Mama Ray's Saturday Afternoon Jam
NOTE: The following is copied from a series of Face Book posts I did in August of 2016 to promote the 30th anniversary of Mama Ray's Saturday Afternoon Jam.
This coming Saturday, August 13th, will be Mama Ray's 30th Anniversary Jam at BB's Lawnside BBQ. The Jam will be extended - the hours will be from 1:00-6:00. We will have 2 drummers hosting with us, Keith Mallory & Bree Plaster. I love both of them! Mama will have 30 years of pictures on display. Now...watch this space because this whole week will be a throwback. I've got pictures you've never seen, recordings you've never heard and stories I've never told! Even stuff that predates Mama Ray, who I knew before she was sober! Yes, the Saturday Afternoon Jam goes back to 1984, 2 years before Mama Ray came on board, and I am the only original member still on the gig! Stay tuned!
It's not surprising that I'm the last original band member on the gig. What's surprising is that I was even on the gig in the first place.
The reason for both those things is the same; I was the youngest guy in the band - by at least 10 years.
Memory can be a fickle thing; I am open to correction if anybody has a different version - Rich?
The gig was put together by Jim Laforte and Rich VanSant. Rich called me out of the blue in August of 1984 and offered me the gig. It was going to be an open jam at Harling’s Upstairs, a midtown bar on Main Street in Kansas City, and the money situation was tenuous at best. The band would get 50% of the drink sales after the first $100 went into the register. If I remember correctly, the first week we made $3.85 apiece. We built it up to the point where we were typically making between $200 and $300 a man just for musically jacking around - uh jamming, that is - from 2:00 to 6:00 on Saturday afternoon.
I was 28 years old and had been gigging regionally since the early '70's (I date the genesis of my professional life at 1969) but I really broke into the full-time club scene in Kansas City in 1978. In those days, it was possible to work 6 nights a week (or more) in clubs (in and out of town) on a very steady basis. I met Jim Laforte in the late '70's. He had a band at that time called, "Chaos" ("chaos" is a word that is relevant to Jim Laforte as will become clear as this story progresses) whose keyboard player, Jack "Cobra" Mulligan was a good friend of mine. I was introduced to Rich VanSant in October of '79 by Jack DeVault, who was the bandleader ("Cloud") I was working for at the time. We were playing Harry Starker's on the Plaza and Rich came in with a couple of other guys. I had heard of him, of course; he was a B3 player who played bass with his left hand and I had been hearing from multiple sources about how good he was.
As far as I can remember, I had never played with either one of them before the phone call from Rich. I remember one rehearsal before the first gig. The band consisted of Rich on B3, Jim singing and fronting the band, Mike "Puck" Rammel on drums, Chico Battagglia on percussion, and myself on guitar and vocals.
Working that gig with Jim and Rich, week after week, was a pressure cooker of a learning experience. Not only did backing Jim teach me a ton of tunes - we never rehearsed, we just flew by the seat of our pants - I realized real quick that "cool" didn't cut it, it had to be "hot". They consistently played with tons of feeling, that is, they emotionally committed themselves to the music on a very intense level. A level that I wasn't used to operating on at gig after gig after gig. Watching Jim and Rich on that gig, week after week, taught me how to do that. I was thrown into the deep end, so to speak. I consider Jim and also Rich - and playing that gig - to be one of the formative influences on the way I play today.
We were all working musicians who played in different bands. Most of us were in and out of town and many times the various players had to sub out the gig because of being out on the road somewhere. Jim was pretty consistent at being there to front the band - but that was a double-edged sword.
Jim Laforte had a voice, an authentic, powerful voice, that was unmistakable and no one could touch him when he sang in that classic R&B style. Listening to him sing would give you goosebumps. Check out this cheap ghetto-blaster tape from 1984:
Unfortunately, Jim was a horrible alcoholic. Drama and chaos were constant companions, most of which was his own doing. All of us who knew him could spend hours and hours telling stories that run the gamut from outrageously ridiculous to extremely ironic to the beautifully sublime (remember that time he jumped off the Broadway Bridge into the Missouri River at the end of a high-speed police chase - and lived? Remember that time he stepped off the stage and was led away in handcuffs to do 9 months at the Leeds Work Farm because he didn't pay child support during the previous 9 months he spent in that same facility for drunk driving?). He was a one-of-a-kind piece of work - whose story is all too familiar. Jim died in July of 2010. He was 62 and as far as I'm concerned, the fact that he made it to that age is proof that God exists. It's a freakin' miracle. I never heard an official cause of death, but I'm sure the bottom line is that Jim just drank himself to death.
I am not privy to the details, but in 1986 Laforte somehow managed to get crossways with the owner at Harlings (big surprise, huh?). I was informed that the jam was to be moved to what was then Jimmy's Jigger at 39th & State Line. What I was not informed of was that Rich was not going to be involved. As far as I knew, the gig at Harling's was over, the bridge was burned and we were all moving to Jimmy's Jigger. The B3 player at Jimmy's Jigger turned out to be Bill Maness, who was also a wonderful B3 player. I continued working with Bill off and on for many years - decades - after that. The gig at Jimmy's Jigger lasted for several months. During that time I heard that Rich had started the jam back up at Harling's with Mama Ray as the singer and Tom DeMasters on guitar.
