Kids these days

The Jammies electronic generation

Chris Caraway is the Jammies Producer and Night of Contemporary Music Director

What is it like to be 16 years old and play the 1000-seat Crest Theatre or the even larger 1800-seat Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center?

I ask myself that question every year as I set up those huge stages for the annual Jammies.

I too was a high-school musician and was fortunate enough to play some very exciting places, both through my high-school music programs and also with a garage band. But things have changed since my time: For example, my school-sponsored program was fully funded.

Today, due to continuing state budget cuts, many high-school music programs have lost funding. As you might imagine, this dramatically affects what the school musicians of today get to do or where they can travel to compete. Worse, some schools have eliminated their music programs completely. This is a devastating loss of opportunity for our youth and is, in my book, unacceptable.

For me, music was the first thing I was good at. It did wonders for my self esteem and for realizing and developing a sense for the arts. Simply put, music changed my life for the better.

Thankfully, here in the Sacramento region, there are many school music programs that have not only survived the fiscal crises, but also have flourished. Many students at these schools are the performers at the Night of Classical Music show.

As for the funding problems, I’ll just say that as a society we need to reevaluate our values and priorities regarding youth and the arts. The good news is that the Jammies Night of Classical Music is the perfect spotlight to bring attention to this issue. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has seen the Sacramento Youth Symphony or the Davis High School Orchestra at the Jammies would not want to preserve music-program funding. In my opinion those two groups are as good as any professional orchestra; watching teens perform at that level is simply amazing. Just think about the dedication it took to be at that level—it’s beyond inspiring.

Today, on the garage-band side of things, the situation is quite the inverse from mine. In my teen rock ’n’ roll days, finding a place to play was extremely hard. Promoting a gig also was tough because only two members in my band actually had cars, and to make a record, you actually had to have money and go into a studio. But the digital revolution was coming, and it would change everything.

All-ages venues were coming too. Places like Club Retro, The Underground Cafe and, most recently, Junta—all non-alcoholic venues with full sound and lights and a real stage—give kids of all ages a place where they can actually play … and the parents approve. A teen-aged musician’s dream!

When the Jammies started in 2003, I was amazed with the level at which these young people could play. I wrongly assumed that because they were young, they really didn’t have the time or experience to reach a high level of competency on their instruments. This is a mistake many people from older generations make. I now find these kids as being well-versed and as having been exposed to many more types of music than my generation was at a similar age.

The Internet’s influence on music—looking up sheet music and tablatures for popular songs you want to learn, having a Myspace account or Web page, contacting and building your fan base electronically—has changed the nature of how contemporary music is presented, promoted, sold and acquired.

The digital revolution also has dramatically changed the recording-studio industry via digital home recording: One can make good-quality demos and albums for merely the price of the equipment and your time, and all the while you gain the experience and knowledge of recording sound and making records. No substitute for actually doing it! Another dream come true!

The total result is that by the time kids reach the Jammies, they arrive far more prepared and equipped to build, or often already have, a fan base. They also are far more likely to produce their own CDs, T-shirts and other merchandise; I see them selling at every show, sometimes surprisingly high numbers. Much if not all of these things are orchestrated online. Being digitally-based has become a not only preferred, but is a requirement within this far more efficient paradigm. Nowadays, if you don’t have a Web site, you don’t exist.

Ironically, the same digital technology that is setting these musicians free of geographical boundaries and monetary or manufacturing limitations is destroying the national industry that many Jammies performers aspire to enter.

Due to this change in technology, which at the time of Jammies I didn’t think had become as widespread as it actually had, the Night of Contemporary Music was, artistically, quite a surprise. I expected three-chord rock bands with no fans, but instead stumbled upon Gooser, Adrian Bourgeois, Fairman and Friends, Five Minute Ride, Sasha Tkacheff and many more other very talented groups and soloists.

As far as where some of them are now, Gooser played three years of the Jammies and was signed to J Street Recorders, owned by Tesla bassist Brian Wheat. They will be releasing an EP, produced by Wheat, on February 14. Adrian Bourgeois, who will play his final Jammies at the Contemporary show and has been involved all four years, is working on a development deal and recently finished recording a fantastic five-song demo, produced by David Houston. Houston also recorded the Fairman and Friends CD, which is outstanding. Chris Fairman is now working on a solo project, again with Houston. Sasha Tkacheff went on to open for Joe Satriani at the Warfield. All in all, pretty cool stuff.

I’m often asked, “What does it take to be in the Jammies?” When I think of the best groups who have played the Jammies, they all have had a few similarities that I should mention: They all play well, are good songwriters, have conviction, seem to know how to be themselves, and, most importantly, have talent. Talent is actually a strange thing to quantify or describe. The best I can do is quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I can’t define or describe it, but I know it when I see it.”

This year I feel like a football coach losing a bunch of senior-varsity players: Next year, there will be no single artist or group who will have played all five Jammies (unless Adrian flunks!). All the performers from the first year will have grown wings and left, some to college, some to the Sammies, and a few to take their shot at being stars.

But the new crop of amazing talent is already here, some who you will see this year in the Contemporary show. Some are younger, sitting in the audience; some are watching the show on cable or DVD. Some don’t even know it yet, but all of them are dreaming of their moment at the Jammies, and beyond.