The Jam Band Tradtition
The jam band musical tradition is one that is based on a lot of social and performance practices instead of other genres that focus on the musical style and practices. Because of these lax guidelines for the music that should be played there are many different sounds that come from bands under the broad umbrella of jam bands. Many sub-genres come from this, for instance the sub-genre of â€ślivetronicaâ€?. Because of these newer and smaller, genres, soon all that is shared between some bands are the performance practices of the jam band tradition: long sets along with stints of improvisation from all members of the band, and even the recordings of the live performances some think as mandatory. The text below discusses these and more topics surrounding the jam band tradition, along with the new sub-genre of â€ślivetronicaâ€?.
Researching the Jam Band Tradition
Jam band have always been difficult to categorize; the definition given in the program of the Jammys at Irving Plaza in 2000 was, â€śa rich palette of sounds and textures â€¦ [jam bands] share a collective penchant for improvisation, a commitment to songcraft and a propensity to cross genre boundaries.â€? Some of the first instances of this, though not yet called jam band, was the emergence of prominent groups such as The Grateful Dead in the 1960â€™s. It has since evolved, and has continued to change through today. Some of the features of jam bands, such as longs sets with impromptu improvisational stints, have been staples of the genre since the beginning. While these essential components will always be a part of the tradition of jam band there are new additions and new branches of the genre growing all the time. This is primarily because of the fact that jam is a tradition that originated from a number of wide ranging genres: folk rock, jazz fusion, acid rock, bluegrass, and free jazz (Budnick 224). One of the sub-genres that have come from jam band is â€śLivetronicaâ€?, also known as â€śJamtronicaâ€?, which combines electronic sound and instrumentation with extended live improvisational performances (Livetronica.net).
The origins of this electronic subcategory of jam band are hard to pin point. David Murphy, the bassist for Sound Tribe Sector 9, a prominent band in the genre said, â€śWe started playing instruments first, and later in life got into programming and producing. Ultimately, we were trying to find ways that we could integrate that on stage.â€? (Livetronica.net). This is one example of how a more traditional jam band gave birth to the new genre of livetronica. However, in some cases laptop musicians who were programming their music with computers wanted to have a way to put on a better live performance so they began incorporating parts of the jam band genreâ€™s performance practices (Drumming 2). Nevertheless, there has been a huge boom in the number of livetronica bands especially due to the greater interest in more electronic aspects of music. These bands discover that when you put together these two scenes, electronic and jam band, there is the possibility of a much larger following and a responsibility to appeal to both parts of the crowd.
With the births of new sub-genres jam band has changed a lot since its early years in the 1960â€™s. With these new kinds of jam bands the traditional styles have evolved. However, one of the key aspects of jam band is that it can encompass many different kinds of styles, sounds, attitudes, and feelings. Jam band is sometimes looked upon as a bad label, even by bands that are classified as such, because all it really signifies is an interest in improvisation and unusually long songs that are best played live. â€śItâ€™s because nobody really knows what to say about the stuff,â€? says Railroad Earthâ€™s mandolinist Jon Skehan about the not so useful label of being a â€śjam bandâ€? (Jacobs Pittsburgh Post). So maybe the tradition hasnâ€™t necessarily changed, maybe in fact this is what was supposed to happen. Since it never had a strong identity to begin with and was made to be elusive. For this and other reasons not a lot of people like jam band.
A prominent reason for this is the misconception that jam bands are most heavily concerned with sitting around doing nothing. For author Carol Brightman, a skeptic of the Grateful Dead who shared these beliefs, her views changed after she wrote a biography of the band. â€śThe band became a torch for that sense of community, hanging out, not being too intense about anything, but being able to count on each other.â€? (Maine Sunday Telegram). Brightman said about what the Grateful Dead meant to their fans and continued, â€śThe Grateful Dead never mentioned the Vietnam War because they felt politics were irrelevant.â€? So even though the Dead didnâ€™t focus on the current news when they were getting their start they focused on the people and the lives they were leading during that time instead.
Jam bands today however sometimes do take stands on current events, and a lot of recent bands have politically charged songs and talk about subjects that are liberal and peaceful. They also connect with organizations that are trying to make a change and make the world better, they have benefit shows and donate a lot of funds from CD sales and concert ticket sales to charity (Maine Sunday Telegram). They still, however, have a strong focus on community and making everyoneâ€™s lives better. The way jam bands act toward their fans, audience, and their surrounding world, distinguishes it from all other genres. Because jam is heavily centered on lifestyle one can find many different sounding bands within the wide ranging jam band genre.
In the jam band genre every band has a unique sound, using different instrumentation, using different rhythm styles, and being influenced by different music. In the wide ranging genre of jam band one can hear bluegrass, funk, jazz, acid rock, and even techno, so every band has a different way of distinguishing themselves. It is very common for bands to say they â€śdonâ€™t want to be pigeon holedâ€? and â€ścanâ€™t fit into any genreâ€? this especially true in jam band. Since no one wants to be classified the best way to distinguish oneâ€™s self is to be different (Jacobs Pittsburgh Post). This is very evident in the livetronica category of jam band, this was something that hadnâ€™t been thought of until the 1990â€™s and it is still a very unique side of jam band. Within the â€śjamtronicaâ€? genre there are ways to distinguish oneâ€™s self as well. Some bands use only keyboards, samplers, and drums to create a very electronic feel such as EOTO. While others, Lotus and Sound Tribe Sector 9, have a full band with guitars, bass, drums, and with a drum machine or sampler they are transformed into a fusion of jam band and electronic. It can be easier to differentiate you from others and separate from the norm in the jam band and livetronica scene then it is to do so in other genres because of the wide range that they both cover (Drumming Entertainment Weekly).
