Sunday, February 17, 2013


Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.........................”

A jam session is an impromptu performance by a group of musicians characterized by improvisation.  A bass player lays down a base line, the percussionist adds a beat and guitarists, keyboard players, horns all play off of common riffs.  The end result is unknown at the outset; sometimes just ok, other times spectacular.  Entertaining for the the spectators (if any, as jam sessions are often just the musicians themselves), and enjoyable and fulfilling to the artists, as it helps improve their "chops" and satisfies the need to play with their peers.

While Jamming very likely first begun as an art form of its own in the jazz world, rock and roll artists did their own fair share of jamming.  The Grateful Dead made the form part of their public performances, often jamming on stage - turning five or six minute recorded performances of their songs into one hour and more long versions - none ever exactly the same as the previous one.  It is one of the things that doubtless made the band a cult favorite with their legions of fans.

Jamming goes on outside the music world.  Bullshit sessions (sorry- that's what we use to call them) are the Jam Session of late night college students solving the problems of the world.  Brainstorming Sessions are the business model of the Jam Session - yet those sessions may too often be planned, scheduled, moderated and otherwise controlled to the point where they lose the impromptu, spontaneous, improvisational aspect that marks the jazz sessions as art themselves.  Brainstorming sessions often try to address a single issue or challenge, and often the sense of urgency in meeting whatever the challenge may be creates a kind of pressure that works against the flowering of real creativity.

Back in the mid 1990’s, when I was just starting out in the nonprofit arts world, I met John Kao - businessman and former professor at the Harvard and Standford Business schools who had opened a company called the Idea Factory to work with business on the Herculean task of trying to get some kind of handle on the concept of “creatvity” and how it worked within the business world.  He wrote a book called Jamming: the Art and Discipine of Business Creativity” and used the metaphor for the jazz jam sessions I cite here as a way to advance creativity as a business tool.

Last week several of my fellow bloggers and I engaged in a sort of Jam Session playing off each other’s posts on the overarching theme of diversity within our realm.  It wasn’t organized, curated, or otherwise planned.  It was an impromptu exercise and it was fun.  And I think it yielded some food for thought.

The average arts field manager has precious little time to Jam with staff, colleagues, peers and those outside the field.  Too many deadlines, too many things to worry about.  Jamming seems like a luxury.  And as mentioned above, organizational attempts to Jam (Brainstorm) suffer from the attempt to control the circumstances and purpose of the Jam - which attempt is antithetical to the process.

But I think there is great value in inviting others to Jam with you from time to time - the only structure being, perhaps, the invitation, date and time.  First, the exercise of your mind and thinking processes - using your cognitive skills - analyzing, synthesizing - just by thinking out loud with
others - is arguably very good for both your head and your heart.  Brainstorming with other intelligent, creative people - without any pressure of having to address some problem - may help to blow away the cobwebs routine and structure create.  Second, the beauty of an unstructured Jam Session is that you never know when a really good idea will emerge; an idea that may not otherwise come into being - especially if you try too hard to manufacture that good idea by controlling the session.  Finally, for people who like to think - and I believe that includes most of the people in the nonprofit arts management field - Jamming on this level is fun.

Jamming is something at the core of the arts really.  It may not work in some hierarchical business monolith, but it seems, to me anyway, a natural component of our dynamic.  We are suppose to be creative; out-of-the-box thinkers; not constrained by the confines of one approach - one model.  The thinker’s Jam is a chance to play off the intellectual riffs of peers, building on the thoughts of each other.  Of course, the better the participating players - the better the outcome of the Jam, but my guess is that we have a lot of first rate players across our spectrum.  They just don't get a chance to Jam enough.

My hope is that the Dinner-Vention project will result in an impressive kind of Jam Session of its own.  (We received over 250 nominations for people to invite and our Advisory Committee is in the process of winnowing down the list right now.  We should have our final 8-12 person guest list set in the next month or two.  More to follow).

I hope more people in our field might find a way to break loose from the constraints of routine and rut and Jam more themselves. And I wish there were more Jam Sessions at our conferences instead of the talking head panels and keynote speeches.   I think it might produce some interesting and impressive results.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit


  1. Hi Barry,

    I definitely believe that blogs such as your's are a base line in the important jam sessions of my life. Really any spontaneous conversation has the creative character of a jam session, and it is obvious to me how the food for thought in one person's post will gather momentum and get riffed on by other bloggers and picked up in the new ways of looking at things we have in our daily lives. Blogs such as yours have this great potential to reach across the miles and engage a similarly minded audience, some to participate in the conversation and others to simply digest and be transformed through witnessing.

    I had had hopes that my own blog would be a platform for discussion especially in the comments section. And while I do my jamming duty of posting riffs on whatever crosses my inbox I have only occasionally received more than off the cuff responses, very rarely an in depth back and forth. I guess I'm a little disappointed.....

    Many of the artists I know who have blogged are even trading that in for the ease and superficiality of status updates on facebook and tweets on twitter. So I wonder if this is the direction that many are heading are we doomed to an eventual jam future of discordant mini bursts or can we recapture the beautiful melody that you, Diane Ragsdale, Roberto Bedoya, and Arlene Goldbard captured in that blogfest early last year. In my mind that was one of the great jams in my internet experience. And I hope to see more of their like.

    Thanks as always for sharing and the hard work you do to bring light to these issues. Long may the jam continue!

    1. Thank you Carter.

      I share your disappointment and frustration that there are so few comments to one's postings. I too often hope a wider discussion might ensue. I am often envious that my fellow bloggers like Diane stimulate so many responses. All I can tell you is that my experience is that all of our postings are read and talked about more than we often think, a lack of comments notwithstanding. So hang in there and keep posting. I think we are reaching people. And I think we add just a tiny bit to the conversation, and that's enough really. It's just that no one has much time anymore and so responses are few and far between sometimes.

      I appreciate your kind words. Every once in awhile, I get a response such as yours, and those - infrequent though they may be - keep me going.



  2. First: I was curious where the Dinner-Vention Project was, so popped over here to check in (I'm figuring it will be all over the social media once the list is announced).

    Second: while the vast wastelands of the interwebs are wonderful for learning new things and making introductions, I'd argue that what makes a jam session truly great--the real-time response and feedback of energy among players--cannot be replicated in this virtual setting. Which leads me to

    Third: I totally agree with you that we need more time and room for those kind of experiences. It would seem to me that this is where a local informal network of arts administrators--all ages, all media--would be beneficial. We are all reinventing the wheels constantly, and it is only now that we see Arts Administration knowledge being passed on in any formal way (H/T to the Association of Arts Administration Educators!). Expanding that to informal sessions would only benefit everyone to grow the wealth of ideas in just the way you write.