Webster's dictionary defines a "jam session" as in informal gathering of musicians to play improvised music or to improvise together, usually on tunes they all know. I have played harmonica for at least 15 years, and rarely pass up an opportunity to gather with other musicians to share a little music and fun. This winter we decided to seek out a more developed approach to playing. Laura, having tried out several instruments, settled on playing a drum. We stopped by a local music store and picked up an portable set made up of a snare drum and cymbal. She also downloaded a couple of free singing lessons and began toning up her voice. Armed with our newly acquired equipment, I had also picked up a remote microphone and a new amplifier, we headed off to a place we had discovered several years ago. The inconspicuous town of Bushnell lies in north central Florida, about midway between Orlando and the Gulf Coast. The only thing of interest is the dozen or so RV parks which cater to snowbird RVers who flee the northern winters from around November until the end of April. Sometime in the distant past, some retired professional musicians, most of who eked out a living during the early morning hours in dingy bars all over the U.S. came to this town. Having given up that life, and still having a few more songs left in them, they sat around, drank coffee and played the old songs of an era gone by. That tradition continues today. Along with the old retired professionals, novices and want-to-be players gather to listen, learn and in turn play at what ever ability they can. This unusual gathering of talent. draws huge crowds from all over the U.S. Music lovers of all kinds flock to the parks to spend the winter listening to the various jams sponsored by the various parks. Finding a jam can be a challenge. They are, for the most part, sponsored by the RV parks, and are in most cases open to anybody whether or not you live in the sponsoring park. We have found others at private residences and local businesses. Once in a while, as in Zephyrhills Fl., we have found jams out in the open in a city park. These are somewhat rare as most jams have at least a few electric instruments in attendance. The RV parks, on the other hand, offer a large recreational building with sufficient power outlets. Once one is found, it is easy to find the others, we just asked the other musicians and made a list. The Bushnell area had 9 different jams each week. Although the jams appear to be totally random in design, they actually are not. The is a world of unwritten rules and etiquette to be adhered to. Such etiquette requires a minimal of discipline, to avoid conflict. We already knew that many good musicians are high strung and sensitive so feelings can get heart more easily. The discipline is created by the sponsoring RV park appointing a Jam Master to run the jam. Basically he is a spokesman for the park and usually an old timer who's been playing local jams for a long time, and as such his word is pretty much law. He also picks the format to be used, and is responsible for taking care of park equipment such as microphones and speakers. Our experience in this area has exposed us to two different types of formats. The “open jam” and the “invitational jam” The open jam is just that, all the players sit in a circle and each in turn, goes up to the community microphone to play and sing. After he finishes, the next person in rotation around the circle takes a turn. Generally, singers who do not play, sit in the first row of audience and come up when the circle advances close to them. All the musicians in the circle softly play along with whoever is at the microphone. The circle may take the form of a line or U if a stage is provided. The other type is the invitational jam. These are far less popular and are only used when the number of musicians exceeds the time for all of them to play at one session. A common problem in most jams is too much noise drowning out the singer. In an invitational jam, a sign up sheet is provided and there is no one on stage or up front. There is no circle. The musicians sit with the audience and do not play with the invited performer unless asked by that specific performer. This causes a lot of sitting and listening and very little playing. Invariably, locals will form mini-bands and will sign up one after each other so that they are called in succession. Then the person called will invite the other members up to play with him. This way a group gets to play 4 or 5 songs together, and then leave when they are done. A variation on this is when a park has an established formal band and this band is the only one allowed on the stage. It is this band that provides the backup music for the invited musicians while the rest of us become the audience, until it’s time for them to back us up. This type of hybrid is the most hated by other musicians. Most of the musicians that show up at these jams are amateurs who probably don’t do a lot of playing outside the jam itself. This requires the music to be somewhat simple and often well known. Anything with more then 3 or 4 chords in it will cause the weaker players to get lost and stop playing. One era of music provided hundreds of songs that are simple yet interesting. These are the songs produced on the Country charts in the 1940s through the 1960s. Such names as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Willy Nelson dominated the market. It is now known collectively as Classic Country. The songs most commonly played fall into a basic structure. That is, there is a verse or two, followed by a chorus then there is a break and the song ends up with another verse and final chorus. A break is just that, the singer stops and one or two of the more accomplished musicians play the melody through once, then the singer continues with the last verse and chorus. So, a singer would approach the microphone and announce the name of the song he/she was going to sing, and the Key he intended to do it in. Failure to announce the key will usually solicit calls for it in many colorful colloquialisms. The singer will then start and the musicians will join in. It is expected that the musicians will play in subdued tones as not to drown out the singer. At some point, in most of these songs, the singer will stop and signal one of the players to play a solo rendition of the melody. This is truly an amazing bit of silent communications, and has many different approaches. For me, I just say “play it” and step away from the mike. More commonly is eye contact and a nod of the head. The old professionals always call the player either by name or by his instrument. “Lets hear that steel guitar” or something like that. Not everybody adheres to these methods and on occasion a lead player will break in uninvited. This may or may not be tolerated. At the end of the song, the singer will lift his right leg slightly off the floor to signal the others that the song is about to end. This is especially true of instrumentals which have a tendency to go into a loop with no specific ending. It is absolutely fascinating to me that most musicians can figure out the proper cords to play almost as fast as the song progresses, even if they have never heard it before. There are an awful lot of talented people out there, and it's great to part of them.
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