Jammin’ for 15 years
CBA Welcome Column by MOLD Friday columnist, bass player and Marin County Area VP Larry Carlin
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
The twice-a-month bluegrass jam in Corte Madera in Marin County be marks its 15-year anniversary today. There will be no streamers, cake or fireworks. I have no doubt that anyone else even knows about this date. But it is with some small satisfaction that I can look back and say that it all began on this day in 1999.
I decided to start the jam after hearing the phrase “Someone should start a jam in Marin” way too many times. Did I need to be jamming myself? Certainly not. At that point in my life I had been playing music for 30 years, although most of that was on electric bass, which was my first instrument. And then, as now, I thought I was way too busy to be taking on another organizing project. Yet as the saying goes, “If you want something done, give it to a busy man,” so I decided to take the bull by the horns and get something started.
I went and talked with the owner of a place in the town of Larkspur that was called the Java Café, and he agreed to let me try something on a tentative basis. The jam began on June 24th, 1999, and with a little self-styled Carltone publicity, the first night was very successful, as about 15 people showed up. The Java owner was quite happy, and immediately a regular pattern of the first-and-third-Thursdays-every-month, from 7:30-10 p.m., was set up. And now, 15 years later, the jamming continues.
The jam lasted for a year at Java, but after the place closed the it moved three times in the next couple of years until it found a permanent home at the Marin Lutheran Church in Corte Madera 12 years ago, thanks in no small part to my longtime singing partner Claudia Hampe, who thought a church hall would be much better than trying to cater to the whims of constantly changing brew pub and pizza parlor management. While it was nice to have a beer while playing, it did become a bit trying when non-playing customers began making requests or would applaud after the completion of a song. At the church it is pretty much just players, and there are no distractions, just the playing of instruments and singing.
The Marin jam is not a competitive gathering, and most of the attendees play at the beginning to intermediate level. Everyone stands in a circle, and each night there is a host who makes sure that all newcomers are welcome, that everyone takes turns, and that, most importantly, no one feels intimidated.
I took responsibility for running the jam for the first ten years, until 2009, when I passed the mantle on to someone else. Literally hundreds of people have attended over the years, and some great friends and picking pals have been made along the way. My Keystone Station band evolved from the jam, as it was there that Claudia and I met our longtime fiddler Kenny Blacklock, and our first banjo and mandolin players, Francis Mougne and Dana Rath. The Savannah Blu band all met at the jam, and other notable pickers such as Dave Zimmerman, Julay Brooks, Richard Brandenburg, and Suzanne Suwanda both were early attendees that have gone on to form or join other bands.
If you have ever thought about starting your own jam where you live, I highly recommend it. All it takes is a venue, getting the word out somehow, and compiling an email list so that you can remind people when the event will be taking place. You will be amazed at how many closet players there are that are just dying for a place to get out to play and to meet others.
Since I retired from running the jam five years ago, occasionally I will meet someone somewhere who, when they find out that I play bluegrass, will tell me about “this great jam that takes place on some Thursday nights in Corte Madera.” This never fails to bring a smile to my face, to know that I had some small part in helping people get out and play music.
One day, some years back, after boarding a Golden Gate Transit bus in downtown San Francisco to head back to Marin, I spotted a small case on the front passenger seat. I said to the driver, “That is either a tennis racket or a mandolin.” The guy said, “That is my mandolin, and I play it when I am break. You can check it out if you want.” Turns out that the driver, Mike Greenfield, was a jam regular, and he then said that “some guy named Carltone started this jam in Corte Madera. You should check it out sometime.”
Yeah, maybe I will check it out, now that I have a mandolin that I really need to learn how to play…