Interview: Jay Blakesberg on JAM, a Photographic Anthology of Jambands
Join Jay Bakesberg in celebrating and signing JAM at Mr Musichead, 7511 Sunset Blvd in Hollywood on November 14.
As long-time musicians know, jamming can be one of the most exhilarating experiences for players. A certain magic is attained by talented musicians playing off of one another. Over the years, a vibrant scene has developed around bands who improvise freely throughout their sets. Inspired by pioneers like the Grateful Dead, jambands have multiplied over the years into their own thriving scene. There are acts like Grace Potter, Avett Brothers, The String Cheese Incident, and Widespread Panic, who thrive on jamming and Jay Blakesberg loves to photograph them. Renowned rock photographer Jay Blakesberg has been shooting bands since the late ’70’s. His latest coffee table book, JAM, features more than 300 pictures of live concert photography. In Blakesberg’s, JAM, you can practically feel the energy rippling through his photos.
In his introduction to your book, Mike Greenhaus explains the difficult task of describing what factors make a band a jamband. Suffice to say that a jamband is a type of group that employs improvisation throughout their live performances. In a similar way, bebop jazz players would play the melody and then improvise freely throughout the song.
Sometimes you have a band like Jane’s Addiction with a guitar player like Dave Navarro, and he really can JAM…and sometimes you have a guitar Player like Al Schnier from moe. who can really JAM (and improvise)…it all fits in the book JAM! I personally love it all, but want to keep coming back to see bands day in and day out that play it differently night after night…
I think we both saw the Grateful Dead for the first time on the same tour. Were you a Dead Head before you saw them?
I was aware of the Grateful Dead when I first saw them in 1977 when I was 15 years old. I don’t think I was a Deadhead yet…but by 1978 I was getting there, and by 1979 I was a full blown Deadhead…Dancing in my living room in Suburban NJ, by myself, to cassette tapes of live concerts by the Grateful Dead…I was hooked by that point!
Were your parents interested in music?
Yes, but my older siblings, and friends were the real influence. Plus I was born with that special DNA that said, get psychedelic, blow your mind, and begin the grandest adventure that life can offer you!
What is the first song that moved you as a kid?
“Blackwater” by the Doobie Brothers. 1974-1975 ish… Also the Doobies were my first concert. About 10 years ago I did a Doobie Brothers publicity photo shoot in my studio and around the city of SF> Was great to come full circle like that…and share that with them.
You’ve shot such a diverse selection of famous bands throughout your career. Why do you think you’ve gravitated towards the jamband scene?
I personally think its the most rewarding music being made. As I said earlier, there are a ton of “non improv” type bands that I love, and love to work with, but when it comes to live shows, to be able to see a band take those types of risks every night on stage, and not really know if it will work, is rewarding for the band, and the fan…I think in art, whether its Music, Photography or anything really, the greater the risk, the greater the reward…
What was the first band you ever shot and how did you gain access to them?
Back in the 1970’s before the corporations hi-jacked live rock and roll, anyone could bring a camera to a concert. So my access was from buying a ticket. I don’t remember who the first band was, but my career has been defined by a concert in September 1978 when I was 16 years old and borrowed my fathers camera and shot my First grateful Dead concert at the Meadowlands in NJ. When I finally “owned” my first DSLR – the first artist I shot was Roy Buchanan.
Your photos in this book are both exciting and intimate. Are all the bands that you shoot always cooperative?
In general, as my career and reputation as a working photographer (I still shoot for many magazines like Rolling Stone, Relix, Guitar Player, Acoustic Guitar and others) has developed, and my friendships with many of these artists and managers has grown, I have been given full access many, many times. It is a privilege, not a right, and every time I step on a stage with a performing artist, or in a dressing room, or rehearsal room, I treat that space with the utmost gratitude and respect. I don’t ever want to show any of these artists in a bad light and I never take that position for granted. And because of that, the trust has grown to allow me to have that access, and also the trust is there between myself and the artist for me to know when NOT to share a photo unless the artist wants it shared. I typically don’t shoot artists that don’t give me the type of access I want because the results are not as good. At this point in my career, I really want to be able to capture the true magic that these performers conjure up when they are in performance mode. I truly believe that I am documenting an important part of Pop Culture history. We are Visual Anthropologists. Thats why I think all artists should have photographers that they can trust and work closely with, because maybe today they don’t see a need or use for these photos, but the photos taken today will have so much more deep meaning and resonance in 20, 30 years as long as we can all figure out a way to protect the digital media over the long run.
Aside from this current jamband volume, do you have a favorite among your other coffee table books?
