Turns Out, It Was Too Much For Me To Jam

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My Ford Taurus Limited review on TTAC yesterday mentioned that the purpose of my 1,014-mile rental was a trip to Victor Wooten’s “Wooten Woods Bass And Nature Camp”. Insofar as the site is called The Truth About Cars and not The Truth About Bass And Nature Camps there wasn’t much room available to discuss my experience at Wooten Woods. Luckily for me all of us, I have this blog where I can exhaustively discuss my near-complete failure at being a “jammer”.

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To get to Wooten Woods, you take Exit 148 from Interstate 40 then more or less dive off an overpass to an unimproved road below. The sign you see above, which is located about three-quarters of the way down a very rough two-track path next to a creek overgrown with bright green moss, says, “YOU ARE NOT LOST! KEEP GOING!” There are times, dear reader, where I feel like making a similar sign and hanging it on my bathroom mirror. I don’t do it, however, because it would be a lie. I am lost, as are most of us.

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When Patrick and I arrived at the site of Wooten Woods, we found five or six bearded young-ish men carving teepee poles. As with many of the other people I met at the camp, I was never quite sure if those fellows were living there, camping nearby, visiting for the day, or on the run from law enforcement. Regardless, they were all in a good mood and inquired if I had a “rip knife” or possibly a “band knife”.

“I was born in Brooklyn,” I responded, “so I don’t even know what that is.” Patrick and I drove up to the main stage and unpacked. Patrick had brought his five-string Carvin SB5000 and a Snark tuner. I brought the following list of items:

  • Fodera Yin-Yang Standard
  • Fender American Deluxe Strat
  • PRS DGT Private Stock
  • Rainsong JM-1000 jumbo acoustic
  • Seagull S6 Slim acoustic
  • Two-Rock GainMaster 35 amp
  • A Morley combination volume/wah pedal
  • Eight fakebooks
  • Two different TASCAM recorders and a tripod
  • Five cords including a Lava Cable
  • A hand-wired TubeScreamer
  • Six guitar straps
  • Twenty Clayton Ultrem picks, made in the USA
  • Spare batteries for everything

I considered this assemblage of equipment to be the bare minimum and said as much to Patrick, pointing out that I didn’t even have a MESA/Boogie or Marshall amp with me and that the combination wah/volume pedal represented a significant commitment to traveling light.

“Well, all I brought was this bass,” was his response.

“And if you break a string?” I inquired.

“That’s not going to happen, it’s a bass.” Shows what he knows. But this packing list was perhaps the first sign that I wasn’t cut out for the “jam philosophy”. I was treating this like a BMX race or a day at the skatepark or a NASA event. I’ve learned over the past thirty years that if you bring your tools and extra equipment, you won’t need it. I probably visited skateparks three or four hundred times over the course of a decade and I don’t ever recall having to go home because of equipment failure. Same goes for all the BMX races I attended in the decade prior. I had nothing but contempt for my friends who showed up at the skatepark or track unprepared for mechanical issues. When you behave like that, you’re just demonstrating that you don’t value your own time. Why make a sixteen-hour roundtrip to Tennessee only to be derailed by a broken string — or a bad tube — or the failure of a solder joint — or the lack of sheet music?

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Since the jam was scheduled to begin at 12:00 sharp, we arrived at 11:20 and were ready to play by 11:40. Some long-haired dude walked by. “Vic will be here around one,” he informed us, “so that will be good.”

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“What are we supposed to do until then?” This, from me, was delivered in a slightly higher voice than I’d intended.

“Dude, you can chill, you know?” I wanted to tell him — listen, my time is worth money, I could be earning money right now — but instead I wandered off to “The Woodshed” where a bass jam was already in progress. There were five bass players, a harmonica player, and a drummer. Patrick started playing a set of bongos. After twenty minutes where nobody stood up and issued clear directions for jam participation, I decided to go and get one of my guitars from the main building.

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When I got over there, I saw a twelve-year-old kid absolutely kicking the ass of a new-looking drumset. (I’d later find out that Danny Gottlieb, the fellow who was the driving force behind Pat Metheny’s “American Garage” record, had stopped by and donated it to the camp.) While normally I wouldn’t ask children for help, I figured I’d make an exception.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Just play,” he responded, and returned to his remarkably complicated drumbeat. Some fellow wandered up behind me and plugged in a bass that he’d built himself. Now, I thought, we have a band. I can’t help it. I’ve been a frontman since I played my high school talent show in 1986. With the exception of a year I spent playing bass and only occasionally singing in a country band, I’ve always felt that I had the right and the obligation to direct my bandmates. So I whipped this impromptu trio into a quick performance of “Josie”.

