Historical Perspective on Banjo Jamming
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews

I am looking forward to hearing our new CD. One thing for sure, I came out of that recording session knowing those songs a lot better than when I went in. There certainly are situations that call for a polished performance, and that was one of them.

But I think that there are also situations that call for a more spontaneous jamming format. Of course, the thoughts and historical perspective I offer here are my own; our future direction as a band will be made by consensus of the membership.

There is a uniquely American perspective on jam sessions as related to orchestrated concerts. An illustration of this relationship from the past would be the typical events that occurred when one of those “big bands” (Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, or others from that era) came to town. After the main concert, usually in a large auditorium or dance hall, small groups of band members would adjourn to a number of different local bars for informal jamming. To many of the musicians and listeners, these jam sessions were the most enjoyable part of the evening. The spontaneity of performance and responsiveness to the audiences no doubt compensated for some of the “rough edges” in the unrehearsed music.

But it has been said that good jamming, or improvisation, requires more preparation than might first be evident. Music teachers have told me that one must first learn to read the music, play songs as written, and be solidly grounded in orchestral performance and assigned parts. Then and only then does one earn the right to improvise. At that point, according to this school of thought, you, the performer, will have a good feel for what will and won’t fit in various jamming situations. And when you deviate from the music as written, you do so because you want to and not because you don’t know any other way.

That, in general, is the ideal. But there are historical arguments that the nature of the banjo would call for a slightly different perspective on jamming vs. performance. The first banjoists probably could not write or read music, and therefore had to rely on improvisational skills from the start. Remember that the first banjos did not even have frets. Eventually, the environment of the banjo did become more disciplined. Minstrel shows, which later developed into Vaudeville, might have appeared to be spontaneous, but were usually carefully rehearsed and orchestrated. But the improvisational character of the banjo certainly carried on into the jazz age. Additionally, although the banjo occasionally appeared in American high society, it was historically an instrument of the people, including slaves, soldiers, prospectors, railroad workers, and immigrants. These populist origins would lend it to a more participative environment than other instruments. To this day, banjo bands typically include and welcome players at all skill levels.

Bringing all of this to the present day, I would have to agree with the traditional improvisation school in so far as participation in more orchestrated concerts will make us better jammers as well. But I do not think that banjo jam sessions should generally be eclectic events. Beginners can benefit from being part of jam sessions, which provide an opportunity to play with others and to try new things in an environment that is less intimidating than a “recital hall.” I see that approach as part of the heritage of the banjo.

Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, May 2005, page 2.