Jam Bands: One Nation Under A Groove
Something big is going on—a grassroots musical movement on such a huge scale that its sheer momentum seems unstoppable. Suddenly, a nation of neo-hippies in tie-dyed shirts and nose rings, reeking of patchouli oil and skunkweed, is gravitating to dance floors everywhere to partake in good vibes and the joys of open-ended groove-oriented jamming. And just as suddenly, a new generation of bands has sprouted up to feed their passion.
The result of all this sudden and fervent interest in dance-based improvisation is a sprawling and vital “jam band” scene that stretches from coast to coast and is linked by a network of nightclubs and Internet Web sites, where groove fanatics trade tapes, CDs and MP3s while chatting excitedly about upcoming gigs by their favorite groups. It’s an invisible empire that touches on the jazz tradition yet exists in a parallel universe several light-years away from the old (Van) guard. Welcome to the future of jazz?
Similar in spirit and outward appearance to the Woodstock Nation, circa 1970, these beat-hungry hordes are proud members of Groove Nation 2000. They flock to clubs small and large like The Mellow Mushroom in Chapel Hill, Higher Ground in Burlington, Bop Shop in Chicago, Club One in Tulsa, Mama Einstein’s in Athens, Ohio, Elbo Room in San Francisco, Tipitina’s in New Orleans, Tinker Street in Woodstock, Wetlands Preserve in New York City...the list goes on and on and on. Or they congregate en masse at summer outdoor jam band festivals like Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut, the All Good Festival in Maryland, BeatJam in Maine, the High Sierra Festival in Northern California and Berkfest in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. There they groove to the sounds of Deep Banana Blackout, Galactic, Soulive, Fat Mama, Schleigho, Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Jiggle the Handle, String Cheese Incident, Ominous Seapods, The Hosemobile, The Slip, ViperHouse, Greyboy Allstars, The Jazz Mandolin Project, Rockin’ Teenage Combo, Percy Hill, Project Logic, The New Deal, Living Daylights, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe…the list goes on and on and on.
The audiences at these gigs are uncommonly open-minded, as many of the musicians on the scene have pointed out. More participants than passive bystanders, they surrender themselves to the music, thrashing and flailing their lean, young bodies about the dance floor in a kind of spastic hippie groove ritual. They also seem to thrive as much on the spirit of improvisation as they do on danceable beats. Dissonance and musical complexity don’t scare them off. Jams can dissolve into spacey abstractions or dense, free-blowing excursions and they’ll still hang in there, more curious than disoriented. Indeed, they seem to get a charge from the “sound of surprise” that has long been associated with jazz. No judgments from this crowd. No chance of wrong notes or bad vibes here. Everything’s groovy with them, which is a very liberating scenario for the musicians to be dealing in.
“It’s definitely an open thing and that’s what I love about it,” says Brian Haas, leader and keyboardist with the audacious Tulsa-based septet Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. “I don’t get the feeling that these people are coming to the shows with any expectation. They don’t even care if we just space out for 45 minutes and my drummer is playing nothing but a triangle, you know? There is a real openness there and it does seem to be helping the jazz scene go to the next level. It’s just a brand new audience, in a way. We were very aware from the beginning that all these hippie kids are loving this jazz all of a sudden. And now we always say, ‘Thank God for the hippies,’ because they have a really non-judgmental attitude which is just so perfect for jazz.”
“It’s like another world,” says guitarist John Scofield, whose groove-heavy new project, Bump (Verve), employs a cast of young turks from the jam band scene, including percussionist Johnny Durkin and drummer Eric Kalb from Deep Banana Blackout, bassist Chris Wood from Medeski Martin & Wood, Mark De Gli Antoni from Soul Coughing and the rhythm tandem of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen from Sex Mob. “It’s kids going to this stuff and really being open to a lot of different kinds of music and open to experimentation, which is really different,” Scofield says.
