Unstructured jam sessions lead to creative bluegrass music

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

The people who spend several evening hours together at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna the first Thursday of every month are a diverse bunch old and young, men and women, college kids and retirees, an art teacher, environmentalist, electrician, music teacher, orthodontist, airplane mechanic, bed and breakfast owner, government workers and others. Though quite different in many respects, they all share at least two commonalities an interest in bluegrass music and a desire to jam.

What started as a somewhat impromptu event, Soldotna's First Thursday bluegrass jams have grown into a monthly tradition now a year and a half running that draws regular players and spectators.

"The thing that's amazing is the talent in this area, (and) it's not that big a community," said Trish Roderick of North Kenai. She and her husband, Don, are devoted bluegrass fans (the retirees travel to bluegrass concerts in and out of state) and regular Soldotna jam attendees. "They're as good as some professional groups, and some songs are better."

Sue Biggs, an area music teacher and professional musician, decided to get a jam group started after coming across several people in the area who share her interest in bluegrass.

"I love to play bluegrass and a lot of people in town do. We just needed a time when we could just get together and play for fun," she said. "... We invited a few people and they invited a few people and before long we had a jam."

Unlike a music rehearsal in a band or orchestra where certain players gather to work on specific songs, a jam is far less structured. There's no set attendance list, no preplanned order of songs to be played, no conductor or group leader and often no sheet music whatsoever. Whoever's interested just shows up and brings whatever songs they want to play sometimes on paper, but more often in their heads. This group includes mostly guitarists, fiddlers and banjo players, along with a bass guitarist and the occasional mandolin, harmonica, accordion and flute player. Biggs said a dobro a kind of twangy, lap-style guitar also is a principal bluegrass instrument.

"It's quite a diverse group," Biggs said. "It pretty much is anybody who loves to play and isn't afraid to join us."

 

Not all the performing at the bluegrass jams is with instruments. Here, (from left) Diane Haupt, Sandee Simons, Sue Biggs and Kate Veh harmonize with each other.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Watching one of the group's jam sessions is an experience in friendly chaos, or perhaps musical mind reading. The players sit in a ragged circle sometimes two and three rows deep encompassing the first aisle of center pews and folding chairs set up across the church's alter.

"Sometime it's so loud you can't even hear the people singing, but it doesn't matter because we're having a great time anyway," Biggs said of the group that ranges from seven to 40 participants.

Occasionally one musician will suggest a song to be played. Other times, however, one or two people just start strumming or softly singing and the melody spreads around the circle without any uttered instructions, except for the occasional question of "what key are you in?"

Sheet music would be somewhat obsolete in a bluegrass jam anyway, since so much of what is played is experimentation and improvisation, Biggs said. A melody line is established and played throughout a song, but people are constantly creating impromptu solos and weaving whatever notes or chords they think sound good in and out of the melody. Consequently, the group can play the same song every time they meet yet it always sounds different, much to the delight of regular listeners.

"You know what I feel bad about is there's people missing out on this," Don Roderick said. "They're sitting at home watching a crappy TV program."

 

John Landua, center, and Steve Umiak watch Jim Fissori lead a new song.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Many of the songs the group plays are standards in bluegrass repertoire, Biggs said. But that doesn't keep the group from dusting off more obscure songs and occasionally crossing the sometimes hazy line into gospel music and even the much more distinct line into polka music.

Contrary to what may seem to be a standard rule in musicianship, not knowing a song is no reason not to play it in the jam. One of the things Biggs likes most about the group is that the more experienced players can help the less experienced. Sometimes whole families come, giving kids a unique learning experience.

"It's an opportunity for people who know what they're doing to lead and people who don't know what they're doing to learn," Biggs said. "I enjoy it because people of all ages and all abilities can still come play together. ... In a jam anybody can come and have a great time."

At September's jam session, the Rodericks had constant smiles on their faces, partly from what they describe as the talented musicianship, and partly from their love of bluegrass music.

"A lot of bluegrass songs tell stories about life," Don explained. "... You feel the music. You don't just hear it, you feel it."

Trish also said it's the feel of the music she enjoys.

" Just the happiness, upbeat part of it," she said. "(But) I guess it's sad, too. It's just music for the soul."

Though often quick-tempoed enough to call for boisterous foot stomping, bluegrass music seems to always retain a mellow, resonant tone sort of the musical equivalent of an evening stroll with friends.

At its heart, that's what the bluegrass jams are all about playing with friends.

"It's funny, people think it's a big deal and it's not," Biggs aid. "It's a friendly place to share something we all love and if people are just looking for a place to either hone their skills or are playing by themselves and need somebody to play with or sing with, they should come. It's a very friendly, warm atmosphere."

Jams are held the first Thursday of every month at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna starting at 6:30 p.m. and ending at 9 p.m. although Biggs said the group rarely starts or ends on time.

The event is smoke- and alcohol-free, though there are the ubiquitous church coffee and potluck goodies available. Admission is free and everyone is welcome to participate.

"People like to come and listen and watch us make fools out of ourselves," Biggs said.



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