In Oakland, every week, there’s an “Invitational Jam” at a local Taqueria. It’s been going on for a while, and it’s always fun to attend or play at.
The history of this jam format goes back some years (at least 7) when there was a traditional open bluegrass jam at the restaurant. The jam grew so big, though, it was overwhelming the restaurant, and making it difficult for paying patrons to enjoy the restaurant. It was decided to discontinue that jam – it was a victim of its own popularity.
One of the frequent participants in the jam, Tom Lucas, had an idea that he pitched to the restaurant owner: what if he created organized weekly jam with 5 selected participants to form an ad hoc band for the night? It would be a jam, in that the musicians would be selecting songs on the fly, and the lineup would change every week.
Tom created a program to facilitate forming these ensembles by invitations, and created some guidelines to participating, and the Weekly Taco Jam was born.
The result is a lot of fun for the musicians, because the jam consists of 5 different instruments to form a classic bluegrass lineup. They select songs in round-robin fashion with each player taking turns in selecting songs. The “Band” is set up in a back corner, so they don’t interfere with the regular restaurant operations. The place is long and narrow, so patrons who didn’t come to listen to music (huh?) can sit pretty far away.
Like any jam, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Some ensembles jell immediately and the diners are privy to some really great bluegrass. If you attend this jam more than a few times, you will see some regulars. Also, a lot of the local bluegrass illuminati drop by even when they’re not playing to hear what’s going on, and may cheer on some friends.
Per Tom’s direction, things move along smartly – everyone is encouraged to think about the songs they’re going to call in advance so that there aren’t long pause between songs. The performers are reminded to engage the audience and interact with them. And face the audience!! I played there this week, and someone posted a picture and I wasn’t turned towards the long end of the room and by golly, I heard from Tom about it!
This notion of an invitational jam has grown so popular, two other “sister” jams have sprung up: The “Shoe Jam in San Francisco and the “Java Jam” in Los Gatos.