LA GRANDE — Musician Luke McKern, of La Grande, was missing the camaraderie and excitement of performing after COVID-19 shut down concerts and large gatherings.
To help bring back the music, McKern started organizing small jam sessions with musician friends and artists at outdoor locations across Eastern Oregon. These exclusive events follow social distancing and COVID-19 safety protocol to keep musical performances alive.
The events are open by invitation only.
“The smaller the number of people, the easier it is to manage and do it safely,” McKern said. “The people there are ones I have invited and they know the rules and are willing to follow them.”
McKern said there has not been more than 20 people at a performance, and the number often is lower than that.
The musicians wear masks as appropriate for playing their instruments, and they spread out during the shows. They have played in a Baker City parking lot, at Anthony Lakes and Indian Rock, and even in the Elkhorns in the Blue Mountains.
McKern prepares for an event by calling his musician friends, and together they figure out a time, date and place to jam. He also asks each of them what three songs they would like to perform. The songs often are easy enough that musicians with any level of experience can pick them up. From there, he puts together a book of sheet music for the set, often working on the book until the day of the event.
Genres include jazz, country, blues and rock, but there are no rules for what songs the group can play. Original music also is a welcomed suggestion.
McKern said one of the most important parts of a jam session is to have a good rhythm section. Then tunes still will sound good, whether played by amateur or professional musicians.
“If you make it all novice, it is hard to get off the ground,” McKern said. “And all professionals is too exclusive. Plus, it is nice when the professionals can share their chops and the novice can see how it is done.”
There is no rehearsal for these jam sessions. The group goes clockwise at the event for song recommendations and plays each song only once.
McKern said the rule is if you know the lyrics, you have to sing along. Setting up the jam session this way, he said, means every event is a little bit different.
McKern tries to schedule jam sessions at least once a week. While now it is anything goes for music genres and he is focusing on letting people play what they want, McKern said at some point he might consider organizing themed sessions.
He also encouraged people who are missing playing music to create their own events of a similar nature if they feel inspired.
“I just wanted to help give people a reason to get out their instruments,” McKern said, “and make some music.”