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A recent photo from Avogadro's Number's recent Wednesday night jam.
Bluegrass Connection Bluegrass, community and the importance of bluegrass jams
I have been a bluegrass fan now for close to 20 years and most of my friends are bluegrass lovers as well. Why did I stick around for so long, and how did I meet so many musically likeminded friends? My answer would be bluegrass jams and the nurturing qualities they provide.
We all take things for granted. For pickers, that thing we take for granted is the humble local bluegrass jam. Fort Collins’ weekly buegrass jam at Avogadro’s Number, which has been running every Wednesday for over a decade, could use some recognition. I was lonely when I first moved to Colorado. I wanted to meet people, so the first thing I did was look up the day and time of the local bluegrass jam. I went to the jam at Avogadro’s the very next Wednesday. I had already developed a love for playing bluegrass and I had been attending weekly jams in my previous town, so I felt I knew what to expect.
Playing music in this low commitment situation provided a comfortable way for me to ease into playing music with strangers that would become future friends. For someone as introverted as myself it can be very challenging to just jump into a jam without any kind of formal introduction. For me this is testament to the welcoming nature of bluegrass music culture and the importance of keeping this tradition alive. This kind of weekly gathering or jam also is a great way for a lot of musicians to network, just like we used to back in the days before social media. Bluegrass jams can take place just about anywhere and the time of day is of no relevance, but a regular scheduled jam takes commitment and the right location. The concept sounds easy, but it requires a “jam host” or some regulars who will show up every week to keep things going.
Avogadro’s ability to maintain this jam for so long is impressive and they have quite a few things that contribute to the success of their jam. It is a welcoming jam that is easy to jump into, especially for beginners or occasional pickers. The jam at Oskar Blues in Lyons seems to be a great model as well. I love the structure as well as the instrument and proficiency diversity. Nobody loves to jam with a room full of only one kind of instrument especially if it is the one you are playing. Playing at regular bluegrass jams has benefited me in many ways, but this part of bluegrass tradition is important for a multitude of reasons. We live in a time where genuine social interactions and the need for them seem to be diminishing. It’s more important than ever to educate our youth about where music comes from. It doesn’t only come from a device that we can carry in our pockets or from an app. Roots music also holds some “old school” values that inadvertently have created practical and relevant ethical expectations at festivals and jams. I believe this kind of modeling positively influences our music community in a way that folks can relate to.
Campers and pickers feel comfortable leaving their priceless instruments in the most vulnerable places because there is an unspoken trust that no one would dare to break. Unlike in other genres of music, everyone is welcomed in the bluegrass jam, including beginners. Planet Bluegrass, also, is teaching environmentally sustainable behavior at festivals so well that folks are taking that knowledge home with them. Children going to festivals like RockyGrass make this kind of behavior second nature.
Society (and our world) is always changing around us and so is bluegrass music, but one thing that stays consistent is the love of the jam. The bluegrass jam is a pastime and gathering that is so ingrained in our culture that it has become acceptable to play as loud as your instrument will allow at 2:00 a.m. right next to a stranger’s tent or hotel room. In the case of Mid-Winter Bluegrass festival, you can even organize an elevator jam.
This tradition could be considered part of the allure to festivals or organized weekly jams, which in turn help cultivate musicians and a love for the music. In my case I don’t think I would have continued to play and follow bluegrass music if I hadn’t had a jam down the street where I could play and meet other musicians who would tell me about bluegrass festivals and all the good times to be had. This opportunity and experience opened a whole new world of influence, instruction, friendship and more. Bluegrass musicians with their love for playing at all hours will always find time to jam with one another and invite new pickers to the circle. I am forever grateful for that.
Pow'r Pickin' is the official publication of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society • March 2017 •