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Jam Bands

There’s a certain genre of music that goes by the name “Jam Bands.” Most people haven’t heard of it, but it’s my favorite type of music. For years I’ve tried to explain about this kind of music, but most people didn’t understand. Well at least now we have a label.

So what is a jam band?

Well, if you ask me, it’s a modern jazz band, but when you say “Jazz,” people now associate that with two or three styles of music that are not much like the jam band concept. Most “jazz” these days is either that smooth “lite jazz” stuff or it’s fairly esoteric, complicated, and not-very-melodic music.

Jam bands aren’t like that. To me, they ultimately go back to the early days of jazz, which were all about mixing different styles together and improvising around a common melodic theme. But the roots of most current jam band music go back most recognizably to the late 1960s. The Grand Old Men of the jam band movement are considered to be such groups as the Allman Brothers, Santana, and The Dead (who, by the way, are sounding fantastic these days, even without Jerry Garcia). But who were these artists influenced by? Early blues, jazz, and folk/country music.

Since current jam bands like Blues Traveler and Phish get very little airplay, and countless others get no airplay at all, you’d think they aren’t very popular. But you’d be mistaken. These bands often sell out shows at major auditoriums around the country, and you can find their fans everywhere. Many of them have had albums go gold and even platinum based solely on word-of-mouth sales and their existing fan bases. Others don’t do quite that well, but tour regularly and sell enough albums to be considered successful musical enterprises.

To me, the best of them are exemplary of what the early days of jazz were like. A good jazz band will tend to mix multiple styles of music together. They will usually start to play a song in a fairly traditional rock, pop, or blues arrangement, setting down a basic groove and chorus. But then, somewhere in the middle of the song (or what most musicians call “the break,”) the band will simply begin to wander and explore. Different musicians are encouraged to trade solos and improvise around the theme established early in the song. Then eventually–sometimes after a few minutes, sometimes after quite a few minutes–the band finds its way back to the chorus, and finishes off the song in the same basic groove they started in. Then sometimes they’ll stop, or sometimes they’ll move straight into a different song without pause.

It’s not unusual for such bands to play 30 minutes or more without stopping, although typical song length is probably somewhere between 7 and 15 minutes.

Styles tend to vary dramatically, too. A good jam band usually mixes elements of rock and roll, bluegrass, country, cajun, blues, classic jazz, flamenco, even more styles into their mix. This is probably my favorite aspect of the jam band concept, because it gives a complex, multilayered approach to the sound. This, combined with the improvised soloing, tends to keep things constantly fresh.

Of course, some bands trend more to one style than another. Widespread Panic, for example, tends to have a more country feel to most of their work, whereas The Allman Brothers Band has a more blues- and jazz-based sound to most of their current material. Leftover Salmon refers to their sound as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass,” which is a perfect description: hard-rocking electric bluegrass mixed with a little cajun and other world music elements make them a truly fun listen.

Obviously, this sort of music is not for everybody. I wish it were, though, because I think a lot of people are missing out on some killer music by not checking it out. My favorite jam band radio station on the internet is Leftover Cheese, which frequently includes material from Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, the Derek Trucks Band, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Bruce Hampton and the Code Talkers, and other well-known and respected jam bands.

You can also check out www.jambands.com for more information.

I know this kind of music isn’t for everybody, but I do hope that by my posting it, some of you will make a nice discovery: cool music you’ve been missing out on.

About Dean Esmay

  • http://www.thermalandaquarter.com Bijoy

    You’re right about the poor airplay that jam bands get. I’ve been working with one for over six years (in a non-musical capacity). It’s hard to sell the concept to radio stations, especially in a market like the one here in India, where the music we make (which is in English) is usually consumed by a narrow niche audience, which is also our market.

    I believe the most effective way jambands can reach their audiences is by playing live gigs. However, we have noticed that thanks to the Internet, there is a great interest in our music abroad — mostly in the US and Europe. The only hitch is getting that live music across to our scattered audience.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Jam bands definitely have their place in music, but they really should not be ranked as anything like jazz. There’s nothing jazz-like about them, other than that they improvise. I’ve heard a good number of live shows from these bands and while they are impressive in their ability to extend their songs and keep a lively groove going, they lack the skills and chops to keep mixing it up like jazz groups do. (And that’s why I don’t find much of interest in them.)

    And please, don’t assume that everything in jazz is either lite or completely improvisatory – there are countless groups out there treading the middle ground and still creating beautiful music. I highly suggest checking out the Bad Plus (especially if you like Medeski, Martin, & Wood – these guys blow them away), Ravi Coltrane (yes, John’s son), Dave Douglas, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Sex Mob, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and about a million more.

    I think the problem jam bands face is that their audience is limited to what it is now, basically. There are people who can’t stand “noodling” – whether in jazz or jam bands – and there are those who need more to go on than the groove (like me.) I think part of the jam band scene is the sense of community that goes with it – the shows are like big get-togethers rather than a concert, which is kind of cool if you think about it. It’s unfortunate that drugs are so prevalent in the scene, because I think that turns a lot of people off of it because they just don’t want to be a part of that. A lot of people assume, wrongly, that this is all the jam band scene is about (as they do with the rave scene). Unfortunately, a lot of people who might be into the music are otherwise turned away from it because of this . . .

  • http://gratefuldread.net/fando/ Natalie Davis

    Ditto Tom’s posting. But by and large, I’m with you, Dean: Jambands rule.

    STRING CHEESE!

  • http://www.buzzgrinder.com Frost

    Well, you can’t forget Jam Bands that may not be… well, hippies. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is on the fringe between ambient and jam band. Also, Mogwai would fit into that catagory.

    Then there’s the death metal band Comity that would also be easily catorgized as a jam band.

  • http://gratefuldread.net/fando/ Natalie Davis

    Hey! What’s wrong with hippies? ;-)

    A jamband need not be comprised of hippies to be good. I happen to be a huge GYBE fan. And heaven knows there are some hippie-filled jambands that aren’t very good…

  • Dustin

    And what about Umphrey’s McGee? They do anything for Metallica to Toto. And their originals will blow you back. As far as jambands lacking in their ability or skills, I think you should here Umphrey’s before decide to agree with that statement. These guys don’t lack in any skill.

  • Matt D

    When i first heard Phish i thought they were aweful but then i really listened to them and all i ahev been listen to is jam bands, and if anyone can tell me about any shows in the new england area i would be very grateful

  • http://www.bandshirtarchive.com shirtguy

    Jamband fans are just a different bread from other concert going music fans I think. Their level of dedication is undisputed. I’d argue that jamband concert goers are also even immune to the old “Don’t wear the shirt of the band your going to see” rule. [Edited]

    So, without airplay, these bands have flourished because of the dedicated fan base who bring all their friends and go to 10 shows a summer not just one.