Friday, September 3, 2010

Summertime, with one jam after another

It’s often during a long workday, with one deadline piled onto another like those medieval tortures that involved piling up rocks—with a person beneath, of course. This particular person sees a restful evening ahead and calls his wife to confirm. But it is not to be. “Weren’t you going to the jam tonight?” asks Elena.

That’s right—my other life. You see, I’m part of the Westchester live-music scene. Me and my…my…you were waiting for an instrument? Me and my daughter, the guitarist. I go along to most of them, as parent, chauffer and roadie—not necessarily in that order. Over four summers plus holidays, a couple of times a week, it turns out I’ve been to more than 120. Sleep? Silly Daddy.

When Katie isn’t working or in school, it seems she’s either practicing, playing at jams or playing in her own or others’ gigs—engagements that, in theory, are paid. (Silly musicians.) Every jam kicks off with a “house” band that includes the person running the event. That band opens with several songs that set the tone: rock, blues, R&B or a mix. As they play, anyone who wants to play in the jam signs a list with name and talent: voice, guitar, bass, drums, sax or whatever. So far, no didgeridoos. But you never know.

The house bands are always good, with professional talent that would intimidate relative newbies but for their welcoming attitudes. (If it were me playing, I’d be intimidated anyway.) For us, though, the next part affects how good a night it will be for Katie, not to mention those of us watching and listening. The guy running the jam has to put together one set after another. Sometimes it’s with musicians he doesn’t even know; other times, with ones he knows too well. And despite his best efforts, the results can be mixed.

Where it sometimes goes wrong has to do with the nature of jams. It’s one thing for a musician to learn a song. It’s quite another, when the person running a set points to say it’s your turn, to improvise a solo that’s both technically impressive and melodic. With someone who knows how to do this, it’s quite possible, often moving, and fascinating for a non-musician to watch. All the soloist needs is for the other musicians to cooperate. Silly soloist.

Despite my lack of musical talent, I know how things are supposed to go. Rhythm guitarists, um, play in rhythm to help the soloist. Katie is told she does this well, keeping her own volume down when other musicians are soloing. But some guitarists don’t play well with others. A rhythm guitarist who experiments with all the pedals in his collection as the other guitarist is trying to solo doesn’t seem to be playing nice. But the disrespect is clearly equal-opportunity. Imagine the diplomatic skills needed if you’re running a jam and a guitarist waiting to play decides to tune his guitar, at full volume, during the house set. Try to keep from killing one who sets up in front of the house band and begins playing along without being asked.

It gets more interesting. Drummers keep the tempo, right? Tell the one who was looking to the bass player for cues as to the beat. I suppose it’s better than the occasional drummer who thinks he’s playing Yankee Stadium and drowns everyone else out. (Where's an umpire when you need one?) And then there’s a guy I suspect is former CIA. When he’s running a set, he knows the chords and key of a song they’re about to do. He just doesn’t want the other musicians to know.

But such times won’t go on forever. In fact, Katie’s departure for her last year of college tells me this night-after-night jam sandwich could eventually give way to more paid gigs. Plus, of course, a music career with enough cash rolling in for our little girl to help Elena and me live to high on the hog in our golden years. Maybe we’ll even get backstage passes on her international tour.

Silly parents.


  1. Very nice Ed. It always makes me smile as I see you at the various jams watching Katie playing so well. I would like to see a didgeridoo one day!
    Have a nice Labor Day weekend.

  2. Thank you very much, Larry! Yes, it's been a very enjoyable run--hearing you play included--and I hope I'll always get to take part in some way.

    I saw my first didgeridoo at the Renaissance Festival a couple of years ago, and apparently I'm still talking about it!

    Enjoy your weekend, too, Larry. Thanks!