Home   Back up to the Jams page   Tunes page   Tune-lists page   Music Theory page   ABC tutorial page

South Bay (Mostly) Old-Time Jam

Also known as the Monday-night jam and (prior to 2015) the Fandango Jam.

Update: The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, but:

Jump to: How it Works | Sheet Music | Recordings and Tune Lists | History


This is an informal mostly-old-time jam session. The jam is acoustic, intended for old-time compatible instruments (stringed instruments plus the occasional accordion, flute, pennywhistle, etc.). Though the focus is intermediate players and playing by ear, relative beginners who can carry a tune and play in time with the group are welcome to give it a try. Unlike bluegrass jams, in this style pretty much everyone plays all the time — so it’s great for learning the tunes!

Holidays: The jam generally continues through “minor” holidays such as Labor Day and Martin Luther King Day, pausing only for “major” Monday holidays such as Christmas or New Year's eves or days. For other “intermediate” holidays such as Independence Day we usually take a poll to decide whether to meet.

What We Play: The nominal theme is American “old-time”-style music from many sources (not all actually old). But we often have an eclectic mix that can include New England contra and Scandinavian fiddle tunes and a bit of Celtic and bluegrass, with the occasional song thrown in. There's an old list with examples of our then-typical repertoire on the Tune-Lists page . 

Location: Our current location is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto at 505 East Charleston Road in Palo Alto (tap or click for a Google map).

Parking is plentiful behind the church buildings; the entrance driveway is left of the church (as you face it from the street). In cool weather we're usually assigned to one of the rooms; in warmer weather we've often met outside, often in the (covered and lighted) McFadden Patio. It can get chilly later in the evening; bring a jacket!

See the PDF campus map for room locations. (The parking lot is on the left side of the map.)

IMPORTANT: The church posts a list near their office (between the restrooms and classroom 6, see the above campus map) that shows (under "Monday") what room is assigned for the Old Time Jam for the current week.  But as noted below, sometimes we don't meet where we're supposed to, so look or listen for us. If you don't see or hear us, check the list for clues.

Update: Locations Within the Unitarian Church: As of Spring 2023 we often met in our “usual” room, the Fireside Room (see the campus map above). During the warmer weather in the summer we've often been assigned to the McFadden Patio (covered and lighted, adjacent to the parking lot's Exit driveway). Sometimes if it seems cool, in spite of our assignment there, we've elected to meet in the Main Hall or its lobby (see the campus map).

Cost: To cover the room rental fee, we ask for a donation from participants. The nominal donation has been $2 per musician. Due to reduced gathering size post-COVID, the suggested donation was increased to $3 per musician. Either way we have occasional free jams if we've collected more than is needed for the month. Listeners need not contrubute -- in other words, it's “pay to play”.

Schedule: Every Monday (except possibly major holidays), 7:00-9:00pm. Since some people gather before 7:00 to eat, sometimes the music starts early. Questions? Call or email Pete Showman (see below)

Eat before the jam! There's no food service at the church, but there are several take-out options in the nearby Charleston Shopping Center (corner of Charleston and Middlefield). In the absence of COVID-19, Jam participants and their guests are welcome to bring food to eat (or to share) between 6:00 and 7:00 — but all trash should be collected and disposed of properly before we leave. We have been asked not to put food or food-contaminated items in the outdoor trash cans — apparently the local squirrels go after it and make a mess. (Trash containers inside some of the rooms, or the large trash containers in the parking lot, are OK.)
We end at approximately 9:00 pm. Please help ensure the Jam site is clean and arranged as we found it before you leave.

How it works

Usually (pre-COVID) something like 15-25 people participated. Since the pandemic attendance has usually been more like 8-10 people. Unlike in bluegrass jams, everyone normally plays together. We typically play a tune 3-5 times, depending on the tune (and the number of people waiting for a turn), though a slow waltz might just be played twice. Here’s how we try to keep things from getting too chaotic:

Choosing and Starting Tunes: Each person takes a turn naming a tune to be played, preferably in the current key (see Keys below). See the tune list (on the Tune-Lists page) for ideas, and for tunes in the current key. Whoever picked the tune usually starts it off (setting the tempo, which we’re then supposed to maintain) — or may ask someone else to start it. It's also helpful to set the tempo by starting with a couple of measures of “potatoes” (shuffle bowing on fiddle) or strumming to lead into the tune.