“It’s a gigantic family,” says Arne Livingston, bassist from the Seattle-based trio Living Daylights. “And that’s the one thing I’ve learned about playing these shows is that it’s not even so much about the music, after a point. It’s about being part of a family, people wanting to go to a club where they’re going to see their friends. The music is important, but it’s also about being part of a social scene.”
According to Fuzz, 29-year-old guitarist with Deep Banana Blackout, “It’s just music that’s kind of fun to hang out to and dance to. Most of the music on this scene is based around groove and it’s generally got a happy and friendly vibe to it so it keeps people in that spirit. But they’re not just into some happy hippie music all the time. I think they get into all the different flavors that these groups have to offer.
“None of the music I’ve heard is dark or depressing,” Fuzz continues, “so it’s kind of an alternative to the alternative rock music of the ’90s. A lot of that music was very depressing, like everyone is on a bad heroin trip and wants to kill themselves. But this jam band scene is more about people enjoying themselves and getting into the music for what it is and not having this whole dark, depresso image or feeling of ‘I hate my life, I hate the world, the world’s gonna end.’ That kind of mentality started to take over the pop culture in the ’90s, but that’s over with now.”
While there are various stylistic tributaries coming out of the jam band scene, the common ground among all the bands is that idea of stretching out and letting the music evolve organically, wherever that may take them. And the audience is directly involved in that musical search and discovery mission.
“I guess it has to do with the legacy of the Grateful Dead in a way,” says Scofield. “It’s nouveau hippies... people listening to music and dancing and being into the fact that the band is improvising together and creating this ambiance, with the audience being a part of it. But basically, it’s all different takes on really creative jazz-influenced rock. Some groups sound like the Dead, other groups sound more like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, then there’s groups like Soulive, which is a fabulous young organ trio that sounds like Blue Note records from the early ’60s. There’s even some improvising bluegrass stuff like Strangefolk. So it’s all this different stuff and kids are just sort of digging it all.”
If the Grateful Dead set the precedent for this hippie jam aesthetic back in the ’60s and ’70s, the torch was later passed on to Phish, the Dead-inspired rock band that became a beacon for adventurous stretching in the ’90s.
“Because of a group like Phish, improvising has become one of those things that is OK to do,” Fuzz says. “Now you’ve got different groups bringing some pretty ‘out’ stuff to the table and people accept it. They say, ‘OK, this is cool. It sounds like that Phish thing.’ So suddenly it becomes OK to do that sort of thing, and that’s great for everybody. It just opens up the music.”
But both the Dead and Phish are clearly from more of a rock background. To find out where the jazzy strain came into this Groove Nation aesthetic, you’d have to look to Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW), the godfathers of the whole jam band phenomenon. “Those guys have always been idols and a little bit ahead of us, having formed earlier than us,” says Deep Banana Blackout percussionist Johnny Durkin.
“We just totally look up to all three of those brothers,” Hass says of MMW. “They’ve just been an inspiration to us ever since we’ve been together, without a doubt. We’ve, of course, looked at how they started out—touring around in a van—and seen how that’s worked for them. So it tells us to sort of bite the bullet and just keep maintaining and just keep doing it the same way they did. And it definitely seems to be paying off. It’s a slow process, but man it’s so rewarding.”
“Speaking of jazz and groove music and the Deadhead scene, they’re definitely a bridge,” Fuzz says of MMW’s contribution. “I think they’re probably similar to us...their original intention was to be kind of a kooky, jazzy, doing-their-own-thing kind of band. They just wanted to make some cool music. But somehow the word got out about them and I think it was some connection to Phish. I think that really gave them a real kick in the pants and helped them get onto other dates with other bands that were on that scene.”
While it has been erroneously reported that the key to MMW’s breakthrough was an opening slot on a Phish tour, the truth is that they opened for the mega-successful rock band at only one gig, in New Orleans. But Phish did regularly play MMW tapes before their shows, exposing a huge new audience to their insinuating, psychedelic grooves. As MMW keyboardist John Medeski acknowledges, “Their fan base spread the word about us.”
