Denver has rapidly graduated from a lonely and mostly vacant cow town to a genuine 21st century city and the bluegrass community here has evolved and grown equally fast. As little as 10 years ago, jams in Denver and the Front Range were few and far between, the exceptions being some long established jams like the Tuesday Lyons jam at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, CO and various bi-monthly bluegrass jams at Swallow Hill Music and the Denver Folklore Center. However, in the past several years the jam scene in Denver has bloomed and bluegrass jams can now be found every day of the week in the Metro area.
Luke Blaser deserves much of the credit in advocating for bluegrass jams around Denver. Having arrived from Illinois to find the jam scene lacking in Denver, Blaser created a Facebook page called Denver Pickers in 2012 to help connect grassers in the Denver area and to advertise his weekly Wednesday night jam. The small online group has grown exponentially and now claims over 1,750 pickers as members. These members are in constant contact with one another and are always looking for new bluegrass jams, or “picks,” to get together with other bluegrass enthusiasts and share their talents, songs and stories.
A bluegrass pick has very loose rules. Jam etiquette emphasizes that all are welcome from beginners to seasoned pros. The inclusiveness of a jam is part of its magic. You could find yourself at a jam for your very first time and be sitting next to an active working musician, jamming and creating music with a professional. You could meet other players at your same ability level and connect with them to spend more time together practicing, playing and helping each other improve in a more private setting. Hosts of bluegrass picks are often working musicians themselves and typically are compensated for their time by the bar, restaurant or brewery hosting the jam. Seedstock Brewery bluegrass jam host Jim Fischer of That Damn Sasquatch explains his favorite part about the jam scene. “The best part is inclusiveness. A good jam welcomes all and does well to include. You can’t find that anywhere else.”
Blaser agrees. “What makes a jam special first and foremost is the people and the diversity each person brings. You just never know what sort of background someone has and it’s exciting when they call out a new song or a take on an old song you’ve never heard. Good etiquette at a jam is very important and it’s often unspoken to those of us who have been doing it for a while. I always try and let someone know if I can see (bad etiquette) effecting others in a negative way.”
Blaser should be a master of jam etiquette by now, having hosted bluegrass jams at Dougherty’s Pub, Quixote’s Masterpiece Theater, the Park House and Baere Brewing to name a few. And working musician credentials? Blaser is also the guitar player for Modern Whiskey Market, a bluegrass band in Denver.
Jam etiquette is important, especially for more experienced players. Fischer, who grew up singing in church and school choirs in Boulder, CO, emphasizes the freedom pickers in a bluegrass jam enjoy that other jam circles don’t always allow. “Irish sessions are very strict and rule intensive. Some would say there are no rules to bluegrass jams. But even if there are no rules, there is still etiquette and there are far too many that do not take the time to learn and understand jam etiquette.”
Some basic rules? Don’t play louder than the person next to you (unless it’s your time to take a solo). If the jam is a “round-robin” jam where each person chooses a song to play, make sure you explain or focus on any atypical musical moments in the song. Make sure your instrument is in tune!!! If you don’t know the song, hang back quietly until you pick it up. The person who starts the tune is typically responsible for calling instrumental breaks and for ending the tune with everybody on the same page (or as close as you can get). Although every jam is different, having these basic etiquette rules mastered will go a long way to fitting in nicely with the Denver bluegrass jam scene.
The bluegrass scene in Denver has changed drastically in the 21st century as more and more picks start up in neighborhoods across the Metro area. As summer approaches, keep an eye out for some amazing outdoor and patio picks hosted at your favorite neighborhood bar, pub or brewery. And if nobody close to you has one, maybe you should ask a business owner about setting up a jam of your own!