Thursday, May 31, 2012

Open jams: good or bad?

For as long as I've lived in central Florida there has been a battle between two factions: those who host and/or attend open jams, and those who are convinced that they are the manifestation of the antichrist.

I am in the former group. Perhaps my attitude has been forged by the recognition that music - and especially jazz - has evolved through jam sessions. What would music be like today if Teddy Hill had not created the place and atmosphere at Minton's Playhouse? Would the musical seeds planted at Minton's have born the same fruit in 1959?

My main reason, though, for supporting jams is because in my day we musicians learned by listening to and watching one another. We went to each others gigs, stole licks, and, importantly, learned and grew. That does not seem to happen as much these days. Except at jams.

Instead of belaboring the past or the abstract, I'll provide my responses to common complaints from the faction who is against open jams.

  1. So and so (or a list of them) are jerks. This is usually a tirade directed at a host or group of hosts of jams. In truth some hosts have probably earned title - or on the surface that is the way it appears. I suggest that before launching an ad hominem attack one consider what it actually takes to host and manage a jam. It involves scheduling folks who come in and sign up, then some disappear or, worse, insist on playing with specific musicians who may be much further up or down on the list. I have witnessed some hosts being outright threatened for various reasons. Factor that in when you see a host act like a jerk and ask yourself if it's a personality trait or a reaction (or self defense) to the challenges they face every jam.
  2. Jams cut into earnings of professional musicians. Professional musicians where I live - real professionals - are unaffected because the venues that host live jams are not exactly the places professionals target in their marketing plans. Face it, most of the venues that host open jams are dives. Nothing wrong with that. As an ex-sailor I can attest that dives are fun places. The ones in the Daytona and Greater Orlando areas where I've jammed are not exactly places where I would expect to see true professionals perform. By true professionals I mean folks whose sole source of income is from performing. There may be one or two exceptions, but I do not recall encountering them. The pros are at Disney, other attractions, or doing corporate gigs. Or touring. In addition, there is a another way of looking at the problem. This well written piece from Los Angeles musician Dave Goldberg pretty much sums it up with respect to venues and musicians, and it looks like it extends much farther than Central Florida: Why Club Owners Are Totally Lost (and some advice from a professional musician).
  3. Jammers are tricked into playing for free (and therefore exploited) while the host pockets money. First, what do the hosts actually make per jam? $100? $200? Let's say, for the sake of argument that it's a whopping $500 (which is really stretching it.) Out of that the host will need to pay the rhythm section or host band. Let's say $50 each, and let's assume that the host band is three people. That leaves $350 for the host in this generous scenario. Of that amount the host is going to spend three to four hours not only doing fun stuff like playing music, but not-so-fun stuff like managing the stage, dealing with strong personalities of some folks who sign up then make demands (see 1 above). And don't forget the investment in the backline, which depreciates like any other asset. Or the cost of recurring repairs because jammers are usually hard on someone else's equipment. But let's leave that stuff out of the equation and just assume that the host is going to spend an hour setting up and organizing, three hours playing and managing and an hour tearing down. The $350 divided by the five hours of work come to $70 per hour. Not bad money for a forty hour week. Not good money for five hours a week when those five hours are probably filled with stress and conflict. In the real world we would factor in the cost of maintaining the gear (and the amortized investment in acquiring it), gas, and other incidentals that eat away at that $70/hour. Also, let's get real and say the hosting fee is a more realistic $200 per jam. Do the math for that. I promise you nobody is getting rich. Hell, the money could not possibly be the motivation because you could make more by picking fly shit out of pepper.
  4. The venues are getting free entertainment. They are getting what they are paying for: generally lower quality music, but the real entertainment is enjoyed by the musicians who get to participate and get some stage time. Remember, most of the folks who sign up have day jobs that pay their bills. They may be weekend warriors playing in the same dives as those hosting the jams, but their main income usually comes from somewhere else. And from what I've seen at many of the jams, the venue may bring in a different crowd on jam night, but is probably not bringing in more patrons. In many cases the regulars will stay home on jam nights. Nobody is really getting rich from what I've seen.
  5. Jammers are a bunch of no talent hacks. A few probably are. Most are passionate about music, some have virtuoso chops on their instruments, and some are professionals who drop by, or are not professionals, but are highly skilled, trained musicians who happen to do something else for a living. I've seen (and had the pleasure of sharing the stage with) some spectacular musicians at these jams. And have had my own share of off nights as well as playing with others who have as well. In a way that adds to the reasons why those of us who go to jams do so.
Before ending this post, I will admit that I no longer attend jams in the central Florida area. The reasons have nothing to do with the common arguments - I had to quit because nearly all of the venues that host jams allow smoking and it was taking a toll on my health. The minute smoking is banned in this area will signal my return to jamming.

That is where I stand on the matter. And without apologies!


fuzzy didit said...

Excellent and Thank You from those of us interested in more than just GIGS

We the People said...

I am a working musician and been in bands my entire adult life. I agree with your opinion on jams, however they have their place. I use them to meet other musicians in the area, or to try out new material. Also, it gives non professionals an opportunity to get out in front of an audience and feel like a rock star. Live music in any form is good for musicians. Would you rather have a DJ being paid or worse Karaoke?