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Thoughts on Jamming


From time to time, I run Skills and Jamming Saturdays (in Stockbridge Parish Church Hall, Saxe Coburg Street), and these events have made me reflect about what we mean by jamming, or improvising. To many people, the words 'jam' or 'jamming' are mysterious, even scary - terms used by initiates that make others feel excluded.

And there is something mysterious about jamming.  How can it be so much fun?  How can opening your mouth and trusting what comes out of it, before you even thought of it, make you feel like you're flying - and flying in a group, like birds fly in close, harmonious formation, without military-style drilling - just by responding, feeling and tuning in to what's happening?

Jamming, or improvising, belongs to every musical culture I can think of - consider the pibroch in Scots piping, or Indian classical ragas, and the way both are played by accomplished musicians who have mastered their respective musical languages. Consider the nature of jazz, or the way bluegrass musicians muck about with the same tune for twenty minutes.  Consider the wonderful hypnotic intricacies of African kora playing, or drumming. Consider J. S. Bach's variations and figured basses (the notation a bare minimum to give the harpsichordist something to go on). In each case, something is laid down: a basic tune or chord structure - which is then used as a secure framework for free self-expression. Freedom within safe limits is perhaps the essence of human musicality - and enjoyment.

When we jam, we sing something over and over again, long enough for it to become easy and familiar, and then we can wander off from the thing itself. Once everyone can hear the basic riff or song, we can all be free of it, yet still be blending and in relation. A bit like the way human culture works (when it does) - everyone relating to, and celebrating, something implicitly agreed, understood, shared.

©Yvonne Burgess, 2008