History of Marian’s Old Time Community Jams; What is an Open Jam?

Marian writes:  I knew Steve Thompson in the 1970s in Salem, Oregon.  He’s a great and fun guy, and helped me set up an Open Jam there.  He had a bumper sticker then that said, “Play is My Work.”

http://www.lib.niu.edu/1980/ip800916.html — article by Steven R. Thompson

Steve Thompson received his B.S. degree in Leisure Studies from Southwest Missouri State University in 1977. Originally from Kansas City, Mo. he was employed with the Regional Park and Recreation Agency in Salem, Oregon before spending a summer in Alaska and entering the Master’s Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He currently holds a research assistantship with the Leisure Behavior Research Laboratory and teaches a course on Leisure and Aging. His leisure interests include reading, bicycling, running, fishing, and many other outdoor activities.

The author notes that many of the thoughts contained within this paper are those of Ms. Marian Drake, an old-time, traditional fiddle and mandolin musician who successfully established open jams in Santa Barbara, California and in Salem, Oregon.


Aside from “a food made by boiling fruit with sugar,” Webster defines jam as, “. . . in jazz, to improvise.” And to improvise is, “to compose, perform, or sing on the spur of the moment and without preparation.”1 Generally, a “jam” is what musicians (whatever their musical inclination, be it folk, jazz, classical, or bluegrass) call an informal playing situation or “jam session.” The music is played by ear and no written music is used. “Open” simply means that anyone is welcome to pick up an instrument and play or sing along. The group is not closed or controlled by any one person or group and musicians are encouraged to try out new tunes and new musical ideas.


The philosophy of the open community jam is remarkably parallel to the philosophy of play brought to bear by the New Games Movement a decade ago. New Games brought forth an attitude toward play stressing the idea of active rather than passive participation; the belief that everyone can play. The objective? Games where there are no spectators or second string players, and games that are exciting and enjoyable without requiring exceptional athletic ability. Such a philosophy of play grew out of a desire to counterbalance the extremes suffered in many of the more traditional sports as a result of their restrictive and overly zealous win-lose mentality. New Games offered an alternative to the traditional demarcation between “players” and “spectators.” No longer was participation restricted to a “closed group” usually consisting of 5, 9, or 11 players occupying a controlled area distinctly separate from the “watchers” or spectators in the grandstands and bleachers.

The result was the opportunity for players, many of whom had been left out of traditional sports, to participate to the limits of their own potential in an atmosphere that encouraged spontaneity and provided an outlet for physical aggression and expression of self. And as was said of one New Games Festival, “It was a fifty ring circus, but no one was watching, everyone was playing.”2

Music, too, has suffered extremes and is ready for a new philosophy of participation more “in tune with the times.” What is needed is a philosophy of participation which provides an alternative to the clear distinction between “people” and “performers.” As in a spectator sport, the musical performance places a closed group (now called the musicians) in a controlled area (the stage) separating them from the listeners (now called the audience). And as most of us are aware, the more money you pay for your ticket, the less separated you are from the musicians�at least in terms of physical distance. A kind of, “rich near the front and the poor toward the back” arrangement.

The multi-million dollar recording industry as well as the array of “superstars” catapulted into the limelight of the entertainment world through frenzied live performances and standing ovations is witness to our readiness to place musicians on a pedestal. In so doing, we make the breach even wider between people and performers. Unfortunately, most of the music we are exposed to in this country today is “canned” for us, marketed over the air waves of radio and television and vended through records and tapes. Contrast this with past generations in America where families and friends sat around in the evenings to play musical instruments and sing together, or had community “hoedowns.”

The old-time community music jam is an attempt to blur the line between musicians and other people. By bringing people together�advanced as well as beginners�with the attitude that everyone can play, we can help more “ordinary” people discover their own latent musical ability. The music which generally characterizes the old-time open community music jam is traditional

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country, bluegrass, or folk music. The acoustical folk instruments used, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, spoons, etc., customarily require more enthusiasm and a sense of fun than exceptional musical talent or years of formal training and study.

Although the players are most always glad to have people listen, enjoy, clap in time or dance to their music, a jam is not a performance. It differs markedly in that it is free play in an uncontrolled space, informal, and unrehearsed. And like the New Games player who is free to create games or new variations and has permission to enter or leave the play community as he desires, so it is with the open jam. Players are encouraged to experiment with new tunes and new musical ideas and may come in and out of the group as it strikes their fancy or as they tire and want to rest for a few minutes.


Oftentimes, the folk music community is fragmented and it is difficult for musicians to locate fellow enthusiasts as well as suitable locations and times for regular jam sessions. In this regard, park districts, municipal recreation departments, and other agencies charged with the delivery of leisure services can play an ‘enabling role’ in simply providing a location and some of the initial promotional aspects for the jam. The second Sunday of every month, including all holidays except Christmas, has become a local institution in several communities across the country for old-time open community music jams. Although some initial promotional efforts will be necessary, word of mouth among musicians and others is the best publicity in building and sustaining participation. Since there is really no leadership involved per se, a location and someone to oversee the physical premises are really all that is needed.

The facility should have at least three sizeable rooms allowing for continuous playing of several groups, each perhaps being of a different level of ability or musical style. One room may be designated with a sign:

CAUTION: SLOW – BEGINNING JAMMERS INSIDE. Preferably, the facility should have grounds for good weather jamming outdoors. Everyone should be encouraged to attend, to bring along their instruments, to clap, sing, or dance to the music but should understand that there will be no “performance.”


The Old-Time Open Community Music Jam has positive implications for all segments of the community:

1. As a resource for local public performances

2. As a resource for new musical groups to form. This is of benefit to musicians in assisting meeting fellow enthusiasts and in getting new material to play through sharing new tunes and ideas.

3. To provide an impetus to children and youth to take up playing a musical instrument and kindle an awareness of our musical heritage. How may children and young adults know Old Joe Clark, Mississippi Sawyer, Rosin the Bow, or the countless other

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folk and traditional American tunes from our musical past?

4. As an inspiration to adults to recall the music they may have grown up with, to sing, and perhaps to take up playing a musical instrument as well. What better way of continued growth and enrichment in the later years than to take up music?


Jamming; an informal, unrehearsed collective of people making music together, has been called one of the highest forms of social interaction. The Old-Time Open Community Music Jam is a way of not only reawakening our musical heritage but a way for people to discover their own latent musical talent. Like New Games, the Open Jam “. . . is appealing to people who are not waiting for someone else to entertain them�people who want to experience their own experience.


1 Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1960.

2 Fluegelman, Andrew (Ed.), The New Games Book. New York:

Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1976, p. 11.

3 Ibid., p. 19.