Call it luck or circumstances, but every once in a while, a new band hits a string of breaks that sends an electric charge through both the group and its audience -- the thrill of doors opening for a new talent. Lately, local jam band Jazzam seems to be riding just such a wave. The band has become a regular fixture at Mr. Small's Theatre, opening for national acts like Ekoostik Hookah and The Headhunters, and will be joining Rusted Root for several February tour dates in the Northeast. And Jazzam's recent release, It's About Time, is now being distributed internationally by the Homegrown Music Network.
"All the festival-goers, all the people who are interested in jam-band music, that's basically where they shop," says Jazzam bassist and co-founder Marc Sterling. "It's almost like a status thing." But really reaching those fans is "all about bringing your sound together as a group," says Sterling. "And I've seen a growth -- as we've gotten tighter as a band, our audience has definitely started to grow, and people are starting to take notice."
But back in 2004, Sterling was living outside of Ocean City, Md., working as "a freelance jazz musician." Guitarist Glenn Strother, originally from the Pittsburgh area, had just left the Air Force and was living in Dover, Del., also playing casual sessions. The two met and hit it off at a jazz gig at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware.
"We were looking to kinda get out of our area -- it's kinda stagnant down there," says Sterling. "[Glenn] was just like, 'Hey, I can get us some shows in Pittsburgh, if you wanna do that.'"
Jazzam really got started in 2005, when Sterling moved to Pittsburgh and eventually assembled the group's current lineup. Helping to create Jazzam's ever-shifting kaleidoscope of funk, jazz, electronic and rock flavors are percussionist Jake Miller, drummer and Pitt student John Riley, and Jeremy McDonough on keyboards. IUP student Clinton Clegg eventually became the rambunctious, bluesy voice of the band. Strother now works at Mr. Small's, doing promotions and booking, while Sterling is a stay-at-home dad. "I'm lucky that I've got a wife, and she supports what I do," he says, "so we make it work."
What has fostered Jazzam's growth has been a sense of community within Pittsburgh's loosely defined jam scene. This includes bands such as the Boogie Hustlers, The Poogie Bell Band and Omega Love, and clubs such as the Pittsburgh Café and Lawrenceville's Thunderbird Café ("a cool-ass place," Sterling notes.) Jazzam's found its own niche by favoring a more chaotic, no-holds-barred approach to live improvisation. "As far as that scene, and I don't really mean to sound bad about this, but when you leave Pittsburgh, it just seems like the quality of the bands goes down," Sterling says. "We're kinda spoiled here."
The main alliance that Jazzam has formed, though, has been with Mr. Small's. The band is now a go-to local opener for national acts, and the venue's Creative.Life.Support Records released Jazzam's debut, It's About Time. "Liz Berlin from Rusted Root has been a big part of that," Sterling says. Berlin assisted with production and appears on several of the album's tracks, including fan-favorite "Funk #2." She also made arrangements for the group to open on Rusted Root's upcoming tour dates in Albany, N.Y., Hartford, Conn., and Burlington, Vt.. "You can't complain about getting in front of over 3,000 people within the span of three days," Sterling says.
But if the band has reason to be optimistic about its own future, it is also confident in the future of the jam-band scene, which over the years has remained remarkably unaffected by the manic trends of the entertainment industry. "There will always be people who don't play music, but who are looking for music [that is] not sacrificed for radio edits or for what would be good as a pop song," Sterling says. He notes that the jam scene offers quite a variety: Caribbean music, electronica, funk, folk and bluegrass, for starters. "'Jam band' is not a style," he says. "I believe 'jam band' is a group of fans, a group of people who want to hear that kind of music. As long as those people exist, bands like us are going to be around."
Jazzam with Fourth River and Bohemian Bottom Orchestra. 8 p.m. Thu., Feb. 8 (doors at 7 p.m.). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $9. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com