After the gig at Jimmy's Jigger went down the tubes - I don't know why but hey, Laforte was in charge - I booked up my Saturdays with students; my teaching business was booming - I was teaching 90+ students a week and had 3 dozen on a waiting list - I was making way more money teaching on Saturdays than I would make playing a Saturday afternoon jam and I was still gigging with my own trio (The Regular Guys) 2 or 3 times a week.
So the years from 1986 to about 1990 will have to be written by someone else (Rich? Tom?). My version will resume when Rich called and asked me to return to the gig in about 1990.
Postscript to the Prequel:
Cliff Eveland has corrected me; our original drummer's last name was Rammel, not Brammel. I have corrected my error in the previous post. Mike "Puck" Rammel played with us maybe a year and then I think he went on the road with the Homewreckers. He was the first of the original 5 to pass away. I can't remember exactly when that was, but a couple of his kids still show up at the jam now and then, pehaps they could let me know. He was replaced by my drummer at the time, Terry Hancock. And Tom DeMasters has jogged my memory; I returned to the gig at Harlings in 1991. So I was out of the picture for 5 years - 1986 to 1991. Thanks guys. Also, Rich and Jim had day jobs and so were not in and out of town as I said in my previous post. It seems I was projecting. In '84-'85 I was still on the road a lot. I got off the road in '86 when my teaching buisiness took off. To continue:
You may say, "Wow, Jay, you were pretty tough on LaForte." Well, I don't like to sugar coat things for the sake of a false sense of propriety - Jim was an amazing singer and performer. He LOVED the Blues and he sang with sincerety and conviction, and he had the voice to go with it. He had his demons - don't we all? I'm always up for a good story, and LaForte's life has all the elements of a good story - yeah, overwhelmingly sad in some ways, but whose isn't? That's life - we all die in the end. After that? Who knows? Not me - but I think there's hope. The triumph of his life, if you want one, is that his love for, and commitment to, the music never wavered, no matter how screwed up his personal life was, no matter how much time he was in prison or rehab, and towards the end, no matter how sick he was. The fact that he had maneuvered himself out of the gig at Harlings - a gig that is still going strong today at BB's 30 years later, never seemed to bother him. I never heard a complaint or a bitter word about it from him. (Actually, now that I think about it, I never heard a complaint or a bitter word about anything from him.) He showed up regularly and sat in with us as if nothing amiss had ever happened. He always performed with joyous abandon - he felt the music in his body, he always served the song, and when he was on stage he was where he was meant to be. Countless times as I was backing him I found myself thinking, "Yep, THAT is how this song should be sung!" Before we leave the subject of Jim LaForte, this will give you an idea of what he was like on stage, although there's NO substitute for being in the room when Jim was doing his thing:
Now, you may be wondering, "Isn't this supposed to be about Mama Ray's 30th Anniversary Jam? Why all this stuff about LaForte?" Yes it is. I wanted to give you the prehistory of what you now know as "Mama Ray's Saturday Afternoon Jam". Of course there is much more "prehistory" when it comes to Mama, LaForte and Rich VanSant. Mama Ray and Rich had been on the road together for years before all this happened. This is only that with which I was personally involved - I was a johnny-come-lately. LaForte is important because in 1986 Mama Ray stepped into Jim LaForte's shoes...and Jim never really went away. Jim had fronted the band at Harling's for 2 years. Taking his place is something I, for one, would not take lightly. Of course, Rich VanSant is the continuity between the first 2 years with LaForte and the years with Mama Ray that followed. In my opinion he was the organizational force behind the whole thing (he was always the guy who called). But he is such an unassuming and humble guy it's easy to underestimate his place in the whole situation. Gotta watch out for guys like that! But more about Rich later. Tomorrow we will cover my return to the jam and then after that get into the REAL story in all this ....YOU!
My Second Coming:
In 1991, once again, Rich phoned me out of the blue and asked me if I would consider coming back to the jam. I will not go into the reasons for Tom DeMasters' departure, it was none of my business. Tom and I are good friends to this day and he has subbed for me many, many times on the jam since he left in '91. I have nothing but respect and good feelings for Tom DeMasters.
After some thought I decided to accept Rich's invitation, even though I would be losing money by giving up my Saturday afternoon teaching schedule. The fact of the matter is, though I love teaching (as long as I have a guitar in my hands I'm a pretty happy guy), I love performing even more. And the Hammond B3 rhythm section - B3, drums & guitar - is one of my all-time favorite formats. I LOVE the sound of the Hammond B3. Especially when played by as formidable a player as Rich. All these factors proved to be too much of a pull on me to let a little drop in income get in the way. The jam had been going for 5 years with Mama Ray fronting the band so it was well-established and likely to continue for a while - little did we know!
