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Resilience of american musical culture in Eugene's jazz and bluegrass jam sessions


Alan Lomax, who is an important American anthropologist responsible for hundreds of thousands of folk recordings around the world, developed a special interest in the American folk music. When he started his professional life as an assistant in charge of the Folk life Division at the Library of Congress in 1932 with his father, an important folklorist who was responsible for the archive at that time, they were very connected with the idea of a national identity of American Folk Culture. Even the most popular music at that time, the early jazz, was an important source understood not only from the perspective of the researcher but through the memory of the local musicians recorded for the research sponsored by the Archive of Folk Music of the Library of Congress. One of their interviews was with Jelly Roll Morton, credited with inventing jazz. This interview, which became the book, Mister Jelly Roll – The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz,” the first recorded biography made into a book first published in 1949, which was responsible to introduce the idea of “oral history” to academic research.

Morton was recorded by Lomax on a May day in 1938 in the quiet chamber music auditorium in the Library of Congress to be preserved in the American Folk Archive. According to Morton his first experience as a professional musician in Storyville, a bohemian area in New Orleans that became known as the birthplace of jazz, was in a Jam Session:

So in the year of 1902 when I was about seventeen years old I happened to invade one of the sections where the birth of jazz from. Some friends took me to The Frenchman’s on the corner of Villere and Bienville, which was at that time the most famous nightspot after everything was closed. It was only a back room, but it was where all the greatest pianists frequented after they got off from work in the sporting houses. About four A.M., unless plenty of money was involved on their jobs, they would go to The Frenchman’s and there would be everything in the line of hilarity there. All the girls that could get out of their houses was there. The millionaires would come to listen to their favorite pianists. There weren’t any discrimination of any kind. They all sat at different tables or anywhere they felt like sitting. They all mingled together just as they wished to and everyone was just like on big happy family.(1)

This story reported by Morton to Lomax about the tradition of American Jam Sessions at the birthplace of the traditional American genre more than a hundred years ago was the core point to the development of some reflections about the Resilience of the American Culture in Eugene Jazz and bluegrass Jam’s Sessions. His description of the sessions as bringing people, musicians as well as audience, together around the music is essential to the idea of American music culture that has survived and thrived over time. My participant observation (2) during two weeks at different local Jam Sessions was also important, not only because I was able to experience the performance, but also because it gave me the access to important information directly from the musicians involved in the sessions.

The positive interactions resulted by playing in the jam sessions could be explained as typical of musical engagement that occurs in all humans societies. Nevertheless, it was the first time I had experienced these interactions playing jazz in a jam session in the birthplace of this world famous genre. As a saxophone player from Brazil, I had never expected to be received and accepted in a Jam Session in US as a master among masters. This appears to be a feature of the American music culture.

Jazz music has a unique character that often attracts highly talented musicians to play together. Despite this, Brazilians generally establish a mood of competition between the musicians, who act aggressively in their personal and professional behavior to outshine the other musicians. Thus, the collaborative and relaxed atmosphere of the jazz Jam Session in Eugene as well as another new affirmative experience in a bluegrass music Jam Session, led me ponder the following question: “How is the resilience of American musical culture in Eugene jam’s sessions manifest in the jazz and the new bluegrass communities?” After this intense experience I was decided to present this question as core point of my paper.

The Professionalization of the Musical Activities

Before the Modern Era, music was a way to integrate all community and a way to show an important part of the local culture. In the US, the hallmark of local music was in the form of “jam sessions,” in which the music could be produced and improvised in a collective way. However, in different parts of world the places that featured live local musical activities started to decline in the second part of the last century, competing with the new places, which were dominated by mechanical and electric sound systems that increasingly featured pop music as a product and a way to entertain the audience in a large scale. How this process became so powerful and start to represent a challenge to a sustainability of the cultural diversity?

Since the invention of the gramophone by Thomas Edison and the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, the process of modern listening, called by the Ethnomusicologist Jonathan Sterne plastic aurality, changed the relationship between communities and their music. According to Sterne in his book The Audible Past (2003):

As the industries grew, these connections moved from the personal and the technical to the industrial. As sound technologies became media, and as industries grew up as parts of those media, relations among different industries and practices of sound reproduction were frequently in a state of flux. (3)

The space for live music became more restricted to the professional performance of the musicians, and the music industry arose after the popularization of musical records, turning music into a commodity. The traditional spaces in which the live music performances were accepted had to be commercialized and fee-based, establishing new taxes for several different economic interests, from copyright to professional activities made by audio technicians, producers and professional musicians.

Now, however, the music industry as well capitalist-driven market has suffered a stroke and significantly decreased in the last 20 years. The creation of new, free and more democratic technologies and a backlash against the musical juggernaut created by the music industry has led to a reemergence of an alternative and large informal market. Some professional musicians, who had been excluded from the traditional markets, now have found a new beginning with the assistance of the Internet and the facilities of the digital era. Even the communities, who cannot afford sophisticated and expensive gadgets, are trying to find different ways to enjoy the traditional musical activities and spend their free time in a sustainable way.

