Over the years I have heard and engaged in many discussions about the validity of open mics and blues jams. Some argue that they only exist for club owners to have free entertainment and that skilled players shouldn’t play for free, others argue that it’s the only way for some to obtain exposure, connections, or experience, and some agree with both sides of the argument but don’t care and just want to play, often for a variety of reasons.
I have always been in the latter camp. My very first nightclub performance with a band came at the age of 17 at a local “hoot night” at a club called the Mill in Amesbury Massachusetts. The experience was a positive one, leading to several more sit-ins in the following months. These sit-ins allowed me to graduate from practicing in the bedroom, to playing full songs with a band in front of an audience. At these jam night, I also made friends with other musicians, locals, and even a couple of “lady friends”, and this was pretty exciting for a young kid who was barely out of high school. This was in the early stages of my development as a gigging musician, and helped me gain some valuable experience and confidence as a performer.
A couple of years later I was in music school and still attended jam nights regularly. I looked at jam nights as opportunities to road test some of what I was learning in school, it was part of the exploration process for me. After music school, I began playing professionally in a top 40 band, 3 to 4 nights a week. It was a great band, but pretty much a note for noter, not leaving much room for improv. At this point I began seeking out and attending many different jam nights and blues jams regularly. The basic attitude of “anything goes “found at many jam nights was an opportunity for me to further explore musical ideas and concepts. I also used jam nights and blues jams as a way to keep my sanity, temporarily freeing me from the restraints of my top 40 captivity. While not all of these were great musical experiences, some were, and I met some great players along the way, developing lasting friendships with many of them.
In the early 90s I heard about one particular jam night that was really happening. It was a cold Monday night in the middle of the winter, when I first arrived at an old rustic club called Colbys in the small town of Rochester New Hampshire. The place was packed and the band was rockin’ as I walked in carrying my Fender Strat and Marshall amp. The first thing I noticed was that the whole place was just alive with energy, everybody was really listening to the band, even clapping and singing along at times. The group that hosted this weekly event was the Ron Jones band, and they played a mix of rock, blues, and country, very well I might add. There weren’t many jammers there on that particular night, and after the band heard that I could play, they had me play with them for an entire set. It was an extremely rewarding musical experience, and I didn’t view it as something I was doing for free, I was simply doing something I love to do.
I returned often to Colby’s over the following months participating in many great jams as well as a nightly ritual called the Dr. Pepper, in which shots of 151 rum were lit on fire, dumped into a row of beers, and then consumed quickly by the band (by the way, don’t ever drink and drive). On one particular night I walked in and heard an amazing guitar player sitting in with the band. Simply put, he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. I was intimidated at first, but upon the encouragement of the band, I set up to play a few tunes with this fellow. From the first note we played together, everyone knew it was going to be good, it just felt right. We jammed for over an hour, engaging in some great band interplay, and became instant friends that night.
I eventually lost touch with my new guitar buddy, but continued playing in bands and using jam nights as a musical outlet. Over the years, I made mental notes about the stronger players I would encounter, and when a player would leave my band, I would sometimes hire players that I had previously met at jam nights. On more than one occasion, I would bring my band to a jam night and use it as an opportunity to audition live for the club owner, sometimes obtaining work from this approach.
By the early 2000’s I was burning out on the New England nightclub circuit, or lack thereof, and began to think about relocating to a place with more music industry. I had heard some rumors that my old guitar buddy had moved to Nashville and was doing quite well there. I tracked him down, called him up, and even though we hadn’t spoken in 10 years, it was as if our conversation picked up right where it left off. He understood my frustration with trying to earn a living as a musician in New England, and suggested that I check out Nashville. A couple of weeks later my wife and I made the drive to Music City and my old friend greeted us with a smile. He graciously took us around to all of his hangouts, introduced us to his friends, and gave me the scoop about Nashville. A couple of months later we made a permanent move to Nashville and my old guitar buddy was instrumental in helping us get situated.
Since being in Nashville, I have attended a few jam nights and blues jams. Over the first year I spent a lot of time going to the Fiddle and Steel in Printers alley. Sometimes I would have to wait all night, but eventually I would get to sit in. It wasn’t advertised as a jam night, but it seemed to be kind of an unofficial sit-in after the first set on weeknights. After about a year of going to the Steel regularly, one of the relationships I made there led to an opportunity to work as a guitar tech on the Toby Keith tour. That tour lead to other tours. I have been working as a professional musician ever since. I wonder if I ever would have come here if I hadn’t met my guitar buddy at a jam night.
So, what have I gained by going to jam nights?
8. Social Skills
9. A Career
10. A Lot Of Fun along the Way
Why does it matter if a nightclub owner profits from others playing for free if those who are playing for free can also find ways to benefit or “profit” over time by doing so? Jam nights, open mics, and blues jams have been around for decades and are what you make of them. They can be great and they can be terrible, sometimes within the same night. You might have to search hard to find one with a group of players or vibe that fits you. You might have to make repeated attempts at any given jam night to gradually work your way into the niche, and you probably won’t get discovered at a jam night as the next “superstar”. But I believe, with the right approach, a jam night can be a useful tool for some. For me, they have helped me discover myself.