A Unique Form of Social Intercourse

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At some point, while jamming at the Great 48 last weekend, it hit me. No, not an errant fiddle bow – that missed me completely and hit someone else. What struck me during that marathon musical session was the sense of how unique, and special a social act jamming is.

Think of it – there’s nothing like the kind of communication that goes on during a good jam. And when a good jam goes on for hours (and we’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?) it’s even more remarkable. I have described jamming to non-music playing friends as a musical conversation, and that’s not a bad analogy.

When you’re jamming you’re having a conversation with the other players. In a spoken conversation, you don’t know what’s going to happen next – there’s a spontaneous flow, and everybody participates. This also applied to a jam session, doesn’t it? But it’s not a perfectly apt analogy to jamming, because most satisfying conversations don’t have everyone speaking at once. Spoken conversation is more single-layered, and linear, whereas musical conversations are multi-layered and cyclical in nature. I think it’s a unique form of communication.

It’s hard to communicate to folks who don’t play music the sense of joy and satisfaction that comes from a good jam with good musicians. I have had friends marvel at how everyone seemed to be communicating telepathically – that the music would have changes that every player seemed to know at the same time, the way a school of fish or a flock of birds can suddenly change direction. This does happen in music, but usually it’s just a result of an understood motif that every player is aware of – the shift from verse to chorus, to instrumental breaks. But I have been in jams where a form of groupthink occurred and spontaneous changes occurred, irrespective of a predetermined arrangement. So that’s pretty remarkable stuff.

But the emotions in a jam are big fun, too. Watch the players, and you’ll see a gamut of emotions. There’ll be big smiles as old friends enjoy reliving songs they’ve played together before, plus big smiles from folks who have never plowed that musical ground together before. There’s playful teasing and one-upmanship, as musicians add a whimsical twist to another’s riff, or tops it. There’s often a stimulating sense of competition – if you’re playing banjo, don’t you want your break to be better than the other guy’s? On the flip side of the competitive spirit is a nurturing spirit – watch how jammers will quiet down and provide support for a timid or inexperienced player.

That last point is really important. Time and time again, I see folks trying to encourage others to discover the fun of jamming. There’s always room for more jammers – somewhere, and they appeal across age, gender and culture lines. At one point, in a jam in Bakersfield, there must have a been a 60 year gap between the youngest and oldest pickers in the room. There was no generation gap – because we were all speaking the same language. I’m going to try and teach some new people this wonderful language this year. Everyone should have a chance to have this much fun!

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