by Jeffrey Anzevino
(The following appeared in Jamboree Issue #39, the newsletter of the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association, www.hvbluegrass.org)
Many of us have invested hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars in an instrument that we hope will bring joy and camaraderie into our lives through music. Sadly, many of these instruments lie in their cases stuffed away in the back of closets never to see the light of day. Or maybe the instrument actually gets played, but only within earshot of its owner and never to be heard in the accompaniment of others. While it is certainly preferable to play that instrument – even if only for your own enjoyment — than to let it lie in state in its coffin, your playing will jump to the next level by learning to jam with your friends and family.
While jamming at first isn’t intuitively easy for everyone, with a little help, it is easy to overcome the pitfalls of the isolated player, who might learn to play songs, but may never enjoy the musical communication that results from a good, old-fashioned jam session.
Fortunately, one of Bluegrass music’s most prominent figures, Peter Wernick will be conducting a “Bluegrass Jam Camp” from July 11-14 in Copake, NY, preceding the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. This is one of eight Jam Camps he will hold this year, including one just concluded at the Strawberry Park Festival in Preston, CT.
Pete, or Doctor Banjo, is perhaps best known as the banjoist for Hot Rize, a band enjoying a long touring and recording career inspiring tens of thousands of fans across the world. But Wernick has also dedicated much of his life to promoting Bluegrass music and to teaching how to play Bluegrass with others. Pete was the first President of the International Bluegrass Music Association and served in that capacity for 16 years until stepping own in 2001.
The genesis of these camps dates back 25 years to 1980 when Pete was asked to conduct a five-day banjo course at a Portland (OR) State University summer program, which quickly sold out. By 1984, he was teaching two camps each year in Colorado. He discovered that many banjo players that came for instruction had little or no experience playing along with other musicians. With the benefit of a few relatively simple jamming skills their banjo playing improved, but, perhaps more importantly, they found they could also play in the context of a group. This same “isolation problem” exists with other instruments and Pete’s Bluegrass Jam Camp is designed to overcome this obstacle and demonstrate how easy playing along with other people can be.
“Closet players often end up self-destructing,” says Wernick, “losing interest because it’s not what they expected. The crowning blow is when they attend a jam and find that they don’t know how to fit in.” The Jam Camp teaches the budding musician how to navigate this new subculture: the head nod (ready for your solo?), the lifted foot (let’s end the song), etc. Once this language is learned, you’ll have the keys to unlock what turns out to be a not so complicated puzzle.
“Bluegrass is NOT a spectator sport,” says Wernick, “People are surprised to see that the first step of the ladder is really quite close to the ground.” With a little help from Pete and his excellent “coaches,” you will be climbing the ladder to musical enjoyment, morphing from a closet picker to a sociable jammer in no time. Assisting Wernick is his wife of 31 years, Joan, who plays guitar, and multi-instrumentalists Ira Gitlin and Brian Wicklund.
The camp is held at the Grange Hall in Copake, just a few minutes from the renowned Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale. Wernick likes hosting the sessions in Grange Halls because they have served as rural meeting places across America and have a tradition of hosting music and dances throughout the years.
To benefit from the camp, you don’t need a mastery of musical skills. The curriculum is designed for beginners. All you need to know is four chords – G, A, C, and D – and how to change smoothly between the chords. “We make people self-sufficient jammers by breaking them into small groups,” says Wernick. On the last day of the camp, Thursday, the jammers ascend Grey Fox’s famed “hill” take the stage and play together for the audience.
Pete’s bluegrass roots were planted in New York City, where in the 60s he learned to play the banjo by closely studying Earl Scruggs records. “I would ride the subway from my home in The Bronx to jam in Washington Square Park,” says Wernick. There, he played with the likes of David Grisman, Jody Stecher, Steve Arkin and Winnie Winston. Soon thereafter, he found himself in his first band – The Orange Mountain Boys, based across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
In 1964, at age 18, he started teaching banjo. Nine years later he wrote Bluegrass Banjo, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies. While studying sociology at Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D., Wernick hosted New York’s sole bluegrass radio show in the 1960’s.
Wernick’s fruitful career with Country Cooking and Hot Rize and array of publications, awards and accomplishments is simply too extensive to be covered in this forum. Suffice it to say, however, this most prominent figure in Bluegrass music over the past 30 years is coming to town and is eager to share with you his knowledge about what it takes to jam with others.