Styles & Forms | Jam Bands | Rock

When The Grateful Dead started attracting a large fan following on the Bay Area concert scene during the late-1960s, courtesy of free-form jams that showcased the band’s fusion of folk, rock, country and blues, it signalled that rock’n’roll was latching onto a tradition of improvization that had long been prevalent in other forms of Western music.

This had been a key feature of the classical music of the Baroque era in Europe, where even composers such as Mozart were renowned improvizors on the keyboard. However, by the early-nineteenth century, at the height of the Romantic movement, the complex musical language of the composers was set down, providing little room for the musicians to improvize. At the start of the twentieth century, this was still the norm in Europe, whereas in America an air of greater collaboration prevailed among the pioneering jazz musicians who virtually created music as they performed it. And it was this approach, passed down the generations by greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which was subsequently adopted by, among others, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention and The Allman Brothers Band, who also echoed the jazz musicians’ penchant for fusing diverse musical styles onstage and on albums such as The Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun and American Beauty; and The Allmans’ Idlewild South and Eat A Peach.

Musical Eclecticism

During the 1990s, a new generation of jam bands emerged. Taking their lead from The Dead and The Allmans, while fusing anything from rock, soul and jazz to bluegrass and worldbeat, groups such as The Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Phish began carving out their own niche. Building their following by way of constant touring, what they and their predecessors have usually shared is a solid bond with their audience – even encouraging them to tape concerts – as well as an understandable ability to fully transfer their live appeal to record. Nevertheless, this isn’t to say that some of them haven’t enjoyed chart triumphs.

New York’s Spin Doctors saw sales of their 1991 album Pocket Full Of Kryptonite rocket after radio and MTV helped turn ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’ into a hit on the singles charts, and much the same was experienced by another band out of the Big Apple, Blues Traveler. When Four, Traveler’s aptly-titled fourth album, was released in September 1994, it eventually achieved quintuple-platinum sales in the wake of the single ‘Run Around’ becoming one of 1995’s biggest hits.

Conversely, the outfit that has led the way on the jam band scene while coming closest to assuming The Grateful Dead’s mantle, is one from Vermont that has never been able to translate its concert following into record sales via studio albums such as Junta and A Picture Of Nectar. Melding folk, bluegrass, country, jazz and rock’n’roll Phish has set...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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