Distinguishing yourself is a key to fame in the jam band scene. The bands that have been pioneers in the genre usually become the more famous bands inside the scene. One of the problems surrounding the jam band tradition is that it is very difficult to reach outsiders and create a broader fan base; this can also be viewed as a plus in the jam band genre. Nevertheless, it has always been difficult to spread the jam band sound, whether it is centered on jazz, folk, rock, or bluegrass. Some bands that have done this while following somewhat â€śtraditionalâ€? jam band guidelines are: The Grateful Dead, Phish, moe., The String Cheese Incident, and Umphreyâ€™s McGee. These bands focus on outdoor, live shows, where they put on long sets that keep the crowd heavily engaged with improvisation and long solos (Budnick 249). They also use more conventional rock instruments, with bluegrass and country influences, that all sound similar to The Grateful Dead, undoubtedly the most famous of all jam bands (Budnick 251). These bands have more similar sounds then other jam bands, and they leave a more traditional mark on the future scene. With these more conventional jam bands come a lot of unconventional groups that break a lot of the â€śguidelinesâ€? put before them.
In the sub-category of livetronica, or electronic jam, there are also some well known bands. The majority of their fame comes from the fact that they combine two different scenes, with two groups of different people. Some of the more famous include: Sound Tribe Sector 9, Lotus, EOTO, The New Deal, The Disco Biscuits, and Zilla. All of these bands share electronic influences, but they do not all use the same instrumentation or style of music. Some are more laid back and more like trance, while others are very fast paced deep pulse to them like techno (Drumming 1). The different styles of electronica that bands bring simply add to the jam tradition, and will influence other bands down the road. These new additions are brought while also conserving old traditions, such as recording live performances. During a performance the crowd is very engaged, and is very involved in the total energy of the show. Each band in the jam band tradition has a loyal following, and those fans love to support their bands. These are signatures of the jam band tradition, an extremely involved audience. This is why jam band music is meant to be performed live, not in studios. This is why recording performances became so popular.
The first jam band recordings were in fact simply recordings of the live performance. This is very uncommon in other genres, but it has become a staple of the jam band genre. Starting with the Grateful Dead, tapes, CDs, and now mp3s, have always been recorded at most big jam band shows. In fact some donâ€™t consider a band a real jam band unless they allow the recording of their shows, which in other genres is considered illegal bootlegging (Budnick 149). The fact that these recordings of live shows are the main recording, instead of studio albums, showcases the significance of that live performance. These performances, whether they are outdoors, indoors, at a festival, or at a small bar, are the most important to the jam band tradition.
What makes a band great in the jam band tradition is how well they put on a live performance. That is the first judge of how good that band is. Other portions of the bands performance that are considered when talking about their skill and virtuosity is the solos and improvisation that is performed. This also includes how well the band works together, and how well they can play together (Jamband.com). There are some bands, such as EOTO, where the entire show is improvisation and they have to work so hard to stay together and make a quality sound. These bands are considered very skilled, a similar band would be considered skilled in many other traditions as well, and are held in the highest regard. All jam bands have to practice very hard, and have to be very skilled musicians, because of the improvisation that so often takes place. Outside of their musical talent the members of jam bands are very engaged in the scene and the ideals that go along with it.
Jam band is a genre that is meant to bring people together, and have a support system within that group. It is not always about the music as it is as much about the people and mission surrounding it. This mission is to build community, hang out, not being too intense about anything, and be able to count on each other, in the words of author Carol Brightman. No matter who comes to a concert they are brought into the community, and treated similarly to everyone there (Lannin).
The jam band world is so wide and inclusive and because of this it is difficult to find a typical member, of the band or the audience. The most typical person at a jam band performance is usually young, around 20-30 years old and the majority of concert goers are white. These are the only things close to a norm at the shows, however they are broken regularly. Even if someone looks out of place they are welcomed and soon are part of the crowd. So no matter who you are you can feel welcome and have a great time (Relix July 2008). Everything involved with the concert revolves around this idea.
The songs that jam bands sing are usually about happy times and about being surrounded by happy people. One can see the connection to how the performers act, and what they sing about, and who the crowd is made up of. Everyone at a jam band show can be confident they will leave happy, whether it is a performer or an audience member. Because it is a happy-go-lucky tradition the whole crowdâ€™s mood replicates this (Lannin).
Because of jam bandsâ€™ beliefs and stance on a lot of issues it is safe to say that it has always been an identity that resists the cultural norms of our society and stays out of the mainstream music scenes. This does not mean there are not thousands of fans, dedicated fans; this means what these people believe in is not common in our society. That is what keeps jam band music so authentic, there is never any worries about contracts, record deals, or money, these bands what to create good music and a good atmosphere.
Budnick, Dean. Jambands, Dean Budnick, Backbeat Books 2003.
Drumming, Neil. â€śPushing Your Buttonsâ€?. Entertainment Weekly. Friday, Feb. 25, 2005. Copyright 2005 Time Inc.
Jacobs, Justin. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thursday, July 10, 2008. Copyright 2008
Lannin, Joanne. Maine Sunday Telegram. Sunday, December 27, 1998. Copyright 1998.
San Francisco Chronicle. â€śAlmost Dead: Jambands at a Glanceâ€?. Sunday, May 21, 2000. Copyright 2000 The Chronicle Publisher.
Relix Magazine. Bernstein, Steve; Baldwin, Aeve. Copyright 2008, Relix LLC.
http://www.jamband.com, Budnick, Dean; Steinberg, David; Miler, Andy; Jesse Jarnow. Varying dates. Published by
http://www.livetronica.net, varying authors. Copyright 2008, Livetronica.