Victor walked in, ambled up to a point about five feet from where I was playing, and observed. I cannot say that helped the accuracy of my chording. After all, I’ve been watching Victor play music for twenty-four years and I am extremely happy with that arrangement — the one where he performs and I watch. Doing it in reverse was not confidence-inspiring. I wrapped up the song early, at which point Victor took the mic and formally welcomed us all to the jam.

For the next few hours, I struggled with the jam format and what it demands from a musician. It’s the opposite of what Patrick and I do in our leisure time. I like picking a song, arranging it, performing it, then calling it a night. I believe in that process. It’s comforting, it feels like we’ve accomplished something. At one point Victor had to basically put me in check about my band-leading desires. I felt absolutely miserable when he did it — I’m being singled out for criticism by a musical idol — but he was right.

Around three o’clock four of the more experienced cats started a basic E-and-A groove on the main stage. I joined in on my Strat, determined that I wouldn’t step on any toes. A few other musicians joined in. After about fifteen minutes we had a real thing going and about twenty people had gathered in front of the stage to listen. The drummer and I locked in and I became the rhythm for the various solo endeavors from the bass players. I wasn’t exactly sure how long we’d been playing when someone called “halt” and changed over to a traditional blues where everybody took solos. There was another guitarist and we worked to stay away from each other; when I played a chord he played a line and vice versa. When it was my turn to solo, I chose to sing instead of shred. I’m not sure how popular that was. Finally we called halt and Victor brought some other players to the stage.

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Patrick had borrowed a Rybski Wooten Woods bass and he held down the groove while Victor soloed. Some weird dude with a Chapman Stick insisted on playing a Steely Dan tune. So I got to watch Patrick suffer through a half-hour jam version of “Do It Again” in which he constantly felt the eyes of Victor Wooten upon his technique.

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At the end of that I attempted to play a tune with Mr. Chapman Stick, but about 50% of the way through “Home At Last” I realized that this guy’s idea of playing the tune involved a lot of odd key changes so I just walked off. For the next hour, this fellow basically played a homeless-person busking set on stage while thirty people milled around and discussed ways to bring said set to a halt. I considered this to be a vindication of my organizational desires. “They should do a setlist ahead of time,” I told Patrick, “and we should have all learned the tunes. Then we could really jam.” Patrick thought for a minute, probably about the fact that I had the keys to the rental car and all the gas money, before nodding in the vaguest possible agreement.

I then dragged him to “The Woodshed” where, in conjunction with the super-cool dude who had been the other guitarist on my last jam, we decided to play “All Blues” by Miles Davis. We had three horn players, three bass players, a keyboardist, and me. Our first few starts were false ones and I could sense the thing falling apart. I reminded everyone that you don’t immediately jump into playing a tough song — or any song. I put the chart up on a whiteboard. We settled in and played the hell out of the thing.

This was what I’d come for — to “blow over” a known tune with brilliant musicians. The three horn players in particular sounded like they’d been working together for years. I’d put our take on the tune up against anybody short of Miles himself. When it was time for me to solo, I kicked on the Tube Screamer and played a lot better than I normally do.

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It was almost seven o’clock so we hit the road, knowing that the jams would probably continue until midnight but unwilling to stick around any longer. We weren’t sure what to make of the experience. It was confusing. I saw the jam format work very well a few times but I also saw it turn into an absolute trainwreck more often than it didn’t. I can see how a group of very skilled musicians could really accomplish something with it, but couldn’t those same musicians accomplish a lot more with even a loose framework like a jazz standard? It frustrated me that I couldn’t call a tune and have people either know it or be willing to learn it. There weren’t any music stands in evidence.

More troubling than that was what my inability to work with the format said about me. I don’t think of myself as being wrapped particularly tight, and I’m not a control freak, and I’m not insistent on having everything my own way — but when I arrived at what was supposed to be directionless musical enjoyment, I started to exhibit all of the above qualities and then some.

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I returned home to find that I’d left work undone, stories unwritten, bills unpaid. You’d think I could exercise the same control over my daily life that I wanted to impose on a random jam session. Maybe that’s the lesson: bring the right attitude to the right situation. Improve my productivity as a writer and businessman so I can enjoy weekends like this correctly.

Would we return? Patrick was of the opinion that once was enough. I’ve been trying not to think of it as a challenge that I can go back and “win”, but as an opportunity to become better at interacting with other players on their terms, not mine. In the end, the decision was made for me by my lack of precision. I left my Tube Screamer behind, along with my Lava Cable. Mrs. Wooten said she’d keep it safe in anticipation of my return. That settles it; in six months or so I’ll head back to the jam, and I’ll try not be jelly, or something like that, and there’s more I could say, but we’re calling time on this solo, you dig?