The drummer when I returned was Paul Walter. I can't remember the details but I'm pretty sure I was the one that got Paul involved. Paul played for a short time in The Pontiacs, which was a band I led in 84 through February of '86. That corresponds to the time frame wherein the Harlings gig got off the ground. According to the "Photos" section of my website, MasterGuitar.com, Paul was playing with my trio, The Regular Guys, in 1986. Paul was a wonderful drummer and a great singer. So great that he eventually left Kansas City to tour as a singer with the Lettermen. Paul passed away several years ago.
What ensued upon my return was about 20 years of a consistent 3/4ths of a line-up. Myself, Mama Ray and Rich VanSant. We went through quite a few drummers in the late '80's through the '90's; so many that I won't even attempt to name them all - I know I would omit some. They were all good, but Rich could be hard on drummers - he knew what he wanted in a drummer. In all fairness to Rich, several of them slit their own throats by various means (drummers!?!? Whaddaya gonna do? Fuggetaboutit!), several got too close to a flash pot and spontaneously combusted on stage and others hit the road or moved away for various reasons (one of those guys is living and gigging in South Korea last I heard). Finally, I'm thinking in 2001, Don Glaza took the gig and there he remained until his untimely death in February of 2014.
Yes, for a period of time we actually had flashpots going off INSIDE the club, thanks to Paul Walters' bat-shit crazy brother Craig (love you, Craig!). "When a Man Loves a Woman" never sounded so good - explosions, fog and smoke accompanying Mama Ray's screaming, Janis Joplin-like delivery of that classic, sensitive R&B love ballad. What I wouldn't give for some footage of THAT! Nothing like a little ordnance to escalate an already excited crowd into a frenzy! - or maybe we were just desperately compensating for the lack of LaForte! It's hard to believe the cops never showed up as a result of the battle-sounds (screaming, yelling and explosions) coming from that second-story room at Main and Westport Road on Saturday afternoons.
In thinking about what to say about Mama Ray, Rich, et al, I've decided not to tell specific stories or go into great detail biographically - as interesting and potentially explosive as that would be! I've realized that the real story here is bigger than me, Mama Ray, Rich, Jim LaForte or the music. All those things are important and the story would not be the same without them but the real story is about the scene, the community and relationships that were created around that Saturday afternoon jam. People have married people they met at the jam. People got divorced because of people they met at the jam. They celebrate birthdays, marriages, divorces, anniversaries. There are memorials, funerals, wakes and benefits to raise money and provide support for individuals and organizations. It's family. It's church. It's life. Musicians who are now out gigging in various places around the world cut their teeth at the jam. In New York, a jam session can be a brutal cutting contest; in Kansas City, it's an affirming love-fest. THAT is the real story here.
I'll get to all that, but first I want to tell you about:
As I said, I think Rich was the main force behind the jam in the first place. He salvaged the gig after LaForte burned the bridge by bringing in Mama Ray and starting over. He was the one who called and offered me the guitar chair - both times. And, as any musician knows, you can't compete musically with a Hammond B3 player who is also the bass player. The B3 player has the control, all I do is follow wherever he goes. Rich liked to lock into an arrangement. His left hand was like a machine. He didn't like to take a lot of chances - I love to take chances...yeah, we're like the Odd Couple in a lot of ways. For him, it was all about the feel. I concur - it IS all about the feel. Feeling is the meaning of music. So Rich and I got along on the most important thing - feel. Being in a band is kind of like being in a marriage. There HAS to be compromise. The parties that are involved compromise because they realize that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Of course there were disagreements...about volume, about changes, tempos, stylistic things. I tried to keep my solos within certain stylistic boundaries that were tolerable to Rich. I was never one to concern myself about stylistic boundaries but it was an important issue to Rich. I hope he realizes that his opinion DID affect the way I played. Ultimately, no matter what the issues may be, I just love playing with B3 players. If the guy is good, and Rich was - in spades - and the drummer was good - all the drummers we had were good - the music is instantly tight. It's such a joy to play with a musically tight rhythm section. As a soloist, a kick-ass rhythm section gives you freedom to soar.
I know that Rich worked hard on things I wanted to do. He learned some hard songs. He didn't consider himself a jazz musician - and I pushed hard in that direction. Almost all the tunes I brought in were jazz tunes. I appreciate the work he did on that score and I think he sells himself short. And I put my money where my mouth is. In 2001 a local studio that owed me money offered to pay me in studio time because they happened to be cash-strapped. I took the opportunity to take Rich and our drummer at the time, Ian Sikora, into the studio and recorded the jazz album I always wanted to make - Channeling Harold - and to this day I'm very proud of it. I think we did it in 3 sessions, 2 with Ian, and when Ian couldn't make the 3rd session I used a drummer who I had recently started working with in another situation, Kevin Johnson. We recorded live in the studio just like we would play in a club. We did 3 or 4 takes of each tune. I gave all the quick mixes to Rich and told him to pick the take that he was happiest with relative to the organ/drum performances. Whether the guitar performance was up to my standards on any given take was irrelevant because I put the guitar amp in an isolation booth. If I wasn't happy with the guitar part on the take that Rich picked I fixed it later. I didn't want Rich to have to compromise on his best performance just because I wasn't happy with my own guitar playing on a certain take. I wanted Rich to pick. He did. As I remember it, I fixed the bass track in one bar of one song! And in that bar, there was but ONE wrong note. Do you realize how many thousands of notes that is that are right? Like I said, his left hand was like a machine.
