Blues Jams

As I mentioned in ASAMptI, most of the musicians with whom I play today, I met at a blues jam. My main band, Cherry White, owes its very existence to this blues jam. I’ve met some great musicians, some truly terrible musicians, and made several very good friends as a result of it.

The jam in question was the Tuesday evening session in the basement of the Spice of Life, just off Charing Cross Road, near Leicester Square. There was a time when I was there every week, almost religiously, and it became a nice opportunity to keep in touch with people and enjoy a bit of live music. If nothing else, it was more fun than practising by myself at home. And while I was there, I heard a lot of people sing the jam’s praises, and a lot of people complain about it.

It was interesting to see who complained about it, and why they complained about it. It was similarly interesting to see who kept turning up, and who abandoned it. (Or who was asked not to come back, in a very few cases.) As well as “The Spice,” as it is known among its regulars, I tried several other blues jams, including the one at the famous Ain’t Nothin’ But bar near Regent Street, and started to realise that whether a jam was “any good” was less down to the evening itself than what people were looking for.

Obviously, as with any jam, there was a surfeit of singers and lead guitarists. Among those, as you’d expect, were a few prima donnas who’d get stroppy if they didn’t get to play more than a couple of songs. Sorry pal, but if it’s a busy night and you’re playing the same instrument as half of the rest of the crowd then you’ll have to settle for that and be grateful. Many of the same people were inclined to get particularly stroppy if the guy running the jam started giving them the signal to cut short their fifteen-minute guitar solo that they were just getting stuck into. Again, sorry: we can see that you’re quite good, but this isn’t the time or place for your extended, gurning wank-a-thon. When you’ve sold out Ronnie Scott’s perhaps we’ll come and watch you jam out Stormy Monday for half an hour while your band gets bored, but don’t do it here, please. Other people would like a go.

The posers aside, a lot of purists came to dislike The Spice. Apparently, it was “not real blues” that was being played down there, or at least not real enough for them. Sure, there were a lot of players there who took the blues very seriously (myself included), many of whom were excellent, but they also put people up on stage who had the temerity to turn up with weird-looking guitars and strange effect pedals. Some people would play less in the mould of Albert Collins than of Angus Young, and this upset the purists. Were they being too parochial?

Well, yes and no. Normally I’d say they were being a bit too conservative, that it’s nice to hear people trying to do something a bit different with the blues, rather than just replicating what had gone before. A bit of variety is, after all – if you’ll excuse the pun – the spice of life. But then, usually, some guy would get up who could only play in the style of Eddie Van Halen, or would try to set up some two-chord not-quite-reggae groove that would go on for fifteen minutes, and I’d start to agree with the purists.

So what did the purists want? Well, I went to some of the jams that would have more likely met their approval. I had to admit, the standard of playing among the regulars was probably a bit higher – the blues being played felt more authentic, at any rate. (Though, having not been to them regularly, perhaps a fresh set of sounds helped in this respect.) The main difference though, was the absence of the weird-looking guitars and heavy metal haircuts. No Jacksons, ESPs or BC Riches here – turning up with a Gibson SG was considered a little extravagant, and overdrive pedals attracted a dirty look from some. Fortunately I was never on the receiving end of any hostility, but I heard plenty of stories of musicians who were asked not to come back. (Though, from some of the stories, it sounds like a few of them deserved it!)

Some of these musicians were asked not to come back unless they were interested in playing the blues rather than just showing off. Some of them were asked to come back in a few months’ time when they’d learned to play their instrument. I mentioned the standard seeming a little higher at these jams: I got the impression that some of them developed a slightly intimidating reputation to make sure that musicians only came along when they felt they were “good enough.” A little snobbish, perhaps, but your audience isn’t going to stick around if there’s a list full of complete beginners waiting to play. The Spice, by virtue of its location, could depend on interest from passing tourists, which was not the case for some of these other venues.

Which is not to say that the musicianship was poor at The Spice. As I mentioned above, the thing that upset the purists was that many at the Spice didn’t play the blues “properly.” Most of the musicians were excellent, but many of them just didn’t focus on the blues normally. It wasn’t often you got somebody who was actually bad. However, for fear that I’m starting to sound elitist, I have also seen the opposite: jams where few of the musicians rise above the mediocre. Playing becomes less enjoyable when you can feel the song falling apart around you. It becomes a bit of a chore when you notice the audience dwindling from one week to the next.

What The Spice offered – at least, as far as I saw it – was a good place to meet a lot of musicians and play some music with complete strangers. A place that you could drag your friends to without them feeling like they had to be paying formal homage to the music being made in front of them, but where the music was at least (mostly) enjoyable enough to listen to. If I’d been looking for a place where I could meet serious blues musicians and not have to faff around with other stuff, maybe I’d have tried to insinuate myself somewhere else. Ultimately, it depends on what you’re after: what are you after, for that matter? (By all means share your own experiences in the comments; I’d be interested to hear them!)

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