Everyone of them I am super proud of. My Grateful Dead book chronicled an epic portion of my life and the transition from fan to pro. Traveling on a High frequency – my 30 year retrospective that came out in 2008 really showed the number of artists I worked with over that period of time, and also showed how my work matured. That book is mostly portraits, which is why after that book I wanted to do JAM and really showcase the Live Concert experience. M Flaming Lips, Primus and Mother Hips books all show how a long relationship with a single artist can really capture the evolving zeitgeist and creativity of one artist.
What initially attracted you to photography? Were you immediately drawn to shooting bands?
Originally I shot pictures of bands to create my own personal memorabilia. I wanted to hang 8×10’s on my bedroom wall. I enjoyed the darkroom process. I built a funky darkroom in my basement of the house I grew up in. I liked the sense of accomplishment. I never understood that there could be a career doing this 35 years ago. It was not on my radar, nor my parents radar. Thats when every parent thought that you needed to have a professional career, and not a creative career…When I finished college, I had no clue what I could do or become. I loved the idea of making a living as a photographer, and eventually it happened, but I was a starving artists for several years. I have not had any other job since about 1987. Photographer and over the last 10 years or so film maker as well.>
What was the first professional camera you ever bought?
What equipment do you presently use?
Nikon D-800 – all digital. Have not shot film in 4+ years now I think. 95% of JAM was shot with digital.
Are you bothered about all the amateur iPhone photographers in the crowds?
Not the iPhone shooters, and in general not necessarily bothered, but concerned about the number of people out there who think buying a good/great digital camera automatically lets them hang a sign that says “professional photographer”. I constantly talk to these people, and many of them have no sense of design, color or proportion…or the history of photography. I had an intern a few years ago who had never heard of Richard Avedon, or Irving Penn. Now I understand that most photographers today will never step in a darkroom, but I still think understanding the foundation of traditional photography is a must if you are really to become a professional photographer.
Why do you feel the jamband scene keeps growing? Many of these bands have been around for a long time.
I truly believe the Jamband fan has the biggest, most wide open and accepting ears of any music fan. I have been to “jamband” festivals where the same 10,000 people are grooving to Umprey’s McGee, Wiz Khalifa, Bassnectar and The Avett Brothers all at the same festival. 25 years ago when it was really just the Grateful Dead, I don’t feel like the fans then were as wide open to other types of music.<
Many “indie” bands seem to have been accepted into the jamband fold. Do you ever hear debate about whether a band qualifies or not? Could an improvisational band like Radiohead be considered a form of jamband?
Radiohead are brilliant and they can fit in to any genre and at the same time are un-categorizable…The festival circuit has opened it up completely to all types of bands mixed together, and you know what – it works!
Have you developed a passion for shooting any particular jamband?
Many…moe., Black Crowes, Grace Potter, Avett brothers, Yonder Mtn, String Cheese, Widespread Panic, Spearhead, Grateful Dead members, Phish… – I could really name every single artist in the book, and then some.. All the bands in JAM all have their uniqueness and challenges to capturing those magical musical moments!
Are you constantly shooting when you’re not moving around?
I am constantly shooting, and constantly moving…I am a Saggitarius!
Some of these angles for your shots seem impossible to get without sitting on-stage directly in front of the band. How much crawling around and sneaking between amps do you actually do?
I try not to sneak, but put myself in very deliberate spots to capture angles that make my photos unique and different. Any show you go to now there are anywhere from 5-100 photographers in front of the stage…and everyone thinks if they don’t get the same boring photo of the same singer at the same microphone then they have failed at their assignment. Whether its for their Facebook page, a music blog, a print publication…but its not about just capturing the same boring pedestrian photo and proving you were there in the pit at the rock concert, its about capturing something unique and different. Take a risk, don’t settle for the same shot everyone is getting. It will make you happier, and perhaps be the type of shot the art director you are trying to get to hire you wants that will set you on a course to truly be a successful professional photographer (making a living, not just making extra money).
Is there one band you feel is currently carrying on the mantle of the Grateful Dead?
There are many…it’s a whole community of bands and fans and festivals that are creating the vibe. I post a lot of vintage photos on my Facebook blog. Pictures of Deadheads and hippies from the 1980’s, 90’s and from festivals last summer. I often get comments that these photos could be from 1967, 1987, or 2007…It is a whole group of people, revolving around this incredibly rich live music experience that are the cornerstone of this community. And it is a community, it’s not fractured and diffused and I think it’s because these artists are real, original, authentic, and are making music that blows minds…and thats what resonates with the fans and makes them want to come back for more and more…they want that REAL experience that communal experience, that feeling that ONLY live rock and roll can give you. And if that is what turns you on then there is nothing like it!
Do you think you will you continue to chronicle the jamband scene throughout the years?
You CANT quit the mob!
All photographs by Jay Blakesberg