“The first time I saw [MMW],” Fuzz remembers, “I was pretty blown away. They’re a band that has a really unique sound and they have their own direction but once again the music is just so grooving. It’s just got such a cool vibe to it and it can be just so psychedelic at the same time. And there’s a whole audience of new hippie folks who can really get into that. I think MMW is a great collective thing. They’re just out there exploring uncharted territory in a highly improvised situation. They’re just so in the moment they can do a whole gig of just improvising, not having any kind of song structure whatsoever. They’re pretty remarkable when it comes to pure improvisation. And I think their audiences really appreciate that about them.”
The Evolution of MMW
“I remember we did a gig in the summer of 1991 at Martha’s Vineyard,” Medeski recalls. “That was our first out-of-town gig. Then we ended up doing a little fall swing through the South, just to get out of the cold, really. What happened was, we were in New York and we realized we could get 40 or 50 people at that time to come out to see us play at the Knitting Factory. So we started to figure that maybe we could go out to these small college towns and probably get 40 or 50 people to come out to our gigs there. We had no idea if people outside New York would like it or not. We were kind of worried that nobody would be able to relate to the music but we loved playing together enough to give it a try. Our idea was, ‘If this works, then we can be doing it all the time.’ The only goal we had was to make enough money to continue playing music that we wanted to play together, instead of having to put on a tux and do wedding gigs and casuals to get by.
“When we first went out we did some jazz clubs and coffeehouses and small rock clubs,” he continues. “The jazz clubs were not good experiences on every level but the coffee houses and rock clubs were great. The younger people there were much more open-minded audiences and we were really shocked at the response. People seemed to dig it and they were really glad that we came even if they weren’t used to seeing that kind of music. So we were encouraged enough by that initial experience to go out again. More people came out for the second tour and it just slowly built up. And funny enough, during that time we had to play free jazz to support our more commercial career. We’d come back from a tour with MMW and Billy [Martin] and I would go play with the Lounge Lizards or John Zorn while Chris [Wood] would go play with Marc Ribot in Rootless Cosmopolitans or Shreck. We’d go on a European tour with them, make enough money, come back, then we’d go out on tour with MMW, which were kind of like little vacations for us.”
But slightly grueling vacations, at least in the beginning, as Medeski relates. “We’d just get in a van and drive. We had a little stove in the van so we’d cook for ourselves while the van was moving. We’d get to the gig with barely enough time for a sound check. We’d meet somebody at the gig and end up sleeping on their floor. We’d never get hotels. Our first tour we had one gig in Knoxville where they gave us a hotel and everything else was like ‘let’s go and just see what happens.’ We really just made it all up as we went along.”
After a few successful tours, MMW graduated from Billy Martin’s Ford van to a used Coachman RV/camper equipped with a shower, stove and refrigerator. “There was a two-year period when we were on the road most of the time,” says Medeski, “and that’s when we had to move out of our apartments in New York. We couldn’t afford to keep them anymore and since we were out on the road all the time anyway we just lived in the camper.”
As they continued to spread the gospel of groove and musical spontaneity, the band’s following continued to build over time until they found themselves sitting on top of the neo-groove world with a tour bus, a rabid international following and a lucrative record deal with Blue Note, which put out their best-selling Combustication in 1998. (Ironically, MMW’s latest for the label, Tonic, is a live, freewheeling acoustic piano trio project that has more to do with the avant garde scene than the groove scene that they helped create.)
“It all really started from just a feeling,” says Medeski in retrospect. “When I was living in Boston I had done some gigs with Either Orchestra in the Midwest and I realized that there were some college kids out there who just wanted to hear some music...a new generation of people with hungry ears. And most of our mentors weren’t going out and playing for them. The 40-something guys, who were real monsters, weren’t going out and playing because they were making their living in Europe. And we felt like, ‘Man, this is America. We should be able to do this in our own country.’ And it just seemed like with the media the way it is—computers and everything—young people just have a broader exposure to different types of music than the generation before them so their minds are naturally a little more ready, more open to it.
