It's a Sunday night in March and I'm sitting at the Ancient Mariner Tavern, one of Manitou Springs' quirky dives. It's a grungy place. The wooden walls are littered with dusty aquatic antiques and the bathroom is barely big enough for its own two stalls.
But the crowd is energetic, equal parts yuppie and hippie. (OK, there are a few more hippies.) There are kids and middle-age parents piercings alongside push-up bras. People flow in and out, with the crowd reaching upward of 100. They're all here for the Acid Jazz Jam.
This is a weekly gathering of musicians, poets, artists, singers and pretty much anyone with performing ability. Each puts his or her name and instrument on a list, eventually to be called to the stage.
But this isn't your typical open mic. The musicians won't perform solo, and they won't read from sheet music. Instead, they'll be grouped randomly. Once they're on stage, there are a couple rules: no covers, no memorized songs. Call it improv for musicians.
Kim Stone, Acid Jazz Jam's creator, acts as the moderator. He calls names from the list, which can get up to around 30 people, until there are five or seven or nine musicians on stage at once. They plug in their instruments, collectively choose a key, count off and start jamming. The jam tends to last anywhere from five to 15 minutes before Stone calls out another batch of names and the whole process starts over.
Nothing to fret about
Stone, a five-time Grammy-nominated bassist (or "Grammy loser," if you ask him), says the improvisational approach has always fascinated him. His first band in junior high learned the method in his basement and recorded the sessions. Later they'd go through the tape, pull out what they liked and write songs based on those snippets. In his twenties, Stone was part of a band that worked solely off verbal commands from the band's leader.
"He'd say crazy shit, like "A butterfly dropped his pants in the dentist's office,' and then we'd have to interpret that into music," Stone says, laughing. "I enjoyed that, so all these years I've been chasing how to do that with a band and make it sound compositional rather than chaotic."
Stone choreographs the sets from the side stage by giving directives, such as dynamic changes, or throwing solos to certain people, or signaling when to end a song. Between physical and verbal commands, most of the musicians get the general idea. Stone, a former Manitou Springs resident who recently moved to Arvada, drives down every week for the Jam.
"In an improvisational band, you're all really working together," Stone says. "You really have to open your ears, and listen to your brothers and sisters on the bandstand. It helps get people out of their musical box and work with a band."
To give this evening some kind of outline, host band A New Brain for Arnie starts and finishes the Jam with a few improv songs. Those musicians including Stone, Wayne Hammerstadt (guitar), Bryant Jones (keyboard), Michael Reese (guitar), Scotty Gohsler (guitar) and Britt Ciampa (drums) will also get on stage with various other performers throughout the night.
Andrew Scott, a regular, is one of these performers. He creates and makes his own instruments, and the bass guitar he's showing off tonight came from wood from the Hayman fire (the incident, not the local band). A slab of granite acts as the fret board, and atop the guitar sits a stingray intricately carved from flamed maple. It's impressive and remarkably functional.
A poet named Dean Frankmore reads his work on stage as a vocal track to certain jams. A little later, a lanky, young white guy gets up and beatboxes, garnering much crowd enthusiasm. (Of all the spontaneous artists, the vocalists probably have it the roughest.) Before the night is over, a horn player joins the mix, as well as a Pikes Peak Philharmonic bass player, who is one of at least three Philharmonic musicians who participate in the Jam.
Brent Wajdowicz is a 14-year-old guitar player, and tonight is his first time at the Jam. He looks confident on stage, and his guitar solo disguises his years. He says he's not nervous; he's performed at other blues jams around town with Jeremy Vasquez and The Jake Loggins Band, among others.
But while typical blues and jazz jams often have a distinct format, the Acid Jazz Jam is much less structured and isn't about the blues or rock or even jazz, according to Stone.
"I dig the blues," Stone says. "Everything that's good in music has the blues in it ... but it's too easy." He pauses, then adds, "But this is even easier. There are no wrong notes and you can't screw anything up. How can you if there's no real form?"
After starting up and also taking a brief hiatus in 2005, the Acid Jazz Jam has been going strong since August of last year. Stone says interest grows weekly.
"It's fun for people, because they don't have to come in with anything," Stone says. "They don't have to know how to play the blues or some rock song. They just have to know how to play their instrument somewhat. People like being able to come to a jam session where there's really no pressure at all.
"And that's what this is about to expand and get out of these boxes that we put ourselves in."