The guitar stars shone for 52 hours straight at Steve Vai’s inaugural Big Mama Jama Jamathon. Held from September 28 through 30, at the Musicians Institute’s Live House in Los Angeles, the Jamathon featured continuous performances and impromptu jams from premier artists to raise money for foster children. Among those who turned out for the benefit were Dweezil Zappa, Vernon Reid, John 5, Dave Navarro, Nuno Bettencourt, Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer (a.k.a. Derek Smalls) and, of course, Vai himself.
As the guitar virtuoso explains, the event was the realization of a vision more than two decades in the making.
“I had this concept for quite a while, probably 25 years,” he tells Guitar Player. “The idea was to create an event where the music doesn’t stop, and to invite a plethora of different kinds of artists to come up on the stage. There would be a lot of guitar players, but I also wanted to bring a different dimension into it by inviting speakers, and maybe some actors and artists, to do these performances while we perform music to back them. I was just waiting for the right time to pull this off.”
The time finally came when Vai joined the board of Extraordinary Families, a nonprofit foster family, adoption and advocacy agency in Los Angeles that seeks to better the lives of children in foster care, from youth through adulthood. “I got involved with them and thought this was the perfect opportunity to put on a fundraiser,” Vai says. “They’re a great organization, they could use the money, and it’s a fun idea.”
In addition to mobile pledging, patrons were invited to bid on auction items and gear donated by artists. The treasures included guitars signed by Slash, Carlos Santana, Korn and Sergio Vallín, a tiny Fender amp bearing the signature of blues legend Buddy Guy, and a blue-jean jacket belonging to Tom Waits.
The Jamathon set itself apart from other benefits by allowing artists to donate money in exchange for time onstage to jam with Vai and his rotating house bands. Performers of all ages — including guitarists, bassists, violinists, pianists, horn players, vocalists, percussionists and even a lone Theremin player — signed up for the 10-minute slots, during which they improvised with the musicians or played on a tune selected from a catalog of approved songs.
Friday’s highlights included Dave Navarro joining Vai for a blistering version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” Al Di Meola playing an acoustic set and Dweezil Zappa’s three-hour stint, in addition to appearances by Moby, Pete Thorn and Orianthi.
Saturday’s performances coincided with World Guitar Day and were entirely worthy of the commemoration, as the stage was graced by world-class guitarists with global roots to match. They included American blues phenom Jared James Nichols, Italian guitarist Daniele Gottardo — whom Vai referred to as “the evolution of the instrument” — and Naia Izumi, winner of NPR Music’s 2018 Tiny Desk Contest. While the electric guitar dominated the proceedings, it was acoustic fingerstyle master Doyle Dykes who stole the afternoon, leaving Vai almost speechless after he joined him for a shimmering rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Adding to the eclectic format, Songwriters Hall of Fame member Allie Willis gave an uproarious oral history of her time crafting chart-toppers, such as the Friends TV show theme, “I’ll Be There for You,” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” before leading the audience in a sing-along of the latter mega-hit. Other notable performances included Vernon Reid and Vai’s heavy take on Cream’s “Politician,” Nuno Bettencourt’s soaring rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a set from Telecaster master John5.
Sunday’s format remained largely the same, with more audience involvement and sets from contributors. By the time it was all over, Vai had clocked more than 20 hours onstage, and the Mama Jama Marathon had garnered more than one million live views across the world, all while raising money for a worthy cause.