Local music buffs love to bash the “jam band” phenomenon as a collection of unsophisticated hippie Deadheads who couldn’t give up the party when their favorite act finally cashed their check and disbanded. However a quick perusal of the music listings for the next few weeks, particularly the night time theatre and club events shows that an entirely new breed of acts have virtually taken over Jazz Fest. The jam band phenomenon of the past few years is a musical movement featuring a wide disparity of styles and genres united by both a penchant for improvisation and a homogeneous college age audience that seems to have taken up the former peace, love and drugs vibe of former Deadheads and brought it to a new level. Jazz, funk, bluegrass, reggae and now even techno and trance influences are part of the mix of styles that has fueled the phenomenon.
While the Grateful Dead and their Bay Area, summer-of-love, psychedelic cohorts are undeniably the forerunners of the modern jam bands, the new generation of acts run the entire gamut of styles and influences. Like their forebears, the jam bands largely operate outside the traditional music business where the live show is their primary focus and making studio recordings is almost an afterthought.
While many of the traditional ’60s era jam bands, the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Little Feat, to name a few, have always enjoyed a special connection to New Orleans and its music, it was the 1996 Jazz Fest performance by Phish that truly commenced the modern jam band phenomenon in New Orleans. Phish brought with them a huge contingent of followers that descended upon New Orleans and drew a great deal of local attention, little of it positive. Locals in keeping with their time honored hipper-than-thou tradition looked down upon the great unwashed crowd as a bunch of déclassé interlopers who had little connection to the Jazz Fest that they had grown to love over the previous decades. New Orleans has never been that interested in music that it hasn’t either created or heavily influenced and sustained. In general both its musicians and music lovers have been quick to dismiss the jam banders as hippie white boys who like to get high and noodle around on their guitars and wholly lack the funky inspiration and creative genius that pervades the music of New Orleans.
The size and fervor of the Phish crowd could not be overlooked and not only did the powers that be at Jazz Fest take notice, so did a group of young men most of whom were Tulane students from the Northeast who would coalesce into a concert promotion firm called Superfly Presents. Superfly immediately recognized that the jam band phenomenon was beginning to take flight nationally as the Grateful Dead disbanded and much of their younger cult-like audience gravitated to the newly emerging jam bands. While Hank Staples at the Maple Leaf had proven that there was an audience for midnight ’til dawn performances at his club during Mardi Gras, Superfly picked up the idea and hit the ground running, scheduling many of its shows to begin at midnight and 2 a.m. Modestly booking out-of-town acts on the national jam band circuit that had begun to prove themselves, Superfly began with a series of club shows with String Cheese Incident and Deep Banana Blackout. Since 1997 they have increasingly become a major player with each year’s schedule of shows almost doubling in size from the previous year. String Cheese Incident, which was booked for a club show at Tipitina’s just three years ago, is now booked for two shows at the spacious Saenger Theater.
This will be the fifth Jazz Fest for Superfly. It is their most ambitious venture yet with more than 35 shows scheduled at nine venues representing a total potential audience of as many as 40,000 people. Not only has Superfly’s Jazz Fest schedule become possibly the largest national jam band event by virtue of the sheer number of performers, but with several of its Jazz Fest shows already sold-out in March, it is quite possible, even likely, that the total audience and revenue derived from Superfly’s shows will exceed the totals of the entire Jazz and Heritage Festival’s official night time concert series.
The common wisdom is that the jam band phenomenon has spawned a separate parallel Jazz Fest. The audience is comprised almost exclusively of affluent out-of-town visitors in their teens and 20s. They attend shows that often begin at midnight or 2 a.m., party until dawn, get a few hours’ sleep and trudge off to the Fair Grounds before beginning anew that same night with another round of shows. As a result it would seem that while the jam band scene is doing phenomenally well, it is the local musicians, crafts people and food vendors at the Fairgrounds that are being overlooked by this new audience.
In response to allegations that jam band lovers don’t go to the Fair Grounds and that the jam band phenomenon is rife with undiscerning, unsophisticated listeners who just want to get stoned out of their minds and listen to trippy music hoping to recreate a faux peace and love vibe, Rick Farman of Superfly responds, “The jam bands themselves would never exist in the first place without the great improvisers who paved the way in jazz and our audience knows this. We are very proud to take things full circle to the extent that we are now booking shows with some of the jazz greats like McCoy Tyner and Joshua Redman introducing them to an audience that has had little formal exposure to real jazz. I think we are seeing that our audience as they mature are very receptive to exploring real jazz music because they are already big fans of improvisation and more challenging music and are predisposed to becoming the next generation of jazz fans.”
While New Orleanians may be loath to admit it, the jam band phenomenon has had a profound influence on New Orleans musicians financially, if not musically, in the past few years. Nouveau funk band Galactic, by far the most successful local act on the jam band circuit, plays continually to substantial crowds all over the country and overseas. Other bands such as Juice have become such road dogs on the national jam band circuit that they are probably better known outside of New Orleans than they are in their hometown. The jam band audience has also discovered several of the longtime established acts of New Orleans such as Astral Project, the Wild Magnolias, the Radiators, the Dirty Dozen, Michael Ray and the Funky Meters who several decades into their careers now find themselves playing to new audiences less than half their age. Few of these acts seem to share much musically with the stereotypical jam band, but the jam band audience has brought them into the fold.
Perhaps this audience, as it matures, truly will become the next generation of jazz fans replacing a rapidly aging and increasingly dwindling number of purists and aficionados with a younger, larger audience whose appetite for improvisation and more challenging music will endure. Whether this happens or not, this young affluent audience has definitely discovered New Orleans and as it is increasingly exposed to New Orleans culture year by year at Jazz Fest it may well lay a demographic foundation that the city can count on to supplement and one day replace the now largely middle-age crowd that has grown up with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.