Jam Sessions for Guitar Zeros 

Ed Ivey's blues jam prefers players who can't play.

Fear not, amateur axe-wielding blues jammer. No longer shall your attempts at playing live be thwarted by superior players and dictator MCs. For there is a friendly venue out there that will welcome you with open arms, a guilt-laden tip jar, and a forgiving crowd eager to shake their tail feathers.

Ed Ivey's open jam session, held every Sunday night at Swig in San Francisco, is just the place for such musical rookies. In a healthy contrast to the majority of more selective Bay Area blues jams that weed out the weak, Ivey's jam promotes the inexperienced. His main credo is to get amateur musicians with little to no performing experience on stage and keep them there until they "graduate" from his jam session.

No harm done, right?

Wrong. In fact, Ivey has inadvertently upset a good portion of the local blues community. Such unrest manifested most recently in a string of attacks on the Craigslist musicians' page in which longtime blues jammer Scott Duncan harshly criticized Ivey's jam as a place to be insulted and treated poorly, and that it shouldn't even be labeled as a blues jam. Duncan, a former jam leader of the now-defunct Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland, was voicing an attitude that is prevalent among other jam session regulars and facilitators: I can play, I am here, and therefore I have a right to be on stage. Wanting none of this at his jams, Ivey does his best to eradicate all sense of entitlement.

Ivey began running the jam sessions at Swig back in 1995 when the joint was known as the Blue Lamp. In 2004, when the Blue Lamp changed owners and became Swig, Ivey abandoned the sign-up sheet, a staple of the open jam session, and began changing players out at will. This angered just about everybody involved. For veteran jammers, the sense of entitled stage time that comes with signing up was gone. The backing band, currently a vibrant garrulous bunch of individuals including music professionals, cab drivers, and race-car mechanics, was also pissed with the change because Ivey started keeping the younger, inexperienced musicians who couldn't play up on stage for longer sets.

Yet even with the once-faithful musical clientele upset, the house band miffed, and the entertainment watered down, this didn't lead to the demise of Ivey's blues jam. In fact, quite the contrary. Today, it thrives as one of the few places to go in the Bay Area on a Sunday evening with a boisterous nightlife.

Around 9 p.m. on a recent Sunday night, it was fairly dead at Swig. But by 10:30, it had completely turned: the house band was in full swing, singer Edna Love's gospel roots sucker-punched your heart, and the dance floor packed with talent. The dancers weren't the average gyrators and shufflers; they were ringers who knew how to work the floor. As the night continued, the dancing gradually deteriorated and the swingers gave way to drunken shimmies, hip thrusters, and lip biters.

With a mix of classic blues tunes, old soul hits, and a few funk jams, Ivey and company kept the repertoire fairly safe and danceable with tunes including "Stormy Monday," "Kansas City," "Sex Machine," and "Tell Me Something Good." At times the band was on fire. Other times, however, a lineup change quickly dipped the band below par. That didn't seem to bother Howard Chong, 28, of Berkeley. Having danced at Swig for the last two years, and in the Bay Area for more than ten years, he considers the blues jam to be one of the more happening Sunday night soirees in town. "Sometimes they aren't that good, but they always give it their best and do it with feeling," he said. "The house band is solid, and I like the kinds of songs they play." Drummer Patrick Willey, 36, of Lafayette, had never been to Swig before, but courageously sat in, making his percussive debut. After playing three songs he glowingly noted that Ivey "welcomed me and made it clear he would get me up on stage" and that he "really helped me with time changes while playing."

Forty-six-year-old Ivey came to San Francisco from El Paso, Texas, with the punk-rock outfit Rhythm Pigs. Growing up he had experienced a nurturing music community in the church as the older musicians mentored him and gave him room to learn. When he moved to the Bay Area and began attending jam sessions, he found them to be exclusionary and "clique-ish," which seemed to him quite contradictory to the purpose of an open jam session. "The nature of an open jam should be to give wings to the young inexperienced performer and the only real place to seriously learn is on the stage," he said. With a desire to give back and nurture the community, Ivey considers himself a teacher. When asked about his educational side, he is quick to mention that he is producing fourteen-year-old blues harpist Jay Gaunt, a point he makes perhaps in hopes of shedding some legitimacy to his once-hidden altruistic side (see "Break or We'll Break Your Face" by Rhythm Pigs).

Swig isn't the only Bay Area establishment for tremble-handed musicians to hash out their "I – IV – Vs". Steve Freund's jam session at the Mojo Lounge in Fremont has built a sturdy reputation among the blues community as a quality jam session. Freund, a guitarist who moved to Chicago in 1976 and was subsequently taken under wing by many blues heavyweights, considers himself a jam session master of ceremonies and claims to do his best to ensure that all sign-ups get their fifteen minutes of fame. With a similar social conscience as Ivey, Freund notes that he is here to "nurture and inspire." When confronted with weaker players, he matches them with stronger players. When the stronger players complain of dealing with amateurs, Freund's stark wisdom and humor cut the ego cake as he reminds them "It's a jam. Nobody's getting paid. We aren't playing Madison Square Garden."


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