“[Drummer] Bob Moses once said, and I totally agree with him, that these young people today are looking for a cathartic experience they can only get from improvised music. That’s what they’re looking for when they go see these jam bands. And I think sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. They’re looking for that feeling that they can only get when a band is up there hanging it out and really improvising. And I think it’s everybody’s responsibility, ours included, to really bust our buns and practice and study music to have more to bring these audiences. I really feel that if they are looking for that cathartic thing, it’s our responsibility to try to give it to them, to really dig deep into the improvised music and tap into the spirit side of it.”
But Is It Jazz?
“I would like to think of jazz as a constantly progressing style that’s borrowing from itself and just about everything else,” Livingston says. “Jazz is just a culmination of young people’s efforts in sort of creative, further-reaching music.”
“It seems to me,” says Fuzz, “that jazz was always about individual expression. So to perform it or try to recreate how the original guy had done it seems to be taking away from the original concept. I mean, you’re supposed to take this music and do it your way, right? How can you make this part of your personal expression? Well for me, the thing that I’ve been really feeling for a long time now is definitely funk and soul music. So I’m combining funk, soul and hip hop with the jazz and even a little bit of rock psychedelia. Today there’s no hard and fast rules about making a jazz record. Maybe back in the day some people had a little bit of a snobby attitude about it. Not today.”
With his solo project, On the Corner With Fuzz, the guitarist reveals a deeper understanding of jazz in his contemporized covers of Charlie Christian’s “Seven Come Eleven,” Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six” and Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido,” which also features turntable wiz DJ Logic and trumpeter Michael Ray. “I did study music in college and I dabbled in jazz,” Fuzz says. “Jazz was more of a thing I really enjoyed on my own. I had an appreciation for it and listened to a lot of jazz records. And over the last three or four years, especially, I’ve been really immersed in it. So with this project I can pay tribute to certain music that I really enjoy and put my own personal expression in it.”
According to drummer Stanton Moore of New Orleans-based Galactic, “The jam band thing is a label placed on bands that have similar approaches but not necessarily similar sounds. If you take a band like the Greyboy Allstars and a band like Moe and a band like Soulive, they’re all pretty much lumped into the jam band category but musically you can’t get much different. But the thing is, all those bands get on the road and they tour relentlessly. They’re not really played on the radio all that much so they develop an audience through touring, like MMW did. I think all these bands have noticed that it’s an approach that worked, namely for the Grateful Dead. They stayed on the road for years and years and never had much radio success, but they were among the biggest bands ever. So I think the whole jam band thing has developed around bands that enjoy playing live. And there’s actually a lot of people who like to come and see that and aren’t concerned with how many hits or how many gold or platinum records that a band has. It’s about coming out and seeing the bands play live. It’s about bands performing and experimenting in front of live audiences, improvising on one level or another.”
“The whole jam band scene is kind of broad,” says Eric Krasno, 23-year-old guitarist with Soulive. “We’re definitely not a hippie band yet we appeal to a lot of that crowd. We’ll go and play the Berkshire Mountain Festival on the bill with Deep Banana Blackout and hip hop bands and new jungle kind of stuff. Basically what we play is R&B and soul-jazz but, still, we’re definitely on that jam band circuit. I guess the common ground is the groove factor.”
Anchored by drummer Alan Evans and his B-3 organ-playing brother, Neal, Soulive has cultivated a strong following through its frequent appearances on the jam band scene—they recently played a month of Wednesdays at Wetlands in New York—and through sales of its ultra-groovy debut CD, Turn It Out (Velour). The group’s upcoming recording features a guest appearance by one of its biggest supporters, guitarist John Scofield.
