Preserving the jam

Jamming 101 teaches musicians (and non-musicians) how to play together

Jamologist Sid Lewis leads the jammers, and shows off his Jamily Tree.

Jamologist Sid Lewis leads the jammers, and shows off his Jamily Tree.

Photo By jeb draper

Join the jam:
Jamming 101 will be setting up school at the California WorldFest in Grass Valley, July 14-17. Check for a full schedule of upcoming workshops, or call 894-2526.

It’s a reasonable question: Why was a notorious jamming detractor such as myself sitting in a chair on my front lawn on a summer night, with a dozen or so friends and co-workers, taking part in a Jamming 101 class led by Chico musician, music instructor and notorious jammer Sid Lewis?

I’ll just stick with a short answer and say that there is more than one way to jam, and on this night I assure you there were no 65-minute crunchy grooves being carved into the grass.

The kind of jamming that Lewis is teaching with his Jamming 101 workshops at music festivals, retreats and corporate functions is of the circle-around-the-campfire and hanging-out-on-the-front-porch variety—the kind of jams where everyone with an instrument joins in to play acoustic music—folk, bluegrass, etc.—together all night long, or at least until the flames or the beers are gone.

And best of all, Lewis’ approach to Jamming 101—as it is with all of his music-instruction endeavors—is all-inclusive, meaning that everyone, not just the noodling virtuosos, is encouraged to play.

“The basic premise here is that anyone can be musical, whether they believe it or not,” said Lewis.

Out at his home base on West Eighth Avenue, the 42-year-old Lewis talked about his approach as he sat in what he refers to as the “musical dojo,” surrounded by banjos, guitars and other stringed instruments hanging on every wall in his office. In addition to Jamming 101, the dojo is where Lewis runs his Acoustic College acoustic/folk music-instruction school as well as his Chico School of Rock instruction program for youth.

All of his programs encourage jumping right in and playing music as opposed to learning theory first. It’s what Lewis calls the “Natural Method,” where the focus is on feeling the music and just playing along. That’s right: jamming.

“Music isn’t a science, it is an experience,” Lewis explained.

Though he now runs a music school and was a two-time California state flat-picking champ, Lewis said he learned to play folk and bluegrass just hanging out with his musical family and their friends as a child—“Sitting knee-to-knee with those I looked up to.”

It was sitting knee-to-knee with festival-goers at the 2000 California WorldFest where Jamming 101 was born. Promoter Dan DeWayne stumbled upon Lewis leading a jam and offered him a free ticket if he’d return the following year and lead some jamming workshops. As he prepared for the gig, he realized that there were no materials available to assist him in teaching jamming, and the light went on. He put some together. He created a workbook, and a system built on an easy-to-follow Five-Level Jam System pyramid, and the system has caught on. He is now regularly booked at the summer music festivals (he’s back at Cal WorldFest next weekend), and even was featured on a National Public Radio segment in 2007.

Lewis’ ultimate goal with Jamming 101 is to turn it into a patented method that other instructors can buy and use to teach jamming all over the world.

Even though the gathered jammers on my front lawn had easily more than 100 years of combined musical experience (we had a clarinetist from the North State Symphony, for crying out loud), Lewis gave us the full beginner treatment, guiding us with blown-up posters from his Jamming 101 manual.

Starting at the bottom, we turned our guitars, ukuleles and clarinet into percussion instruments, learning the rhythm, or “heartbeat” of music, which is the first level in his five-level pyramid.

“It’s very rare that someone can’t clap their hands,” Lewis said, suggesting that if you can clap you can play music at Level One.

From there, we progressed quickly up the the Five-Level Jam System, from Level Two and playing the root note on our instruments (G, G, G, G ….), then the chords (G, G, G, G … ), then the melody and finally Level Five and the lead-line.

“With this system we’re finding where we fit in,” Lewis said. The point being, as he goes through the steps, each player finds a comfort/skill level and can thus understand his or her place in the jam.

Lewis says he believes that the success of the class lies in always keeping things playful. And in a testament to his personality, he keeps us engaged with his goofy terminology—“Jamily Tree,” the “Ten Jamandments” (“Ye shall always tune first”)—and smart-ass one-liners.

“It started in a camp, in lawn chairs, drinking beers and picking and grinning,” he said, explaining the mindset he keeps. “You cannot be intimidated and be laughing at the same time.”

And we did laugh in our lawn chairs as we picked and grinned our way through a rousing version of the old hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” jamming until the beer (almost) ran out.