My memory fails me as far as coming up with specific years, but eventually Rich left the jam to take care of his wife, who was terminally ill. I'm not going into any details here, but theirs was quite a later-in-life love story that I was very glad to see and as far as I'm concerned Rich proved himself to be a righteous, righteous man throughout the ordeal at the end. 'N'uff said. I'm going to guess it was sometime around 2005. I would appreciate input on dates if anybody out there can give me specifics. He was gone for about a year. After he lost his wife, he returned for about 9 months or a year, and then left again. It was his mother this time. We continued to call the band Mama Ray and the Rich VanSant Band for quite a while, believing - hoping - that he would return. He never did. For several years after that I would call him up now and then and tell him I had a gig that I would like to use him on, would he be interested in playing? His answer was always, "I appreciate you calling me for this but I'm really not interested in gigging anymore." After a few years I accepted the fact that he really was done. I've heard rumours over the years that he was jamming in the basement with old friends - musicians - from back in the day and before my time, and that maybe something would come of it but as far as I know nothing has. Rich drops in on Mama Ray's Saturday Afternoon Jam now and then but graciously declines to sit in. That's alright, I'm just glad to see him.
During Rich's absences we rotated several great organ players - Bill Maness, Everette DeVan, Greg Meise and Allen Monroe. Ken Lovern played once or twice. Bill Maness no longer performs, the rest of these guys can still be seen around town now and then. Ken is very active with his OJT - Organ Jazz Trio. Everette performs a lot. I've seen him on the house B3 down at the Green Lady. I've seen Greg Meise playing a B3 on a gig at The Ship down in the West Bottoms within the last couple of years. He may be doing more than I know, I don't get out much. With the exception of Ken, who still lugs a B3 around when he has to, most of the time these guys play some other kind of keyboard that doesn't weigh 400 pounds! Can't say that I blame them but I miss a real B3. Everette gets the closest to a B3 sound and style on a non-B3 more than anyone else I've heard. There's also a crop of younger B3 players who have appeared on the scene within the last few years who are really, really good. Some have been mentored by Everette DeVan. Some I know, some I don't know, but I want them all to call me! Yes, I'm brown-nosing for gigs here. I LOVE the B3! Most of my life I've been the youngest guy in the band. It's now my goal to be the oldest! Young guys - call me!
I wish BB's would buy a house B3.
Eventually, Mama Ray settled on Allen Monroe. Good choice; I enjoy the musical conversation I have with Allen every Saturday. Another reason he's a good choice is because he is a walking encyclopedia of tunes, which comes in very handy on an open jam session. He also has perfect pitch and if he hears something, he can play it - in any key. I can't tell you how many times he's saved a train wreck because of his ears. The incident where I learned he had perfect pitch: This girl singer got up to sit in. I can't remember what song she wanted to do but she didn't know what key she did it in. Bad sign. Allen says, "What key you want it in?" and she just starts singing - on the mic. Without batting an eye and with no reference - he didn't hit a key on his piano - he looked at me and said, "G minor" - and he was right! If it was up to me, I'd have been pecking around on my guitar for several seconds to find the key she was in. After we finished the song I asked, "Do you have perfect pitch?" He casually says, "Oh yeah" like it was nothin'! He never ceases to amaze me with his knowledge of obscure tunes I never heard of. It's a very common occurrence that I don't know the tune, I'm just following Allen around!
Accompanying this post is the title track from Channeling Harold. In the first "comments" section is a critique of the song by a company I was working with at the time. They are what's known in the biz as an independent A&R (artist and repertoire) company. They were pitching my songs to various situations in the industry - major artists, publishing companies, movies, tv shows, radio spots; all kinds of stuff. This was a glowing review - coming from the big boys in LA. Rich, take notice. Quote, "This was really a joy to listen to." Also, "Good organ."
Postscript to previous post:
I have heard from Rich VanSant. Rich's wife, Wanda, died March 5, 2003. Rich returned shortly thereafter and subsequently left the jam at Harlings in January of 2004. So my guess of 2005 wasn't too far off. I have to say this one thing; at Rich and Wanda's reception in the back room at Harlings my wife said, "Wow, how did Rich pull this off - she's so elegant!"
Now we come to:
To say that Mama Ray has a colorful history would be the understatement of this century - as well as the last one. It's going to be very difficult for me to refrain from telling stories and keeping this to a single post.