Says Evans, formerly the drummer for the Greyboy Allstars, “We’re influenced by everybody from Jimmy Smith and Groove Holmes to Grant Green and early George Benson. And yet, the young people still dig us. There’s something about the groove that they can relate to. Personally, I’ve always wanted to do this kind of group. I remember the first time I heard Grant Green I was like, ‘Yo, that’s it.’ So it’s music that I’ve always loved. I grew up playing jazz but I also loved Hendrix and James Brown, so what we’re doing is a perfect combination of [them].”
“The thing that makes it new,” adds Krasno, “is that we grew up with access to so much music. We got to hear Grant Green and Sco doing the fusion thing, and we also got to hear reggae and hip hop. A lot of what we listened to coming up wasn’t necessarily jazz so there’s definitely many different elements mixed into our sound. You can hear on our CD where it gets more rock and blues at times. I use a wah pedal and vocoder pedal on the guitar for some tunes, but at the same time I play a hollow body jazz guitar, so we can also go into something that sounds like an old Grant Green record. But there’s so many other elements in there and that’s what sets us apart from just throwing on an old record.”
“We’re coming out of a jazz tradition and letting it reflect current musical trends,” says Haas about Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. “The approach that we’ve chosen to take, and that MMW has chosen to take, is something I don’t really run into too often, where you’re coming at it from a totally improvisational standpoint. Which means sometimes you get lucky and it totally smokes, and sometimes when you’re improvising, you kind of fall on your ass. I don’t run into many bands that are taking those kind of risks, where you just hop on stage and go. But with Jacob Fred, I’d say 98 percent of the stuff is totally improvised. And with [our album] Welcome Home we just got extremely lucky. We basically gave ourselves two nights in a small Tulsa club to get it done. And boom—it happened, thank God.”
The Vermont-based Jazz Mandolin Project is another popular attraction on the jam band scene. Initially perceived by fans as a Phish spin-off project, due to the presence of Phish drummer Jon Fishman in an earlier edition of the trio, JMP enhanced its jazz credibility considerably last year by recruiting drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist Chris Dahlgren, both talented young upstarts on New York’s vital downtown jazz scene. And while the jazz connection becomes all the more clear with their recent signing to Blue Note (they stretch to new heights on their Blue Note debut, *Xenoblast*), JMP has retained its jam band fan base.
"I’ve never really done anything to promote that connection," says mandolin ace and JMP founder Jamie Masefield, "but that’s who the majority of the people that come to hear us are -- these young bohemian music fans. I feel like we’re so fortunate to have such a great fan base but it’s kind of odd because I kind of feel that the jazz community really doesn’t know we exist yet. Maybe they’re heard about us but they hear that it’s some kind of hippie thing, and so maybe they’re turned off. But I’m hoping that the Blue Note connection will make jazz fans want to check it out."
In the end, regardless of whether a band is coming out of the Grateful Dead, Phish, P-Funk, Sun Ra or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, it’s ultimately about persevering, spreading the word on a grassroots level and picking up converts along the way. As Moore puts it, “All you need is five or six willing cats and a thousand-dollar van and there you go man; you can just tour, tour, tour. You keep doing it and keep doing it and before you know it there’s this jam band scene.”
JMP’s Masefield concurs. "It’s actually a very old fashioned notion. You have to make it happen where you are and spread out like tenacles. The responsibility is your own. Hit the road, man. That’s where the life is at. You get in the van and you eat in the greasy spoon diners and you make friends in every town and you go back six months later and there you are and you can laugh about the last time you were there...you live the life. It’s hard but, hey, if you’re married to music and you love it, that’s gonna be what you hopefully wanna do. You get in the van and drive around endlessly for a long time and you start ‘forest fires’ everywhere. There’s no other way to do it other than just getting out on the road all the time."
The Future: MMW Jam Off It?
Ironically, the godfathers of the jam band scene distance themselves considerably from the groove thang on their provocative new Blue Note release, Tonic. Recorded live at the ultra-hip nightclub of the same name (the one-time site of a kosher winery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side), this daring acoustic piano trio project has more to do with the spontaneous combustion of the Cecil Taylor trio than the whole jam band scene that they helped develop.