8 Replies to “Turns Out, It Was Too Much For Me To Jam”

  1. -Nate

    You seriously need to chillax Jack .

    You’re supposed to be having fun and learning , then it’ll get better and more fun .

    The Topanga thing is coming up soon , I hope I can make it .

    I couldn’t carry your Guitar but the impromptu jam sessions are amazing .


  2. MrFixit1599

    My Dad plays Bluegrass, has many guitars, has the 30 foot RV to take to them, etc. Since he is no longer in one of the main stage bands, he spends most days watching the stage, then the evenings among the camping area doing jam sessions until the wee hours of the morning. I don’t understand the way it works, who leads, who decides what songs to play. I haven’t been to one since I was a kid, so I don’t really recall how it all worked exactly, but he obviously gets a lot of joy out of it. Then again it may be the beer and conversation that does it, I really don’t know. I do recall there used to be a large amount of different groups, and players would wander from one to the next until they found a place to fit in and be comfortable.

    If you really want to learn how a jam session works, spend an evening at a bluegrass festival, take an acoustic with you, and just play. If you break a string, someone will either give you another string that won’t match, or hand you their guitar, but you can still play.

    Then write a review about it, because there would have to be many stories there.

  3. Brian

    Jack – Few things would make me happier than for you to attend this, and then write about it. Pony up for one of their on-site accommodation packages if you don’t want to sleep in a tent next to your car (although for some, that’s part of the appeal). I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to assume you’ve never been to a Phish concert, and one of their festivals is really something everyone should experience. There is a sense among the Phish community that this may very well be the last one they ever do. Hell, it’s at Watkins Glen, bring Derek and maybe you can get TTAC to pay for it.

    Hope to see you there.

  4. Domestic Hearse

    I have Victor’s multi-CD The Music Lesson, which is basically him reading his book about his theory of life and music. A good portion of the material deals with music as language. That we develop our vocabulary, musically, much as we might our English skills. First a word or two. Then sentences. Then paragraphs. Finally, different styles of musical language.

    For a guy who grew up in a musical family, and started playing music at age four, music as language is no doubt parallel in Victor’s mind with speaking and the written word as language. For those of us who picked up instruments later in life, learning to be a natural musician with a wide vocabulary probably came to us much harder than it did to Victor.

    That’s what Victor’s jam sessions seek to encourage – music as language. He’s not interested in anyone speaking, or charting out “songs” at his jams, or giving much direction by way of spoken word. What he wants to encourage is musical dialogue. People talking to each other musically. Taking the jam in new directions by introducing new ideas and concepts along the way, in time or chord changes, introducing a theme, then reinterpreting it in different ways.

    Miles Davis comes up a bit in this blog, and he had a similar approach. Many times, he’d invite hot upcoming young musicians over to his home studio. They’d all arrive and be standing around, no Miles. He’d secretly be in the next room, headphones on, listening. Waiting to see what young players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Mike Stern would do. Who would take the lead? Who would be the first to pull out their axe and say, “Let’s just jam while we wait for Miles.” And then, who had good ideas. Which guys could fit with each other.

    There’s a story of Miles barging in to one jam session, surprising the young hopefuls in the room. He scowled and rasped, “Someone tell that polack to shut the fuck up, leave some room for the song to get through.” (I believe he was referring to bassist John Patitucci, who is today quite accomplished and has a rather busy style, but it’s been awhile since my senior thesis so the exact musician Miles was directing his ire at is a bit fuzzy.)

    So yeah, Victor’s jam is not anything like “band practice” where you pick a tune, chart the changes, discuss the structure, then run it down several times. Victor wants everything to be extemporaneous, improvised, impromptu. Invented on the spot, shared back and forth among the musicians, constantly evolving, like the concepts discussed in The Music Lesson. I’ve met some musicians that are absolutely brilliant in jams — and universally, they’ve got the best ears in the room. They listen hard. Egoless. Leave lots of room, but then can front the group when it’s their turn, showcase their chops, introduce a few new twists, then drop back into the background. Round n’ round. Next time you’re back to Victor’s camp to retrieve your stomp box, I hope you fall in with a group like that.

    • Jack Post author

      Intellectually I understand what you’re saying, but it’s as beyond me to accomplish as it probably would be for Victor to rip out a competitive lap in an American Iron Mustang 🙂

      I will keep trying to make slow progress though.

      • Domestic Hearse

        Trade. Barter. Victor’s a pretty adventurous and curious dude. You give him private performance car driving instruction on a race track, and you get private music lessons from Vic. How freakin’ cool would that be? Googling for road courses around Nashville right now…


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