She grew up an army brat and talks about the time when she was bitten by the performing bug. She was a young teenager singing for thousands of - shall we say, "appreciative" - American soldiers in Germany. After that it was all over, she was going to be a singer.
I've got to walk a fine line here; it was the 60's. Jimi, Jim Morrison, Janis and Mama Cass were still alive; we didn't know drugs were bad. Mama Ray spent years on the road. With kids. I don't mean child performers, I mean she raised her kids on the road while at the same time running a band and performing every night. Musicians - on the road...with everything that entails. C'mon, you've read the biographies, you've seen the interviews, you've watched VH1's "Behind the Music" - you don't need me to spell it out. Suffice to say that Mama Ray has been around the block more times than you and I can imagine - and I can imagine quite a bit.
If there was one word I had to choose to describe Mama Ray, you'd assume that word would be "survivor." It's true that Mama Ray is a survivor, but that's not my word. My word is "conqueror." She hasn't just survived, she has conquered. Substance abuse, addictions, abusive relationships - name it, she has been through it all and come out strong on the other side. Sometimes Karma can be a bitch, and to this day, whenever a trial or tribulation comes her way she deals with it head on. No retreat, no surrender - head on. Trust me, you don't want to piss off the Mama!
Her heart is as big as her voice. Her charity work is well-known. She's been sober for decades but is still very active in AA. Leading groups, sponsoring members - whatever it is that goes on there (I wouldn't know - alcohol isn't one of my problems. I drink a little now and then when someone else buys it - no problem. My youthful indiscretions and issues involved other substances). I understand that she and her husband, Will, met at AA. I figure she probably saved his life. Holy crap, what a story that is! Are you aware that Will is younger than me? - she freakin' robbed the cradle! Ok, I'll shut up now.
She is famous for her Hope House Benefits. Hope House is a shelter for abused women and their kids. Mama Ray has organized a benefit for Hope House every year since 1995. You have no idea what it takes to put something like that together. Hundreds of ducks have to be lined up. It's like herding cats. Every year she spends her capital with dozens and dozens of musicians who come in and play for free to benefit the Hope House. Why do they do this year after year? Because it's freakin' Mama Ray, that's why! Each benefit takes weeks to put together. I have no idea how much money she's raised for charity over the years but I bet it's well into six figures. Meanwhile, she lives in a modest split level in Independence with Will and a bunch of cats, tending to her contracting business, Ray Construction.
True, there is this kind of crusty exterior. A little potty-mouth going on. A rough edge. Colorful language. I've heard her refer to her sons as "sons-of-bitches" when she wasn't happy with them. Well, you know, she's 19 till she outgrows it - but it's a high-mileage 19! She basically doesn't care what you think about her, she's going to be who she is, deal with it! I lovingly - I repeat, lovingly! - refer to her as "turd-plated-gold."
"The Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." When it comes to Mama Ray, the heart is gold. Don't strain a gnat and swallow a camel.
The Story Continues
So...notwithstanding the frequent changes of drummers, things chugged along fairly consistently from 1986 to 2003. The jam at Harlings became well-known, not just in Kansas City but around the world. I remember a jazz guitarist from Minsk, Russia, who showed up one day. Kansas City to him was like Mecca to a Muslim. He was beside himself with excitement, awe and fear. He was going to actually play with Kansas City musicians! He could barely speak English but he knew the tunes. He did great - he knew his jazz and blues vocabulary. One day the entire Krakow (Poland) City Youth Big Band showed up. Many big names have shown up and jammed. Many of those got their start in Kansas City - Marilyn Maye, Karrin Allyson, Willie Mathews (guitarist for the Count Basie Band), Haji Ahkba (played with Van Morrison and James Brown), Wilbert Longmire, Kevin Mahogany ... the list goes on and on.
Many times an entire road band in town for a gig at Blayney's or the Grand Emporium would come in and play. Of course, they're promoting their own gig that's occurring later that night, but also, the jam at Harling's was known among musicians as the place to go if you wanted to test yourself against the Kansas City cats. One time this band came in. They were all a bunch of old black guys who played the blues - I think they were playing at Blayney's. They looked to me like they pretty much lived on the road - from town to town, hotel to hotel - sleeping in the van when they had to. They kicked ass! They were the real deal. They played 2 or 3 songs but stayed the afternoon. As I was tearing down at the end of the gig, one of these old black guys came up to me and said, "I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you is the funkiest-ass white boy I ever heard!" "Mister," I said, "I take it as a supreme compliment, thank you." I didn't know at the time that one of my great-great-great grandfathers was black! Obviously the Irish genes are dominant.
