The Joys of Jamming

By: Jeremy Teitelbaum

This summer, I spent a week at Steve Kaufman’s guitar camp in Maryville, Tenn. Each day, for five straight days, I spent four hours a day in classes, three hours in concerts, and many hours into the night in jam sessions. By the end of the week, my hands were completely exhausted, my head was ringing with music, and I was filled with the drive to practice, practice, practice.

I picked up the guitar about six or seven years ago, when my brother-in-law bought a fancy Taylor and turned over his childhood Yamaha to me during a “Secret Maccabee” Hanukkah gift-giving session. (I’ve since upgraded.)

I began by trying to play the classic folk and folk-rock songs that my parents listened to while I was growing up, like “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” by Dylan and “Ramblin’ Boy” by Tom Paxton.

However, I was truly hooked on the instrument when I was introduced to the social world of old-time and bluegrass music. Keith Mellinger, a mathematician colleague of mine in Chicago, brought me along to a jam session with the Oak Park Farmers Market Band in Oak Park, Ill., where I lived before coming to UConn. The OPFMB is a group of people who meet weekly throughout the year, outdoors at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market during the summer and at a coffee shop for the rest of the year.

Thanks to the OPFMB, which consists of a core group of very talented, and remarkably tolerant, musicians, and a wider circle of less-talented but dedicated hangers-on like me, I had the weekly chance to sit in, sing along, and try desperately to keep up my end of the guitar playing. There’s no better incentive to improve than playing with people much, much better than you are.

That experience reminded me over and over again that there’s nothing more satisfying than making music with other people just for the fun of it. Old-time music and bluegrass are particularly well-suited to this, because so many songs in those traditions are fundamentally simple in harmonic and lyrical structure, yet are part of a rich improvisational tradition that offers great opportunities for instrumental and vocal virtuosity by people who can really play and sing.

At the heart of the repertoire are the fiddle tunes of Appalachia, like “Soldier’s Joy” and “Saint Anne’s Reel,” and the songs of the Carter Family, like “Worried Man Blues” and “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.” Sit down with any group of people connected to this music, and odds are everyone knows these tunes by heart.

When I came to UConn, finding people willing to make music with me was one of my first priorities. What amazes me is how easy it was! It isn’t necessary to travel to Tennessee to find people who love traditional music. The UConn community, faculty, staff, and students, along with the surrounding towns, has more than its share of banjo players, fiddle players, mandolin players, guitar players, bass players, and whatever else. I know of at least one faculty member with a hit country song in his past.

This summer, at the Benton Museum coffee shop, I heard a group including chemistry professor Jim Rusling do an Irish session, and another local group (“Seldom Heard,” with Howard Drescher and Lee Terry and emeritus biology professor Tom Terry) perform folk tunes like “City of New Orleans” on guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.

During the school year, I’ve been running the Dean’s Acoustic Jam Session and Sing-Along, with a highly variable turnout of students and faculty. Some of the attendees put my solidly mediocre guitar playing and singing to shame. A group of students has split off from that session to meet weekly as the UConn Folk Music Society.

When the players of the Oak Park Farmer’s Market Band ran off the rails – keeping tempo is a major challenge with a large group of people of widely varying skill ranges and no conductor, so songs sometimes speeded up a lot – people would remind each other that “it’s a jam, not a performance.” In other words, the music is for the pleasure of the participants, not the audience. That’s the approach to music that means the most to me.

Oh, and if you are in the area, want to pick a little, and can put up with someone whose enthusiasm exceeds his talent, drop me a line.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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