The creative spirit requires fellowship. That’s especially the case with musicians, whose craft is so community-based and whose talents are married and enhanced by artistic camaraderie. Hence the special magic of a musical jam session.
Local musician Michael Hecker feels that jam sessions and open mic nights are an essential component of his artistic life.
"It’s a good way to learn how to improvise," he told OnMilwaukee.com. "You have to work with the idiosyncrasies of what everybody is doing – and quickly. Not everyone plays the same. People you’re used to playing with are going to play a song differently than someone you’ve never played with before."
It’s also a perfect setting in which to meet fellow musicians and future collaborators – or even friends.
"It’s just really a good outlet to meet people," Hecker said. "You know, I had heard of Alex Wilson, but I got to hang out and meet the guy (at the Monday night open mic session at Up and Under Pub). I didn’t know him before, but now I do. It’s a good place if you’re looking to start a band, to find a community of players who can really play. Because you don’t usually find them at the grocery store."
Hecker usually attends several jam sessions a week. He shared his three favorite open mic nights with OnMilwaukee.com.
"Sometimes I’m just itching to play," he said. "I think every musician kind of gets that at times where you just want to go out and if you don’t have a gig to play, it’s good to have a jam session."
Brocach Irish Pub and Restaurant
1850 N. Water St., (414) 931-9009
Every Tuesday night the craic (entertainment and community) is alive and well at Brocach on Water Street. Though the website describes the session (run by Mark Meaney) as "traditional Irish music," Hecker says all musical styles are welcome, though it is more acoustic-based. "People bring out the guitar, banjo, fiddle, percussion, stuff like that," he said. "We’ve probably had as few as five or six people there, or we’ve had as much as 30. People just jam out."
Musicians sit in a circle and, moving clockwise, everyone has a chance to play. "It’s a very cool, laid-back session," said Hecker. "It’s probably the friendliest session. For people who are a little bit timid, it’s a good place to go. Everybody’s nice; they all play well with others."
407 E. Jackson St., Port Washington, (262) 284-6838
Port Washington’s favorite fish shanty/bar/brunch spot (it’s a versatile place) comes alive on Thursday nights when area musicians are welcome to stop by and strut their stuff. Hecker and his friends, including organizer Will Pfrang, can usually be found at the front of the house, jamming in front of the windows that overlook Lake Michigan. The crowd is friendly and the atmosphere is fairly laid-back. Musicians are welcome to sign up to play alone or accompany others. This is a good one for the under-21 crowd, as Newport Shores is as much of a restaurant as it is a bar.
The Up and Under Pub
1216 E. Brady St., (414) 276-2677
Monday’s Open Mic Night at the Up and Under Pub is consistently ranked one of the best in the city. Hecker describes it as "more of a blues/rock jam. Probably the best jam that I’ve been to. The musicians there are just extremely awesome." Misha Siegfried and the Up and Under house band are known as one of the tightest acts in town, and they’re willing to back any musician who shows up for a 15-minute slot.
"The house band is blues, but you can play any kind of music you want," said bartender Tim "Timber" Beuge. "If you’re a drummer, bring drumsticks. Keyboardists, we’ve got keys – use the house band if you want, or get up there by yourself or with your own band. It’s pretty much just a way to get all musicians together and just kind of jam out."
Other open mic nights
Check out the OnMilwaukee.com events calendar for more information – there’s usually a great listing of local jam sessions there.
One local favorite is the twice-monthly open mic night at Fire On Water, 518 N. Water St. – typically the first and last Thursdays of each month, hosted by the effervescent Augie Barnhardt. Organizer Geoff Felsher says that there are usually 10-20 musicians who play "typically two to three songs, but if someone wants to keep going that’s fine," he said. "It’s laid-back. We end usually around midnight. It’s a mix of music, but predominantly blues/rock." The best part? No cover charge.
It can be hard for younger musicians to find a jam session, since most are held at bars where minors aren’t allowed. Young jazz lovers are welcome at the Helen Bader Recital Hall, 1583 N. Prospect Ave., for monthly jam sessions hosted by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
Usually held the second Saturday of each month, sign-up begins at 6:30 p.m. and the sessions are open to high school and adult musicians of any experience level. Drums, piano, vibes, bass amps guitar amps and vocal P.A. are all provided.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.