If you are in St. Louis to visit the National Blues Museum, there is a good chance you’ll be around for one of our most cherished regular events, the Sittin’ on the Porch jam session, held every Thursday from 6:00-9:00 PM. Any and all musicians are welcome, regardless of instrument or musical background. It’s just one reason why the National Blues Museum is a great place to see live music in St. Louis!!
Blues music is an oral tradition, and its history is filled with stories of mentors passing on their skills to the next generation of players. From Charley Patton’s foundational lessons given to bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson, and Bukka White at Dockery Farms in the Mississippi Delta to Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop’s tutelage under Howlin’ Wolf and other Chicago blues luminaries, learning from experienced musicians by “sitting-in” with them is an essential aspect of music’s cultural reproduction. This is especially true for the blues, as the ins and outs of soloing, trading, and bandleading are best experienced on the bandstand.
Music is somewhat unique in this ability to be taught through action. Often, in a rehearsal or recording session, musicians will find themselves talking in circles about their work only to realize, “People. We just have to PLAY IT.” And, no matter your skill level, if you get thrown into a nice slow blues shuffle, you’re gonna make some kind of sound, and that initial expression can take you far. Music, like many other things, is much easier to understand when you aren’t alone. Once you get the chance to play it with someone who really knows their stuff, plenty of your own questions about how to improve your individual voice can leap out at you.
Plenty of great musicians had their early chops established in one-off, by-the-seat-of-their-pants moments of music-making. In the recent PBS documentary American Epic (2017), Robert Lockwood Jr. recounted how his mentor, legendary Delta bluesmen Robert Johnson, would often only show him how to play a song one or two times in the moment. Despite this, Lockwood picked up the majority of his technique from watching Robert and sitting in with him. This sort of sudden call to musical action is a staple of the improvisatory arts of blues, jazz, and other forms of folk music. With simple structures and infinite room for personal expression, the ability to simply hop in the musical collaboration and speak your truth is one of the most essential and inspiring aspects of playing these forms of music. While you can learn some things from books, that experience isn’t going to come from anywhere else. Much of the time, these transformative moments have occurred at, you guessed it, jam sessions. From piano-based “cutting contests” to the lyrical freestyling of rap cyphers, the evolution of blues, jazz, Hip-Hop, bluegrass, and essentially all musical styles, exhibit these trial-by-fire moments of improvising and PLAYING the music.
At the National Blues Museum, we create a space where these crucial musical interactions can take place. Since 2018, Sittin’ on the Porch at the National Blues Museum has been an excellent resource for St. Louis musicians (and different players wandering through town). Living up to its name, the jam features a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and established local players. Attendees can expect familiar tunes, musical guidance, and opportunities to socialize and meet fellow musicians. Celebrating the communal improvisation which sustains blues music as an oral tradition, the National Blues Museum’s Sittin’ on the Porch jam is an essential part of our mission to preserve the blues’ historical and cultural legacy. At Sittin’ on the Porch, the musicians dedicated to this living art form have a space to interact and experiment, and the next generation of blues players are given a chance to find their voice.
Sittin’ on the Porch is an ALL SKILL LEVEL jam (for real, beginners, this is the jam in town for you), and attendees can rest easy as it is not one of the famously cutthroat sessions held throughout music history. In some times and places, getting on stage at a jam and playing below par was a good way to get your ego destroyed and maybe even physically harmed. The legendary jazz jam session at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City held throughout the 1940s and 1950s was famously ruthless, only tolerating quality players. If you got on stage and crapped the bed, you weren’t getting invited back up. Many have even reported that musicians would take lousy players out into the alley and rough them up. If you truly love music, that sort of treatment is sure to make you practice until you’re worthy (even if you’re emotionally scarred in the process). While the music world, fortunately, doesn’t condone this behavior today, it speaks to the importance these musicians placed on their art, especially when it was groundbreaking. Minton’s was a foundational site in the creation of bebop, home to musicians who advanced the language of jazz into its next phase and changed music forever. Thelonious Monk was the house pianist at Minton’s, and most every jazz visionary of the period sat in at its jam: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge, among others. With players like this gracing the bandstand, you can understand why subpar performance was met with such hostility.
BUT as any punk rocker will tell you, musicians need opportunities to get out there and sound like garbage if they have any hope of getting better at their craft. The chance to PLAY on stage is the first step toward gaining the reflexes and know-how needed to properly contribute to a musical collaboration. This is why jams like Sittin’ on the Porch are essential. Most musicians gain any shred of musical confidence they have in low-stakes, all ages, all skill level jam sessions just like Sittin’ on the Porch. Along these lines, going to jams is what makes a lot of people really dive into playing music. Having a community of musicians who give you guidance and whom you want to show what you’ve learned is the best motivator for practicing and learning new skills you can imagine. Musical styles based around communal improvisation and shared languages, like the blues, would not exist in their current forms without these streams of mentorship and innovation.
So, we highly, highly encourage you to come by the Sittin’ on the Porch jam session. No matter your skill, experience level, age, instrument, or musical background, it is a place where you can take these initial steps and learn the conventions of musical collaboration. Pretty soon, you’ll be making eye contact, tapping the top of your head, and holding up four fingers like a seasoned pro.
If you come visit our Sittin’ on the Porch jam session, make sure to check out the rest of the museum’s amazing music programming!!
The National Blues Museum—located in St. Louis, Missouri—preserves the legacy of the blues as an African American tradition that sits at the foundation of all styles of American music while celebrating and supporting the musicians who continue to advance the art form through live performance. Our signature Howlin’ Fridays concert series features the best in local and national blues talent. Blues fans of St. Louis and beyond, be sure to make a pilgrimage to the National Blue Museum for our summer Blues on the Block series and Blues at the Arch festival—free programs that are among the most exciting in the region. You can see all upcoming events on the museum’s calendar and stay tuned for exciting announcements!