November-December 2012

The Lifecyle of Regular Jam Sessions

By Roland Sturm

Irish_music_sessionRegular jam sessions tend to be ephemeral events – maybe only new folk festivals are less likely to endure beyond the first few events. So was a privilege to have led an intermediate level Celtic Session at the California Traditional Music Society in Encino for almost 4 years. But with CTMS having to vacate its building by December 31, there are only two more Celtic sessions left at CTMS: November 18 and December 16. So if you haven’t come recently, these are the last opportunities. We might even play a few Southwest tunes as the closer (see my columns from May/June 2010 and March/April 2011) as requested by some regular attendees.

The CTMS Celtic session seems to have had an above average lifespan. The last 2 years have seen the start and quick demise of Scottish sessions, Cape Breton sessions, and numerous Irish sessions, whereas the CTMS session has been steady. Moreover, in many ways the CTMS session was a replacement of another multi-year session led by Robin Ellwood at the Celtic Arts Center that fell apart after the Celtic Arts Center lost its building, so maybe there is a history of more than a decade. In fact, the Celtic Arts Center Slow Session is where my son as a little kid learned his session skills – and now he is about to leave for college.

leave for college.

As the CTMS Celtic session is winding down, another intermediate session has started and looks robust (i.e. it will not disappear immediately). This session is organized by Lynn Stokes and at the moment appears to occur every 4th Sunday of the month in Santa Monica (Mt. Olive Church, Ocean Park and 14th street). I went there once and there was excellent turnout, so it looks very promising that this is a session that will last for a while.

The lifecycle of regular jam sessions seems to depend much on the location. A reliable and public space is essential for any durability. The Encino CTMS building in that respect was an ideal place, as previously was the Celtic Arts Center. Without a regular flow of new participants, sessions tend to become stale and run out of steam. Regular participants tend to lock into a particular repertoire that they become very proficient in, but which will make a session appear even more intimidating to new participants. It starts sounding better, but turns an open session unintentionally into an informal band practice (or a closed session). Good advertisement and easy location are essential to delay that aging effect.

Eventually, it may be unavoidable that initial enthusiasm and interest fades. At CTMS, we still see some new faces most times, but overall it seems that the session is beyond its peak. This year, attrition seems to have exceeded new participation. A group of 8-10 regulars (which is where it is now) sounds better than 20 or more (there were times when it got really crowded). But the value of organizing the event declines at the same time and eventually falls below the effort it takes to keep the event going. That may just be ebb and flow and maybe January would have seen a big pickup (there was a bump every year), but we won’t know this time.

The Celtic session had a great run at the California Traditional Music Society. Come to the last 2 sessions!

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm