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21-Year-Old Jam

Sanden Totten

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The musicians at the jam are finding their groove.
(Sanden Totten)
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A jam happens when two or more musicians get together and just start making stuff up. There are no chord charts and no time limits. Jams are usually spontaneous, starting around the campfire or after a band has had a few too many beers during practice. But in one corner of Minneapolis, there's a jam that has become something of an institution. It's known simply as "Friday Night Jam," and it's gone on every week for 21 years. Reporter Sanden Totten take us there.

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Going to Friday Night Jam feels like something out of an old spy film. You hear about it through word of mouth. You go to the back of an old apartment building after dark, and then you ring an unmarked doorbell.

Patrick Conrad, a lanky 22-year-old with a scraggly goatee, greets me at the door. He takes me down a flight of stairs toward the music. There are no signs or advertising because the jam isn't about gathering an audience. It's for the musicians.

Before Conrad started coming here, he played in an AC/DC cover band in a small town in Iowa. But then, on a trip to Minnesota, he discovered the jam. He's never been the same.

"It's the whole reason I'm living in Minneapolis right now," Conrad explains. "I came here for the jam. I'm trying to start a band, and that's not happening, but the jam goes on every week. You can't beat that!"

We're in the basement of an old Polish Catholic school, and if the nuns could see it now, I doubt they'd approve. There's a circle of guys sitting around sucking on cigarettes and drinking beers. They're waiting for inspiration, or at least a good buzz, before they start playing. Conrad is probably the youngest in the room by at least 10 years. The rest of the musicians are in their 30s or 40s. They dress like rockers in t-shirts and jeans, but there are also a few receding hairlines and beer bellies in the crowd.

On the other side of the basement, there's a studio full of instruments. A drummer and a guitarist are noodling around, trying to get things started. It may take a while, but they've got all night.

At the jam, you could be working with seasoned pros or total beginners, but as long as you're willing to groove, no one cares how you play. Anything goes. Well, almost anything.

"There's only one rule, and that's the two guitar limit," explains Rick Lee.

"Guitars, they get real thick. They're very chordy and they can get very loud. And they will always all turn up to 11. And if you have 11 guitars all turning up to 11, what is that? I don't know, what is 11 times 11? Well, that's what it got to be sometimes."

He started the jam 21 years ago. He was in a band and they couldn't decide how to spend their time.

"We were frustrated because some people would go, 'Let's just jam!' And other people would say, 'Let's rehearse and get it tight.'"

So they compromised. One night a week for serious rehearsal. "And then we would come on Friday nights and just forget about all that stuff and just let loose."

Two decades later, that band is history, but the jam is going strong. Lee is a carpenter by trade. He built this studio for the jam. On Friday nights, he plays both the host and the jam's unofficial roadie. He plugs in microphones and amplifiers for other musicians. Lee says it takes a while to get going, but when it does get going, the jam shreds.

The musicians are smiling, shouting, riffing, slamming, strumming. Following the action makes you dizzy. One minute it's the guy on saxophone, next it's the dude wailing away on the clarinet. Then someone appears out of nowhere with bagpipes.

"When it clicks, there is nothing like it," says Del Royster. At the jam, he's slicing out fat jazz riffs on his guitar.

On the drums is Todd O'Donoghue, pounding away with a serene smile on his face.

"For me it's great practice on your essential self," he says. "If you get hung up on something, you may get stuck and not go with the flow. How am I going to capture the magic of the truth of right now?"

"You can't hit a wrong note!" gushes guitarist Bill Hill. "There is no such thing as a wrong note at the jam, and that's incredibly liberating."

The music goes on for hours. There's no real end to the songs they play; they just ebb and flow from one movement to the next. By two in the morning, things have gotten a little weird. A guitarist and saxophone player are screeching and scratching in wild bursts. This isn't for everybody. But for someone like Patrick Conrad, the guy who moved to Minneapolis for the jam, that's the point.

"You know, music doesn't have to be what MTV tells you music has to be, or what Columbia Records tells you it has to be!"

Conrad wants to start an avant-garde rock group. But it's hard to find venues, fans, or even bandmates who share his vision. "This is the only thing I have!" he says. "I have a crummy job that pays me eight bucks an hour. When I come home at night, I'm either reading a book solo, or playing guitar solo. This is the only interactive thing I have where I actually come and interact and play off other people!"

At 3 a.m., the jam is over. Conrad packs up his stuff, drops off a few empty beer bottles in the recycling bin, and heads out into the night alone.

Comments

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  • By neto m

    From sacramento, CA, 09/27/2008

    So where's this at exactly? Is there an address? This is something that I've been looking for for a while. -neto

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