A real high point for me was getting to jam with Narada Michael Walden in 2001. Google him. He's a drummer who's played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sting, Whitney Houston, Santana - more recently he's been touring as Jeff Beck's drummer. Many times a big name will want to remain anonymous. Narada instructed Mama to introduce him as, "Spike" and not talk him up. As "Spike" sat down behind the drums and started arranging things (1/32 of an inch makes a huge difference to a drummer), I was thinking to myself, "Self, when this guy looks up from his drums he's used to seeing John McLaughlin, Santana, Jeff Beck or Sting. Today he's going to see ME!" I actually started psyching myself out! Then I thought, "Self, you gotta stop thinking like this or you're gonna f--k this up! Just be yourself; contests are for horses!" From the moment "Spike" hit the first downbeat the intensity level shot through the roof. By the third or 4th bar I was completely comfortable. I remember thinking, "Yeah! I can hang with this guy!" As I remember he played most of a set and stayed the whole rest of the day and listened. He told me later that my solo on "Song for You" was the best solo he'd ever heard on that song. No one in the audience that day had any idea who they were listening to. A lot of the musicians knew who he was; some were too intimidated to play.
During these years, Mama, Rich and I played other gigs as well. For a time we did a Friday matinee with saxophonist Phil Brenner at a place in Johnson County called Mother Tuckers. We hosted a jam on Sunday nights at the Redwood Inn. We played a more jazz-type gig for a while on Monday nights at a club on 39th between SW Trafficway and State Line called the Blind Pig. Notice that these gigs were on off-nights? That's because I either had my own band going or played in someone else's band and Rich played in another band or 2 as well. There were stretches of time where I played Tuesday through Saturday nights with one band, and Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night with Rich. Plus I was teaching 50 or 60 students a week. And Rich had a day job.
Of course there were bumps in the road. In the spring of 2001 I had a breakdown due to chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Big surprise, huh? It was quite dramatic - I was running hard when I hit the wall! The closest thing to it I had ever experienced was an LSD trip gone wrong back in the day. The waking vision/panic attack crisis happened right before lunch on a Saturday. Like any pro musician I thought I would just tough it out on the gig. Didn't make it; I had to leave the gig after the first set. Tom DeMasters told me later that he heard I had a nervous breakdown on stage and had run down Main Street naked! "Damn" he said, "I guess Jay had to play 'When a Man Loves a Woman' one too many times!" (Oh well - I don't care what they're saying just as long as they're talking about me!) I was out for 2 or 3 weeks. I don't remember the time frame but Mama missed 2 or 3 weeks because of surgery on her vocal chords. That was kind of scary. And then finally the situation that eventually resulted in Rich leaving the gig in 2004. As I said above, after a period of rotating keyboard players Mama settled on Alan Monroe and I slowed down to avoid dying.
In late August of 2007, an undercover cop witnessed a drink sale to a minor at Harlings. The city shut the club down for a month. Mama moved the jam to the Embassy Bistro right downstairs. At first the move was to be temporary; we would resume the jam at Harlings when they opened back up in October. But for reasons I have no knowledge of, Mama decided to make the move permanent. In case you haven't realized it, with Rich gone, this gig is a strict matriarchy! I was in favor of the move. The following is from MasterGuitar.com NEWS (those familiar with Harlings will understand the positives):
October 12, 2007: Mama Ray has moved the Jam to the Embassy Bistro and Bar permanently. Positives: No stairs, the air conditioning works, the bathrooms don't stink, it sounds better, there are decent blinds on the west-facing windows, there's actually a stage, and they serve food. Negatives: it's smaller than Harlings. In the winter time Harlings packs. I think that people will be turned away because it's too crowded...Some have expressed to me that they'll miss the sunlight streaming in the windows at Harlings. It's true that Harlings has a unique ambience.... Harlings will always have a special nostalgia for me. I was fairly young (28) when we started that gig. I've played with some great players there, it was the right gig at the right time. Thanks to Jerry (the owner) and Rich VanSant for making it happen all those many years ago. As far as I know Jerry and Mama Ray have parted on good terms. I've heard that Jerry is planning on putting another band in there on Saturday afternoons. I think that would be a good thing. The two jams would feed off each other, people would go upstairs to hear the band (I've heard that Tom DeMasters is putting it together) have a drink or two, walk downstairs and see Mama Ray et al, have a drink or two, go back upstairs....could make for a fun Saturday afternoon.
For a short period of time there were 2 jams going on, one upstairs at Harlings and one downstairs at the Embassy Bistro.
Then in December of 2007, I slipped on some black ice, fell and broke my face. Literally. I had to have facial reconstruction surgery. And it happened on a Saturday morning as I was going outside to warm up the car before leaving for the jam. After I regained consciousness and crawled back into the house I called Mama and told her I wouldn't be showing up that day. I'm going to leave this incident right here for now and save it for tomorrow because what happened as a result of this accident perfectly illustrates what I said about the jam community, church and life - and that's the subject for tomorrow.
In September of 2008 after several negative experiences with the management at the Embassy Bistro, Mama Ray moved the jam to BB's Lawnside BBQ, where it remains to this day. Lindsey Shannon and his wife Jo, (the owners) are great folks and things are looking good. And so for the third time, more than 24 years after it was begun by Rich VanSant and Jim LaForte at Harlings, when it looked like the gig was finally going to come to an end, new life was breathed into it at BBs, and it continues strong to this day, 32 years from the beginning and 30 years from when Mama Ray came on board.