Medeski, Martin & Wood hinted at this radical departure from neo-groove on “Latin Shuffle,” the sole acoustic track on 1998’s Combustication. The Cecil Taylor influence was indeed apparent on that dissonant excursion, pointing the way to the more outré aesthetic that is Tonic. With Chris Wood on upright bass, Billy Martin on drums and hand percussion and John Medeski on acoustic piano, they stretch intuitively in abstract ways that may leave the jam band crowd confused and clueless. No funky drummer beats, no catchy, repeated motifs, no throbbing, undulating grooves for the hippies to grab onto here (with the possible exception of the Les McCann-flavored soul-jazz romp “Rise Up” or the jaunty, Ahmad Jamal-ish number “Buster Rides Again”). But then, MMW isn’t all that eager these days to roll with that whole groove-jam bandwagon.
“I don’t know, I’m just moving in a forward direction,” says Martin, who seems oblivious to the phenomenon that has followed in MMW’s wake. “I’m not aware of this jam band scene and I certainly don’t take the credit for all these different bands that are inspired by us. I’m really flattered to hear how these musicians are inspired by what we do. But I’m just doing what I’m doing, you know? Just moving ahead.”
And what Martin is moving into with his solo projects goes totally against the grain of groove. “I’m exploring so many things now,” he says with great enthusiasm. “I’m writing some really different percussion music. I just finished this piece called ‘Strijulations,’ which is based on the sound of crickets. It’s basically all these different rhythms played by between four and eight players that create this landscape of patterns. That’s something that I’m going to put out on my own label [Amulet Records]. I also did a piece for bass drum and gong called ‘Black Elk Speaks.’ All of this stuff that I’m working on now is so far removed from that jam band scene, and it really helps me balance out. Because don’t get me wrong, I do love to groove. I love to make people dance and I like the feeling of playing grooves like that with John and Chris. That scene is interesting. But I need this other improvised music to balance that off.”
Bassist Chris Wood winced when I mentioned to him that I was working on a piece on the jam band scene that MMW helped pioneer. Our interview started off tentatively:
I’d like to get your comments about all these young jam bands that are looking at you as the role model for this groove stuff.
Bands all over...Seattle, Tulsa, Montreal...they’re all calling MMW the godfathers of the scene.
“Now... what scene?”
The jam band scene.
You’re the icons, the veterans of the scene.
And it’s interesting that you helped pioneer a whole movement without really being aware of it.
“And we still don’t have a clue. We’re in our own world, I guess.”
Meanwhile, your new record has nothing to do with this whole jam band thing.
“Nothing at all. We’re trying to keep one step ahead of it.”
MMW plans to do select gigs this spring to promote the all-acoustic Tonic. Then it’s back in the studio to record their next phase of funky groove music, which should be released by late fall. The beat goes on and on and on...
Medeski, Martin & Wood: Shack-Man (Rykodisc) and Combustication (Blue Note)
Deep Banana Blackout: Rowdy Duty (Artkin Touchya)
On the Corner With Fuzz: B’Gock! (Artkin Touchya)
John Scofield: A Go Go and Bump (Verve)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Welcome Home (Accurate)
Living Daylights: 500 Pound Cat (Liquid City)
Jazz Mandolin Project: Xenoblast (Blue Note)
Galactic: Late for the Future (Capricorn)
Greyboy Allstars: West Coast Boogaloo (with Fred Wesley) and A Town Called Earth (both on Greyboy Records)
Karl Denson: Chunky Pecan Pie (Minor Music), Tiny Universe (Denson)
Trey Anastasio: Surrender to the Air (Elektra)
Jazz Pharmacy: Jazz Pharmacy (Jazz Pharmacy Records)
The New Deal: This Is Live (Socan/New Deal)
The Zen Tricksters: A Love Surreal (Crucified Clown Music)
Jam Band Compilation: Help Us Get High (Shanachie)
Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe: Funk If I Know (Monkey Hill)
Originally published in May 2000