Making Jam

Making Jam…

… is more like making a stew or gumbo. You get a big pot and add in a variety of intriguing ingredients, add a little heat, and enjoy!

So here is a recipe for setting up a jam session. As with any recipe, you need to adjust to suit your own tastes, but this should be a useful guideline. Also, your first attempt may not be the best. I have been in several jams, and some are wonderful, and some are not. But if you don’t try…

The Chef

If you’ve ever been around the kitchen with your spouse or your mother, you know that it is hard to have more than one chef in the kitchen. If you want to have a jam, you must accept the responsibility of being the head Chef. That doesn’t mean that you have to do everything, but you make most of the decisions. Remember that the reason that you are doing this is that no one else has invited you to play – if you don’t do it, it won’t happen!

The Menu

The Chef gets to decide what goes on the menu. How many musicians do you want? What kind of music do you want to play? Are you going to keep it completely free-form or are you going to structure it carefully, or somewhere in between? You are free to adapt the menu depending on several factors, but try not to lose track of what you want to accomplish.

The Kitchen

If you have a basic idea for how many musicians and what kind of music you want to play, the next decision is where to hold the jam. If you want to get 4 acoustic guitars together to work on intricate harmonies for 60’s folk songs, you can do it in your living room. If you want to play with 6 hard-rockers, then you can use a garage or back yard. If you’re crazy like me and try to mix 9 musicians, including 4 guitars and 2 saxes, then a decent size hall may be required. (See Again, the Chef gets to decide. It may cost some money, but it is more than fair to charge the participants enough to cover your costs.

The Staff

It is very hard to find people who just want to get together and play. Most people who call themselves musicians are only interested in playing seriously. Just goofing around for an evening is not their idea of fun, mainly because they rarely do it and it doesn’t advance their “career”. So where do you find the musicians? Let’s assume that you and a friend play guitar, and you want to add a bass, drums, and a sax. One good place is at work. Bring in your guitar (acoustic!) and start practicing during lunch. You will quickly discover that there are several other musicians around you, from a wide variety of departments. You may even find that you can get a mini-jam going in the cafeteria or conference room.

If that doesn’t net you enough of the right players, try the local music school. Go in and talk to the owner and explain your situation. My kids have been going to the Westport Music Center for several years, and I have gotten to know Steve pretty well. He has hooked me up with other parents, and he even rented me his large ensemble room (with drum kit and PA) for a Sunday afternoon jam. Don’t be afraid to use students either. Assuming they have the basic skills, younger musicians can bring a wonderful simplicity to your jam. I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t forget the female musicians!

Alternately, you can post a note at your local guitar store, but most of the people who post or respond to posts there are serious.

Wherever you post your flyer, be sure to be vague about time and place until you’ve weeded out the undesirables (using your own criteria). Make sure you use the correct words to describe the type of music and the atmosphere that you are looking for. Be sure to note if you have smoking or drinking restrictions. When they call you, find out how often they are playing with others. You may find that some haven’t played in a group since they left their college band – this is good. You should be looking for people who are eager to get together with like-minded folks.

Pots and Pans

Once you have the place and a rough head count, you’ll need a PA system. Ask your participants what equipment they can bring to the gig, and figure out what you’ll need to rent. Again, share the costs among everyone. If you have the time, try to get the PA set up in advance. If you decide to record it, you’ll need that gear, plus some extra mics and maybe even an extra mixer. This could get complicated, and don’t be shy about delegating this chore if you can. Also, consider having someone be the sound engineer.

The Ingredients

I know I’m stretching the analogy here, but the flavor comes from the music. Once you have set out a theme for your jam, you should ask each of the musicians to suggest a few songs that they would like to play. Encourage them to write out the words and chords for their own selections, and make enough copies for everyone. If this is the first time that most of these musicians have gotten together, you should anticipate that you’ll have to go over each song 2 or 3 times just to get the structure. If you are really trying to develop the harmonies, you should pick out a small handful of songs and tell everyone in advance that you’ll all be concentrating on these. The results of a little bit of careful work can be quite startling. Be sure to include a few songs that don’t require much work, so you can just have fun and really “jam”.

Setting the Table

OK, now you’ve done most of the preliminary work – it’s a lot! You’ve found the musicians, picked a time and place. Now you need to deal with the non-musical stuff. You and the other musicians have families or significant others that might like to drop by. Are they welcome or is this a “closed session”? What about kids? (hint, hire a babysitter) Sometimes it’s fun to have a box of percussion toys, or a kids keyboard laying around. Or not – if you’re going to play loud, it’s not a good place for kids. But it’s still a good idea to offer babysitting so your musicians aren’t distracted. What about food?

Ambiance (say it with a French accent!)

This may be the hardest part (at least it is for me). You’ve done all the work, everything is set up, you’ve got a week to go before the gig, and you’re nervous as hell. The trick is to realize that it’s out of your hands – what happens at the jam will be determined by karmic and cosmic influences that you have no control over. You could be in for a magical night of wondrous music, or a nightmare of cacophony and ego-clashing. If you’re not relaxed, the others won’t be either. You’ve done your best, and it’s better than anyone else’s because no one else has set it up. So doesn’t matter, because as I said at the top, if you don’t try, you’ll never get to play.

Let’s Eat!

OK, you’ve planned the menu, gathered the ingredients, mixed them together, stirred gently, and you’re ready to serve! But why is your stomach in your throat? Everyone is set up and you’ve just made it though a simple I-IV-V rocker, and it wasn’t too bad. Everyone traded solos, and the vocals were close to on-key. So all you need to do is let it flow. You have your song list. Casually suggest the next song and point out the person who is supposed to lead it. Ask the question “Who goes first?”. Make sure everyone has the music, etc. Relax and have fun, let the other musicians take over some of the “leadership”. Take a big risk and put down your guitar and walk around. Make believe that this is someone else’s jam, and you are the guest. Don’t try to micro-manage everything. You really only need to provide some gentle guidance when all the musicians are all going in different directions.


After you’re all done, and all of the equipment is packed up, make sure everyone knows that there will be some “cool down” time. Our tradition is to go out for a midnight meal at a local diner, but you can veg out on the couch too. This is a good time to recount the stories and to get to know each other better. Take some casual notes on things you might do better, but remember that some of the events of the evening are spurious and spontaneous – they can’t be planned for or prevented.

I hope you get a chance to make your own Jam. It really is worth the effort, and maybe one of the gang will host the next one.

I’d enjoy hearing from any of you who have hosted or participated in a jam. I’ll take your suggestions and augment what I’ve written above.

Remember to get out there and play with someone!