Concerning Groningen’s Jam Scene
A look at three of Groningen’s best fixtures for spontaneous music
You’re standing at the precipice of the stage with your instrument. You’ve had a few drinks to give you courage; your friends are practically begging you to step up and join in the music-making. Or maybe you’re here to mingle, dance, and see what new faces will take the stage tonight (and hear what sort of unexpected sounds they will produce). One thing’s for sure, no matter why you have decided to come, you can be sure to enjoy the musical spontaneity and openness of the crowd: Welcome to Groningen’s jam scene.
What happens when you combine a city that has countless talented musicians who have time on their hands with all sorts of unique and quirky venues? You get a vibrant array of places frequented by so-called musicians with the intention of creating something entirely spontaneous and previously unheard of every night. Such is the lay of the land in Groningen.
Jam sessions have long been providing a creative outlet and space for socialization for the city’s music lovers. While the best way to explore our jam scene is still to go out and explore on your own, the new coronavirus measures have rendered this rather impossible, at least for the time being. So, to help you gain a better picture of what awaits you once we finally escape the grips of the current lockdown, I have recounted my experiences at three of the most popular recurring jam sessions in Groningen.
Le Petit Theatre
Just outside the city center is a building with two faces. Literally. If approached from the north side, Le Petit Theatre looks like a military bunker someone accidentally built inside a residential home. From the south side, it somewhat resembles an ornate, oversized dollhouse. Once you find your way inside, you’ll be greeted by the main chamber which contains the two most important features: the stage and the bar. The room is also laden with old instruments and even older armchairs making for a cozy vibe without feeling overly cluttered.
As for the music played, every Thursday, before opening up the stage for anyone who wants to play, students who study jazz at the conservatory come together to show off their skills to the audience and to each other. With the performers being from one of the most prestigious jazz institutions in Europe, the showmanship and virtuosity on display in Le Petit Theatre can likely compete against any live music in the Netherlands on a given night. While this creates quite a special listening experience, it also makes it less approachable for most amateur musicians. With that being said, the abundance of seating opportunities, intimate atmosphere, and spectacular music result in this being the jam session for all jazz enthusiasts in Groningen.
For the past fifty years, USVA has been a one-stop-shop for all students’ cultural affairs in Groningen. And for good reason. It is located centrally, placed just behind the Akerk (the large church next to the Vismarkt), and has the necessary facilities to let your creativity run wild. Just look for the large, red sign above the door and enter. Directly next to the bar (which, by the way, serves USVA’s excellent in-house craft beer) is the main theatre where the monthly jam sessions are held. Despite having the largest capacity of the three places named in this article, you can expect every jam session to be packed. At USVA, you will have to make your way through an energized crowd of mostly students who are ready to hear and make music.
The term that best describes the songs played at USVA jam sessions would be ‘heavy rotation’. Depending on the night, you may get anything from punk to funk, to reggae, to rap and everything in between. Even though USVA’s band committee always set the tone with the first few songs, what happens after that is anyone’s guess. A defining factor in this is the stage, which is spacious enough to accommodate an array of instruments. What’s more, these jam sessions provide a space where aspiring musicians can cut their teeth playing live alongside more seasoned show people in a non-judgmental environment. This ‘anything goes’ essence has made USVA one of the most enduring venues for jams in the city.
Café de Zolder
You’ve had your classy sit-in at Le Petit Theatre and got the masses moving at USVA. Now it’s time for you to really let it loose. In the alley between Peperstraat and Oosterstraat, just across from Nachtcafé Warhol, is a rather unremarkable looking door with a sign above it saying Café de Zolder. Beyond it is one of the most unique dives in all of Groningen. Once you’ve made your way up the precarious stairs, you’ll be greeted by a place where the normal rules simply don’t seem to apply. The ceilings are low, and the walls and bar are decked with alternative decorations. Populating this space is quite possibly the most diverse crowd in the city, containing people of all ages, races, sexualities, and backgrounds. The one thing to unite this eclectic lot: they all come to appreciate music.
Officially, there are two jam sessions a week at Café de Zolder: a jazz night on Tuesdays and blues-rock on Thursdays. But don’t let these labels fool you, for the music that is made in that attic transcends genre. On jazz nights you can expect the same level of instrumental virtuosity that you would find in Le Petit Theatre, except that it’s infused with more contemporary sparkle to liven up the room a little. Having said that, the real magic happens during the somewhat deceitfully labelled blues-rock nights. Being blues in name only, these jam sessions have far more in common with the recently discontinued reggae nights that Zolder used to offer, with a healthy side of funk and a topping of psychedelic experimentation. Musicians rarely even play existing songs, opting instead to improvise over chord progressions that are decided on at the moment. A jam session in the truest sense. The result is music that is hard to describe with words. Will we hear an abstract soundscape or an Arabic freestyle rap? It is simply impossible to know what will happen ahead of time, but such is the beauty and the madness of Café de Zolder’s Thursday nights.
Whether you opted to have your mind blown by the sheer excess of talent on display at Le Petit Theatre, expanded your taste palette at USVA, or basked in the unique creativity at Café de Zolder, one thing is for sure: you’ve seen nothing yet.
As is the nature of jam sessions, no two nights will ever be truly alike. In my time in Groningen, I have lost track of the number of jams that I have attended. Even so, I can say with certainty that always go into each one with the expectation to be surprised in new and exciting ways. So on that note, I would like to close with the following: no matter your preferred type of music, the jam scene of Groningen will find a way to mystify you if you give it a chance.