In 2014 we lost our long-time drummer, Don Glaza, and have rotated drummers ever since. Mama Ray was complaining to me several months ago about "all the damn paperwork" she had to do to send 1099's to all the drummers we've been using! She might be getting ready to settle on someone. Who knows? Not me! After all is said and done, IT'S A MATRIARCHY!
(All the pictures accompanying this post were taken during the 1984 - 2003 era.)
The Real Story
One of the things I have learned about playing music is the way - mostly unbeknownst to me - that my performances have affected people. Most of the time I'm clueless about that, I just love to play the guitar and I'm grateful that I've been able to make more-or-less of a living at it over the course of my life thus far. When I'm onstage, I'm focused on my playing, the world of the song that I'm immersed in at the moment, and the musical conversation I'm having with the other players. Musicians tend to be pretty self-centered, some more, some less. It comes with the territory and I think it's a necessary component to be able to do what we do. Speaking for myself, one of my strategies for compensating is to hook up with and rely on a good frontman/singer, who is generally more tuned into the mood of the crowd, the demographic and the vibe of the room, which gives me the freedom to just do what I self-centerdly like to do - play the guitar. That would be someone like Mama Ray - or any number of people in this town who are great at it. When I do my solo gigs where I'm the frontman/singer, I'm constantly redirecting my attention away from the internal and towards the external. I have to consciously ask myself, "What's the demographic of the room? Males? Females? Age ranges? Are they responding? Are they showing interest? How can I make them feel good? What do I need to do to sell more drinks?" I make my song selection choices based on answers to those kinds of questions. I rely on the audience relating to the song because, let's face it, I'm NOT Mr. Sparkle Entertainment Personality. My point is, I'm a musician who happens to sing as a survival technique (guitar players are a dime-a-dozen), not a singer who plays guitar. And as such I'm more internally oriented.
That is why I can be oblivious to the effect that my music has on people. Intellectually, I understand that music affects people because it affects me (see how self-centered that statement is?) but I'm not always AWARE of my music affecting people.
But it does - it really, really does. This brings us to YOU - the audience.
A situation like what happened at Harlings and now is happening at BB's is not just about the music. It IS about the music, but not JUST about the music. All kinds of variables - many of them uncontrollable - have to line up. The ambience of the venue, location, time frame, the owner, the staff, the musicians, the music, the charisma of the frontman/singer - or in this case, the frontwoman/singer - how consistent are these factors - the gestalt of the whole situation etc ad infinitum - when a sufficient number of those variables line up what happens is relationship, community, communion, life. It's way bigger than playing a little jazz/blues jam session. (Even the concept of a jam session is players coming together - communion - who may not even know each other and trying to spontaneously create something unique to that moment.) The people who plug into a situation like Harlings or BB's go through significant periods of life together; that's what it is, life together. Yeah, it can be very messy - you can fill in the blank here - but that's life, isn't it? It's messy. Speaking of self-centered, I'm ironically going to quote myself;
"...the real story here is bigger than me, Mama Ray, Rich, Jim LaForte or the music. All those things are important and the story would not be the same without them but the real story is about the scene, the community and relationships that were created around that Saturday afternoon jam. People have married people they met at the jam. People got divorced because of people they met at the jam. They celebrate birthdays, marriages, divorces, anniversaries. There are memorials, funerals, wakes and benefits to raise money and provide support for individuals and organizations. It's family. It's church. Musicians who are now out gigging in various places around the world got their start at the jam. In New York, a jam session can be a brutal cutting contest; in Kansas City, it's an affirming love-fest. THAT is the real story here."
This could be illustrated by literally hundreds of stories. Read some of the comments on this thread and you'll get a vague idea about what the jam has meant to people over the years. Speaking again of self-centered, I'm only going to tell one story, my own. In the previous post I alluded to the accident in 2007 where I broke my face. What you can read below is copy-and-pasted from a page on MasterGuitar.com called, "Open Letter".
An Open Letter to Friends, Family, Students, and Fans
January 3rd, 2008
As many of you know by now, on Dec 8th, 2007, I suffered a fairly grievous and traumatic injury. I slipped on some ice and broke multiple bones in my face, requiring facial reconstruction surgery. It is not my intent to go into the details of that here. If you want those details, you can go to the NEWS page and read the entries for December 12th, 2007 and following.
The purpose of this letter is to express my heartfelt thanks to the many of you who sent Andrea and I encouragement, prayers, money, and food. The degree and quantity of the response was overwhelming. Several times we have been reduced to tears by the generosity and gifts from people that I have no idea who they are.
