Until three years ago, musically inclined faculty from all academic pursuits had little to no opportunities on campus to convene and jam together. This all changed for the better when psychology professor Tim Kasser amalgamated a vision from his love for music and his observance of employee-designated activities.
“I was sort of always jealous of the [faculty] noon basketball games . . . I always thought, ‘that’s a great idea, the people get away from regular work in the middle of the day instead of eating at their desks and instead, go do something physical,’ but not being a basketball player, that wasn’t of interest to me,” said Kasser. “So, I thought of the jam sessions.”
Jam sessions are self-explanatory; respective faculty members join once a week to play together on their favorite instruments. Everyone plays music and everyone contributes their own preferred musical pieces for the group to explore. While blues and folk music are mainstays, they have explored genres such as pop, rock, country, jazz, latin, classical and celtic. Kasser mentioned times when they’ve even found inspiration to play from their surroundings, with sessions dedicated to songs about rain or trains. The group is always open to trying new songs and welcoming new members. The ways in which the faculty is able to expand their talents and musical horizons is one of the most admired qualities of their time together.
“We almost never play the same song three jam sessions in a row, rarely even two. . . ” Kasser said. “We each are put into situations where we’re playing songs we don’t know and where we’re playing songs even sometimes we don’t like, but you jump in and you play and that’s what expands you.”
The sessions take place every Wednesday during fifth hour at Jay Rehearsal Hall in CFA. Although Kasser describes the faculty attendees as “a changing cast of characters,” regular participants include Kasser himself, as well as psychology professor Andy Hertel, Diane Frenster, professor of religious studies Jim Thrall and professor of anthropology-sociology William Hope.
For the most involved faculty members, jam sessions aren’t their first rodeo. In fact, many have been passionate musicians for more than a decade. Frenster recalled that her love for music was jumpstarted when her brother would blast his stereo in high school.
“I heard [his music] through the bedroom wall, and I heard the bass over anything else. He really cranked it, he had a great stereo,” Frenster said. “At the time it annoyed me because I was trying to do my homework one foot from this wall, but on the other hand I was going ‘wow, that is a cool bassline for that Eagles song ‘Hotel California.”’
Outside of jam sessions, Frenster has performed solo at open mic nights at The Beanhive in town and seeks to perform in DIY Galesburg as the one-woman band “Scarlet Pimpernel.” Frenster said that she especially appreciates jam sessions because the people value her musical input; being a woman playing among genre groups dominated by males has drowned her voice in the past.
“At first, I felt kinda strange being the only woman there. That was hard for me to feel comfortable enough to be my musical self in front of them,” Frenster said. “I had to work through that whole wall of ‘what does she know, why should we listen to her,’ but I was eventually able to convince people that I’m kind of a chord-meister.”
Frenster, who plays both the bass guitar and piano, said that her musical strong suit is her attention to basslines and rhythm, which are her main connection to both of the instruments she plays. This prevents her piano-playing from clashing with Kasser, who also plays piano. It also works in accordance with Hertel, who was a professional drummer before teaching psychology at Knox and co-founded jam sessions with Kasser.
“[Tim] tends to play more tinkly stuff, some fancy soloing on the top, and I tend to do a lot of thumping on the bass. I try to give it a certain feel. [Andy] can instantly join whatever energy is happening and make it go in a good direction . . .” Frenster said, “Even if maybe it didn’t start off in a good direction, he makes it go that way.”
Hertel started off playing percussion when he was twelve for his junior high concert band. Toward high school, he began playing the drums. He appreciates the hour he’s able to dedicate each week toward playing through jam sessions.
“Most of the time I’m just trying to find the rhythm and the groove to try to provide support for a coherent ensemble . . . I don’t have as much opportunity to play my drums, so also it’s an occasion for me to get behind my drumset,” Hertel said. “I enjoy playing music, it’s a fun opportunity.”
Each faculty member involved values the time they are able to dedicate to improvisation on their instruments. As their involved members are all immensely skilled, they have been asked to perform in the past. As a group, they decided that performing would mean organizing official practices and that would defeat the purpose of their jam sessions. Kasser emphasized it’s important for the group to play, rather than perform, each week.
“As a psychologist, it’s very interesting to me that what people do is they play music . . . I really do think that playing for children is a fundamental need,” Kasser said. “I think as we grow as adults, we don’t play often enough. For me, the reason I like the jam sessions as they have been is because we really are just in there playing, in both senses of the word.”