JAM! Chapter 2:
Updated: Aug 2
In Chapter 1 I talked about the genesis of the Saturday Afternoon Jam, an open jam session in Kansas City that's been happening since August of 1984 up to the present day. Much of that story necessarily centered on singer Jim LaForte.
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 sincerity 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, respect 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 B.B.'s 37 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. That's pretty amazing, considering what he could have complained about!
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 soul and 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 actually being in the room when Jim was doing his thing:
My Second Coming
In 1991, once again, Rich VanSant 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 from 1984 through February of 1986. That corresponds to the time frame wherein the Harlings gig got off the ground. Paul was also 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 in 2013.
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, 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 short period of time we actually had flash-pots going off inside the club, thanks to Paul Walters' bat-shit crazy brother, 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.
Since there is no flash-pot footage that I know of, we'll just have to settle for "When a Man Loves a Woman" without the ordnance:
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! 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. One of the things that people talk about concerning their memories of the Jam at Harling's is the unique ambiance of that club on Saturday afternoons. The wood floors, the large windows with the second-story view of Main Street and Westport Road. The sunlight streaming in the windows and the seating arrangement that encouraged interactions among strangers.
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 were 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 with stylistic boundaries but it was an important issue to Rich. 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 is 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 recording 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 record 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 took the tapes home and mixed it in my studio. 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. 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.
Sometime in 2002 Rich left the jam to take care of his wife, Wanda, who was terminally ill. I'm not going into any details here, but theirs was 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. I do have to say this one thing; at Rich and Wanda's wedding reception in the back room at Harlings my wife said, "Wow, how did Rich pull this off? She's so elegant!"
Wanda died from cancer on March 5, 2003. Rich returned shortly thereafter and subsequently left the jam at Harlings again in January of 2004. 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 on which I would like to use him, 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, Rich Hill, Ken Lovern and Allen Monroe. 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. He never ceases to amaze me with his knowledge of obscure tunes I've never heard of. It's a very common occurrence that I don't know the tune, I'm just following Allen around! I talk more about Allen in The Perils of Perfect Pitch. Below is the title track from Channeling Harold. Included 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 music 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. Quote, "This was really a joy to listen to." Also, "Good organ." That would be Rich VanSant.
Next Monday, July 24 will be Chapter 3 of Jam! I'll focus in on Mama Ray - you know you want to hear about THAT!
There is a Blog Category dedicated to stories from the Jam called Jam Tales - check it out!
Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that contains a brand-new free lesson, and DEEP discounts on lesson series downloads - plus more!
For more information on site membership see Why Become a Site Member?