Two Sundays in a row Mama Ray and her husband, Will, came by with literally a truckload of food. Our living room was filled with boxes and boxes of food. This was donated in large part by people who have come to Harlings, and now the Embassy, on Saturday afternoons, to listen to the band, or participate in the jam session that has been going on there for over 20 years. Along with the food, we received checks and cash from family, friends and fans. Many of you who gave cash I have no idea who you are, how much you gave, or who to thank. So allow me to tell you of our circumstances, and just how timely your gifts have been, and how I intend to thank you.
Right now, I am the sole support of a 5-member household. Andrea and I have 5 children but two of them are married and out of the house. The oldest of those still here is fairly self-sufficient, and will be leaving shortly. Andrea has home-schooled all our children and so for the past 25 years I have been the only support. The result of this is that we are very rich in most ways but poor in financial terms. In spite of this, we have managed to live comfortably and I have no complaints or regrets. In light of the fact that my kids are turning out well (so far!) due in large part to my wife and the home-schooling, and also due to the fact that I got off the road in the mid-eighties in order to be there for my wife and kids, I consider our lack of financial security a small price to pay. (Is anybody ever really financially secure?)
I usually maintain 1 to 3 months of income in a cash reserve (I call it my rat-hole). For reasons I won't go into here, I depleted the rat-hole about a year ago and had not replenished it. Several years ago I had started investing for retirement and was loathe to divert funds from my retirement investing to replenish the rat-hole. For every month of not investing a few hundred dollars now I will be out tens of thousands of dollars 15 or 20 years from now. Such was my rationale.
When I fell and broke my face, the rat-hole was empty and I was looking at a month (at the least) of being laid up and not working, with no cash reserve to draw on. I have temporarily halted the retirement investing to help deal with the short-term crunch, but the bottom line is; because of your gifts, it appears that there will not be even one late payment on anything, and we are eating very well! This will definitely be the case if I can return to a normal schedule starting Jan 7th, which I am planning to do. At this point, I will deal with the medical bills that I am responsible for, replenish my rat-hole, and then resume the retirement investing. I have learned the hard way that I should maintain my rat-hole over my retirement investing. The crisis had to do with the short-term. Disability is my biggest vulnerability.
So, in terms of finances, what had the potential to be fairly disastrous has become a fairly minor bump in the road, thanks to you all.
How can I repay you? There is only one way - keep playing the guitar.
As I said in the liner notes to my latest CD (see the notes for the song, My Ship) I've always loved music - always. The love of playing music is what keeps me going. I can't explain it, I don't know why it is, but I know that I know that I know that playing music is what I'm supposed to do. I've always known that, it's one of the main reasons I'm here. As I also said, at a relatively young age I intuitively knew that whatever good that came to me in life would be a result of my guitar playing, such as it is.
Even so, it's easy to get complacent, it's easy to believe no one is really listening, it's easy to get corrupted by the bullshit, the politics of the business, and the games that have to be played just to keep working. I learned many years ago that my love of playing the guitar can compensate for all this other stuff that is necessary, but repugnant to me. I just love to make music, pure and simple.
In all the many years that I have been doing this, I never lost the conviction that this is what I'm supposed to do. However, there were times that I have been discouraged, I have been burned out, I have been complacent, I have taken what little success I've had for granted. But no more. Through what has happened in the last month I have rediscovered the knowledge that we affect people in many, many ways we don't realize. People that I don't even know feel compelled to send me money and food to help me out in a time of need. It's amazing and humbling. How did this happen? It happened because I've remained faithful to my calling-in-life and just kept playing the guitar, no matter what.
And so that is what I will continue to do, for as long as I am able, with gratitude.
A couple more things:
To my musician compadres: remember; we affect people in ways we have no clue about. This is true of everyone, but especially true of people like us. We speak a language that is very difficult to define or understand, but it affects people deeply. Remember that the next time you have a bad gig, or have to deal with an asshole club owner, or the next time an irritating drunk pesters you to play some bullshit song you hate. Remember those many, many, many people you have touched and enriched that you know nothing about. Don't give up.
To everyone else: I do not have any particular person in mind here, this is generic, so don't take it personally - on second thought, I want everyone to take it personally:
If there is someone who means alot to you, don't let years go by and don't wait until they get hurt before you tell them how much they mean to you. James Taylor said it well;
Shower the people you love with love
Show them the way that you feel
Things will be much better
If you only will
Thanks for reading this. Thanks for listening to the music. See you soon. Check the gig schedule and come on out!
Tomorrow, Saturday, August 13th, we are going to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mama Ray's Saturday Afternoon Jam. You know it's going to be a ZOO! Be prepared for SRO. We're going from 1:00 - 6:00. I have not booked another gig for that evening so if you want maybe we could hang out afterwards, I'd like to hear YOUR story. You'll notice I haven't talked much about BB's or included pictures from BB's. You know why? Because BB's is happening NOW! Why look at pictures when you can be a part of the real thing right now instead of indulging the fuzzy memories of the youngest guy in the band at the beginning, and the last original band member on the stage tomorrow - unless Rich decides to show up and sit in!