One way of breaking into the scene : Jam sessions:
It’s the 3rd Thursday of the month and I’m eating a late dinner between sets. And, although I’m in the house band, I get a little extra time to eat as another band has come to cut up a bit. It’s Meg Williams, who now resides in Nashville, with Danny Zeimann on Bass – Monster Jazz player working the international circuit but bass-ed (see what I did there?) in Rochester. Chris Vandenbos is also up there shredding even though he wasn’t officially part of their band, but he signed up to play so there he is knocking it down in style.
They are smoking hot! Danny’s playing makes me self-conscious about my own but I remember what I learned at a jam years ago at Smokin’ Joe’s on Lyell Ave :
The house band had just taken a break after playing ‘Aint No Sunshine’ in a reggae style that featured the late Ralph Ortiz shredding an insane bass solo as he always did. He sat down at the bar next to me and said, “So you’re opening the second set.”
My reply was, “I can’t follow that!”
He turned to me and said, “Dude, you’re a great player. You are not me, but you do what you do and you do it right. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, just go up and play what makes sense with the tune in the way that YOU do it.”
I opened the second set with Standing on Shaky Ground which always featured Dave Barnes on a drum solo while the bassist just lays down a funky groove. It was all good!
Even though I still compare myself to others, that short conversation sticks with me, and sometimes I even get to deliver it to others now.
Back to dinner, I’m hanging with Steve West, Genesee Johnny, Gordon Munding, and a few other great finger-style / slide bluesmen just chatting about who’s playing where and exchanging info for subbing if someone needs a substitute bass player. Everything is chill.
Jamming at The Landing with Jimmy Gondoli, Ken Kahler, and the Legend Donny Mancuso
Photo Credit : Aaron Winters
Jam sessions are a great way to break in, to get to know cats, to develop your skill as a player with others (everything is different when you play with other people instead of just playing along with the record… er digital file… yeah I showed my age). They can serve as a free music lesson, especially when the house band is led by a consummate musician like Danny Schmidt (From the Shadows and from Gap Mangione’s Little Big Band) who can read a musician like a book in the first turn around and take where they’re at, and without saying a word, push them musically to the next level. They can also serve as what the stride pianist’s in the 1920’s and bluesmen on the street corners in Memphis called ‘Cutting Contests’.
Ken Kahler and I would show up Monday nights to the Clarissa Room open jam and hang at the bar with our Cokes and Ginger Ales until we got called up to play. We’d throw each other a look and say, “Throw Down!” We had been playing in power/rock blues trio for a decade and basically could read each other’s minds, so at a jam, where we had 2 or 3 tunes to work with and didn’t have to play to the conventions of a typically show, we took the opportunity to open up… HARD! Periodically we’d get the feedback that we were ‘too busy’ but there was no other rhythm section in town that could touch what we were doing. As a result of these jams, we got recommended by, I think it was John Tucker, to Chris Beard, and we spent a bit of time on the road with him (Ken much more time than me).
Now this may all seem like you need to be professional just to sit in at one of these. That is patently untrue. People of all skill levels show up at these. At the best jams, I won’t say that the house band plays to the level of the guest because sometimes that would destroy the music, but the house band plays in a way that complements the level of the guest and makes them sound good to great. These jams are typically hosted by cats that have been on the scene for a long time, and in the style of an Art Blakey, or Miles Davis, or any of the old jazz and blues greats, use the opportunity as a lesson to the players that show up.
Furthermore, these jams are not just limited to blues and jazz, although blues jams are a decent starting point because of standard chord progressions. You can find folk, rock, soul, blues, jazz jams all over the place.
Here are a few that I particularly enjoy:
Monday nights at the Pythod with the Tony Hiler Trio. This is a serious jam with serious cats that know their jazz book and have chops. I can hang but I’m certainly not a cat that will find himself in Tony’s House band. Bring your real book as those cats have already memorized theirs.
Rock / Blues:
There’s two I highly recommend –
Wednesday at Murph’s in Irondequoit with Nate Coffey – Nate plays everything and sings, he comes from a musical family with his father being a cornerstone of Rock/Blues in Rochester for decades and Nate carrying on the tradition. You will find cats that have played the big time in Manhattan (Eric Katerle as an example) to local talent that will blow your mind. If you show up with a tune in mind, chances are 99.9% that Nate and the band knows it and are ready to throw down with you and take you for a ride.
Throwing Down with Nate at The Landing
Photo Credit : Aaron Winters
Tuesdays at The Landing in Fairport similarly has a rocking vibe. I will credit this primarily to my friend and long-time rhythm-section partner in crime Ken Kahler on the drums. Make sure when your there to order a burger and then demand that the cook/owner Jimmy Gondoli comes out and jams too, as he is a monster guitarist.
Tuesdays at PI’s on the West Side of town, Billy B. a mainstay artist in Rochester and Buffalo hosts this jam. His band rotates personnel but always includes some of the longest tenured musicians in the area including Dave Riccione, Danny Schmidt, Aleks Disjlenkovich, Wayne Naylor, Big Mike, Jason Smay, and McKinley James. This is a fun time to spectate as well as play at as the swing dancers love to come out and show off their moves
The Third Thursday of every month, Sticky Lips in Henrietta hosts Son House Night. You host Genesee Johnny, along with myself and Tim Brinduse open the first set, then Johnny usually brings in a featured act, and then finally opens it up for jamming. As the name suggests, this jam is focused on old style blues playing, we get lots of bottle-neck slide and finger-style players, and even regular mini-set from a solo artists on his double-neck cigar box guitar.
Rhythm and Blues / Soul:
Super Sunday Soul Jam:
This jam bounces from place to place, not even sure it’s still happening, but when it is Mitty Moore (The Dukes, Mitty and the Followers) hosts this amazing jam. John Dretto, the amazing 16 yr-old phenom fusion/blues guitarist makes a habit of showing here along with the famous Buzzo. The house band is amazing and the guests that show up will take you from funkytown to church in the matter of a few tunes.
There are other jams around town, check them out. This list represents the one’s I’m most likely to be found at because of the ‘hang’, the musicianship, and the food!