lets news editors spin out endless stories about impact, ramifications, finger-pointing and even a little science, but, let’s give it a rest.

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. great advice for all musicians! I think we went to a blues jam in DC on one of your visits too!


    • Yes, that was a great time. I started thinking about ALL the jams I’ve been to, and I could spend a week on the subject. Let’s do that. I’ll have YOU contribute one or two or ten articles, since you are the all-out champ jammer of the family.


  2. RIght on about “Oil Things Considered.” CNN says the same thing every night. Same interviewees. Same questions. It’s easy. Costs next to nothing for the network to produce. No costly, time-consuming investigative journalism.

    I actually saw the VERY SAME SHOW recycled a couple of days later. No wonder other countries think Americans are stupid.


  3. Saw some familiar names in your post. A few corrections here. LA of course, stands for Lewiston-Auburn. Newport is a major stop on the way to Bangor. Before Newport you reach Augusta our capital. Bill Green sent us to see you. You title says under Western Skies. Well, we are very much under Eastern Skies. Hi to you from Maine.


  4. Your cousin Bill here in Maine thought I would be interested in your blog. Hmmmmmmmm! L.A. Augusta sound familiar. Never knew other states besides Georgia used the names of our cities.
    😉 Love Blues also. I was born a hoop and holler North of Memphis.


    • We got a later start on place-names in English out here than you did in Maine!


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