The Last Jean-Jacques Blues Jam
Hosted by The Geoff Hartwell Band
Pleasantville, NY

by Roger-Z (4/13/05)

Westchester blues and rock musicians owe The Geoff Hartwell Band big time. For the past three years, Geoff Hartwell (guitar, vocals), Rich Kelly (bass, vocals), Chris Burke (Hammond B3), Michael Bram (drums, vocals), and J.J. Clarke (drums) have hosted a blues jam on Tuesday nights at Jean-Jacques in Pleasantville, NY. They have allowed many a middle-aged musician the chance to escape the mundane realities of suburban life and relive their rock star fantasies. Why the blues? Because it provides an easy to use, common vocabulary that allows musicians to instantly communicate. Strictly the blues? No. Blues "nazis" need not apply!

Not to say that only the middle-aged take part. Despite the proliferation of hip-hop on the radio, some young people remain hooked on the "classic rock" format and yearn to strut their stuff on guitar. The jammers range from a pediatrician mother of two, a family business owner and his son, a construction worker, a millionaire computer programmer, and a college professor who specializes in divorce mediation.

The NY/NJ Blues Collective recently hosted an online discussion on what it takes to run a successful jam. In a nutshell:

  • The host band must be so good that musicians want to see them play every week
  • The host band should play an opening set of no more than 20 minutes to a half hour
  • The host band should vary the tunes of their opening set each week
  • The host should take great care in selecting each group of jammers and not just put their friends up first
  • Each set of jammers should play three songs or a maximum of twenty minutes
  • Jammers must spend money at the club
  • Jammers should hang around for at least one set after they play
As one can tell from this list, running a successful jam requires a great amount of skill and charm -- all of which The Geoff Hartwell band contains in abundance. Speaking of skills, once while watching Geoff play the guitar, I thought I witnessed his fingers metamorphasizing into gently flapping butterfly wings. Duane Allman may have inspired Mr. Hartwell to play slide guitar, but his style has continued to evolve in a unique direction. Rich Kelly, on what Mr. Hartwell jokingly calls "the lead bass," maintains the physical dexterity to keep up with the guitarist note for note while at the same time delivering tasteful background harmonies. Chris Burke, on the sonorous Hammond B3, harkens the listener back to the grand old days of Steppenwolf and Santana. Back for the night, original drummer Michael Bram defines the concept of "playing in the moment." Mr. Bram also lends some vocal variation to the band when fronting an occasional acoustic set on harp. And finally, J.J. Clarke, who took over the drum seat almost a year ago, lays down such a rock solid rhythm that every player sounds like they have time!

But it takes a lot more than music skills to run a jam. When Jean-Jacques instituted a five dollar cover charge about a year ago, many musicians got offended. No one wants to "pay to play." But Mr. Hartwell patiently explained to everyone that the club instituted the cover because many jammers were not ordering anything. The door charge helped defray the cost of the four-piece band. After a slight lull, the open mike picked up with more people than ever.

So why did Jean-Jacques close its doors to the jam? After April 15, the bar will be dismantled and the room will be dedicated to catering special events. But not to worry. Geoff and gang will be moving the circus just down the block beginning Tuesday April 19 to Jackson and Wheeler at 25 Wheeler Avenue in Pleasantville, NY.

2005 Roger-Z