As a result, public spaces are once again the focus of these musical performances, which signals a resurgence of the culture so important in American music. Students, professional musicians and the public are creating new spaces to share a free and more real connecting experience. The traditionally conflicting interests between public and private entities have found a powerful and diverse field working with small communities and alternative solutions. The professional activities of musicians in these places have greater solidarity and accessibility, encouraging anyone who can afford an instrument to occupy public spaces such as squares, metro stations, and community clubs and are finding their way to publicize and reach their audience.

Even the musical traditions used in the past by the governments to produce a national identity are being transformed and adapted through this new process developed in public spaces that are able to build a more democratic network. In this paper, a clear example of the resilience of the traditional American musical culture manifest in jam sessions can be witnessed in Eugene, Oregon.

The Artistic Occupations at Jazz Station and Whirled Pies

The Jam Session on Sunday evenings at Jazz Station is part of the recent cultural activities promoted by this small club at Broadway St. and Willamette St. that connects the public with the jazz musicians, including professionals, students and amateurs. The activities of the club are open to the community and offer the space and encouragement for the audience and musicians that could become affiliated by joining and organizing the concerts and events. My first experience in the Jazz Station was through one of the Brazilians teachers from the University of Oregon who was performing at the club and had invited me to come and play with them. The place was full and most of the people were regular clients and both the audience and the musicians received me with respect and reverence.

On another side of the city a Jam Session at the Whirled Pies Pizzeria and Bottle Shop, this one a bluegrass/folk session takes place in a small space in the backyard of an old house, which can be accessed by a gate on one side of the house. The yard has a small table and the musicians stand together in a circle playing with no amplification. The yard is separated from the neighbors just by a fence covered by natural plants. The activities start every Tuesday night at 7 pm. Similar to what happened at Jazz Station, I was introduced to the musicians by an English teacher from the University of Oregon, who is a folk music enthusiast and a neighbor of the pizzeria. The artistic occupation of the backyard is not ‘official’ and no tips are requested and no entrance fee is charged. The space does not support many people, and for that reason, this activity is not publicized. Both of these places are located in the city of Eugene, which helps and encourages the community to produce this specific kind of artistic occupation.

Eugene: The “World's Greatest City for the Arts & Outdoors”

The city of Eugene, according to the last survey presented by Portland Research Center in 2012, has recently grown in population to 158,335 people, and has become the fourth largest city in the Pacific Northwest. The economic activities vary between the blue collar [primarily logging] and white collar [the University and business] jobs in balanced proportions. However, those different categories that traditionally separate the trades from the intellectual and business activities do not have the same connotation in a city which boasts a thriving alternative lifestyle culture for a large community of Hippies. Musicians and free artists in Eugene do not identify themselves as either white or blue collars. Instead, they tend to be more attracted to one or the other when they try to ideologically affiliate with a particular audience.

New Place for Musical Performance and Sustainable Entertainment

The idea of having musicians with varying skills performing together in a public space without restrictions of expertise is not unique to the musicians in Eugene and is a hallmark of American musical culture. Nevertheless, those two places, located in the same area in Eugene, create an opportunity for the local communities to show a different responses to the excessive commercialization of the musical market, presenting particular dynamics in interactions during the performances.

The music culture of Jazz in Eugene as performed at Jazz Station allows outsiders and amateurs to perform in a friendly ambiance, learning from each other, and making connections that not only influence the local culture but also build a professional network that helps the jazz musicians to perform in other places. Kenny Reed, an experienced musician from Brooklyn, New York, who plays drums, sings and performs poetry, is responsible for the Jam Sessions at Jazz Station. In the interview conducted for this research, Reed described the basic concepts that have guided his activities during the Jam Session at Jazz Station that he has lead for the past two-and-a-half years: “Jam Sessions are part of learning Culture. Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, especially if you’re a jazz musician. Jam sessions just open up the ears. That’s what it’s all about. The Jam.”(4)

This general idea about the process of learning and the importance of making connections in jam sessions allow the musicians to produce a web of contacts that maintain their capacity to find jobs in the professional music market. This topic has been already studied by the sociologist and jazz musician Howard Becker in his book Do you know? Jazz Repertoire in Action (5), who affirms that in a small musical community professional musicians have to create a network of jobs for players. According to Becker: “Some of the musicians can easily find a gig close to home, perhaps most especially in larger cities, but most players in smaller centers have to travel to get to a larger number of jobs and opportunities to play.” It also came up during an informal interview with Neal Janssen the guitarist of the Jam session at Jazz Station, that the jazz musicians who really want to keep working with music have to play in Jam Sessions to keep being part of the jazz scene and help to maintain this important musical activity.

In contrast, the musicians that belong to the Bluegrass Community present different perspectives related to the jam sessions. The fact that the majority of musicians from the community have other professional occupations makes them use this activity as a creative outlet that is different from their professional activities. Mat Beecher, who has been leading the Jam Sessions since the beginning, told me that in the past ten years the open mic night at Eugene has been very popular, but the group has had to adapt to the new reality faced at the Whirled Pies Pizzeria, in terms of the availability of space and the expectations of the musicians who join the Jam.