Stopping: Whoever chose the tune should always indicate when to stop. This is usually done by raising a foot as we approach the end of the tune (preferably part-way through the last part of the tune, a few measures before we’re to stop). Calling out “one more time” or “last time” at the start of the last time can help too, especially if you can’t raise your foot, or it can’t easily be seen by the group.

Keys: See the Monday-Night-Jam Tune List for the common keys and modes — but in sum, mostly combinations with 0-3 sharps. Because some of the instruments must be re-tuned (or swapped) when the key changes, we strongly encourage sticking to one key for a number of tunes (e.g. 15-20 or more). If you decide to change keys when it’s your turn, please announce the change clearly, and then give those players time to adjust before starting your tune.

Tempo 1: Speed: Remember this is a jam, not a performance by a practiced band. The lightening speeds you may may hear on a CD or at a show are not appropriate for a large jam that often includes some relatively inexperienced players. Also, old-time music is not necessarily played at dance tempo, but is often more relaxed "front-porch" music. (And some tunes, such as rags and especially hornpipes, are not supposed to be fast!) So be considerate and don’t rush it when you’re starting a tune. And never push the tempo up on someone else’s tune! A slower speed also helps with:

Tempo 2: Staying Together: We have no conductor. We rely on guitars, and a bass when we’re lucky enough to have one, to hold us together. That can be difficult with more than a dozen or so players. If you can’t hear the beat (or you hear more than one!), look for feet tapping near whoever set the tempo — or for a consensus among the steadiest foot-tappers around the circle. Especially if you hear two different beats, it may help to drop out briefly to let it sort itself out. And as usual in a jam, if all you (or your neighbors) can hear is your instrument, please tone it down!

Sheet Music:

Most of us play by ear, and we encourage new players to learn how to play, and to learn new tunes, that way. If you do need music that’s OK but please put your stand where it won’t be in the way. And recognize that (a) you may not always hear the tune name before it starts, and (b) the group won’t be waiting for you to find the page.

Still, written-out music can be very useful for learning and refining tunes, so music for many of the tunes we play is available on my Tunes Page, along with matching MIDI files you can listen to.

Various versions of most of the tunes we play can also be found in tune-books and on the Web, often in ABC** notation. Two good places to start: ABCnotation.com and John Lamancusa’s fine old-time tunes website. I think his “ABOUT” page is especially helpful, too.

** ABC is a text-based way to represent music notation that’s commonly used on the Web. If you’re not familiar with ABC, there are many tutorials on the Web to help you learn it — but here are a few notes on ABC notation: a short ABC tutorial.

Recordings (MP3s) and Tune Lists (PDFs)

Recordings: Larry Joba used to record most of our sessions, and posted the recordings here (you'll need to sign in with Google to access them). There's a folder for each of several recent years, and folders for each available jam date in the current year, with individual tunes in each folder. There are also lists in several formats showing what tunes were played on various dates, and who called them, and all the musicians who have proposed tunes in recent years. (Most of this has not been updated since the pandemic began.)

Tune Lists:


The jam has changed venues from time to time, in locations from Palo Alto to San Jose. Earlier locations included Cuppa Joe and Fibbar McGee's in Mountain View, then the Bean Scene in Sunnyvale, then the Coffee Society in Cupertino, in Palo Alto at the Cafe la Dolce Vita and at Fandango Pizza (from spring 2004 at their original location on Alma, and from 2006 through 2014, until they closed, at their shared location with the Pommard Café on Middlefield). We used to alternate Old-Time and Irish sessions (hence the 'oti' in the URL) but dropped the Irish part after various other south-bay Irish or Celtic sessions started up.

This page is maintained by Pete Showman.

Need more information? Email Pete: jaminfo2, at showman dot org, with subject: "Old-time jam query," or call (408) 255-0297.

To reduce spam, email addresses on these pages are not clickable; you need to type them in. Sorry for the inconvenience.