According to Mat, the group had two reasons to keep the activities at the same place: One is the support from the local community and the other is the difficulty of finding new places to perform, especially because the professional and more skilled musicians who lead other Jam Sessions are not so open to accepting people who are learning. Mat described the model of musical activities that they imagined when they created the new space for the Jam: “What I try to do is create an authentic bluegrass circle like they do on the Appalachia, which is the East part of America where bluegrass music started. There you have grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, dads, moms, teenagers, children, girls playing music. Obviously the music would not be that good, but the idea is that you keep trying.”(6)

Mat also referred to the dynamics that occur during their Jam Sessions, and their strategies to balance the sound between the experienced and new musicians: “If you are not that good, continue to play but just, kind of step back off circle, and let the force in the middle be good and hard,(7) and then you play a little quarter back but you learn. That is how they do it on the East coast, where this music started.”(8) Reed also described the process of interaction during the jam sessions at Jazz Station:

That’s how you get jobs. There’s no practicin’ on the stage, you get up there and you know what you’re doing and it gets you work. And there’s always somethin’ that you do not know. (9) That’s why we jam. Everybody gets the chance to put in their ideas. Everybody’s got a different tune, and they’re comfortable doin’ it, and we all learn from each other at the same time. That’s what Jammin’s all about. (10)

According to the interviews, it is clear that besides the informality and the differences between the professional skills and behavior of the musicians in the jams and the new spaces created for those interactions, there are some elements that differ essentially in the quality of the humans’ interaction that can be observed in the Jam Session. These musical groups developed new strategies to balance the expectations of the public and the musicians in the same place and in a dynamic that help to provide an alternative pattern for social interactions that are more sensible in the relation between the personal and professional needs. Both of these jam sessions, however, provide clear insight into the American music culture that continues to thrive in the United States as a form of resilient musical activity.


This paper demonstrates how two American musical traditions, the Jazz Music and Bluegrass music are performed in different ways at the city of Eugene, Oregon. However, the traditional way to share and perform music, as part of the American culture can be found and once again identify with different beliefs in a several places. These two examples, the Jazz Station and the Whirled Pies Pizzeria and Bottle Shop are recent activities in small communities, which are trying to reproduce the old spirit of learning, sharing and working with music in life and in active jam sessions, reframing the role of the musicians and the musical culture in the post modern society.

These two cases of studies clearly demonstrate an alternative to the global mass media, big music companies, the lack of the connection between the musicians and the people, the excessive valorizations of the music as commodities and the profit produced by this kind of activity that have affected the musicians and the audience for many years. The new strategies created by small communities are trying to establish new kinds of relationships and reconnected communities through the music. These elements have been used as a symbolical and basic tool for socialization and mutual support that could help the communities to maintain the local activities in a way to reach a sustainable life with a more integrated learning, sharing and working cultural activity.


Faulkner, Robert R., and Howard Saul Becker. "Do you know--?" The jazz repertoire in action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Fetterman, David M. Ethnography: Step-by-step. 3. ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif. [u.a.: Sage, 2010.

Hood, Mantle. "The Challenge of 'Bi-musicality'." Ethnomusicology 4.2 (1960): 55-59. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.

Lomax, Alan. "Storyville." Mister Jelly Roll: The fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and inventor of jazz.. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 42. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.


(1) Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll; the fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and inventor of jazz. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 42.

(2) The participant observation is a process used by anthropologists to change theirs perspective in the fieldwork, modifying the traditional position from an observer to a more integrative participation. This new perspective was first adopted in Ethnomusicology research by the Mantle Hood in 1960, named the process Bi-musicality. Mantle Hood The Challenge of 'Bi-musicality', Ethnomusicology, 1960.

(3) Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past (London: Duke University Press, 2003), 189.

(4) Kenny Reed (Jazz Musician) in discussion with the author, August 2013.

(5) Howard Becker, Do you Know? Jazz Repertoire in Action (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009)

(6) Mat (Bluegrass Musician) in discussion with the author, August 2013.

(7) The middle parts of the bluegrass groups are composed by the instruments that perform the harmonic and rhythm functions integrated. The tradition bluegrass ensemble does not use percussion, so the harmonic instruments perform also the rhythmic part. The basic rhythm of the songs is divided in three parts, the mandolin plays the 1st and 3rd beats, the bass plays the 2nd and 4th beats. The two other instruments that integrate the middle part, the banjo and the rhythmic guitar, are responsible to add some rhythmic and melodic variations. This interaction between the instrument that compose the middle part are very difficult to achieve but when the group finds flow, the solo instruments and the singer could perform the tunes easily, increasing the quality of the performance.

(8) See note 6 above

(9) Howard Becker, Do you Know? Jazz Repertoire in Action (Chicago: The university of Chicago Press, 2009), The repertoire and the basic musical information of the most played tunes are written in a book prepared especially for the Jam Sessions, called Real Book. This traditional tool for jazz musicians was made by the students from Berkley School of music during the 1970s based on an old book sold in music stores in the beginning of the XX century before the popularity of the recording machines and others systems of reproducing audio that substituted live music in the private ambiences.

(10) See note 4 above

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