Do you enjoy unusual musical collaborations and the art of the improvisational jam? If so, you'll want to pay attention to guitar great Steve Vai this weekend: he's heading up the inaugural Big Mama Jama Jamathon. An open improvisational music/art event which will feature 52 continuous hours of music and performances, it kicks off on Friday (September 28) at noon and goes straight until Sunday (September 30) at 4:00 pm. It's a benefit for the Extraordinary Families organization and will feature musicians, speakers, painters, celebrities, poets, visual artists and more.

The event will take place at the new Musician's Institute Live House in Los Angeles, but for those unable to attend, Vai will also be streaming it worldwide via the Jamathon website as well as through select TV stations and radio outlets.

Some of the confirmed talent for the event include Dave Navarro, Moby, Derek Smalls, Brendon Small, Nita Strauss, Tosin Abasi, Vernon Reid, Nuno Bettencourt, Steve Morse, Al Di Meola, Dweezil Zappa, Lee Ritenour, Kenny Aronoff, Doug Pinnick and Brooks Wackerman. We spoke to Vai about putting the whole thing together.

Let's talk a little about how the idea of this came about and your involvement with it?

I had this idea like 25 years ago, and the idea was just to create this "jamathon" where the music just didn't stop for, like, 52 hours. It was with all sorts of people coming up and they would be playing or doing artistic kind of performances, and there would be speakers, comedians, maybe actors and artists [speaking and perfoming], while the music is playing.

I was waiting for the right opportunity for it to happen, and I had joined the board of directors of this foster home in L.A. called Extraordinary Families. They do amazing work, and they were kind of in need of a fundraiser, and I thought, "Okay, this is it. This is the perfect opportunity to put on this jamathon." So it's actually a fundraiser for Extraordinary Families.

I know there's gonna be a lot of cool music and I'll be there for most of it. I'll probably duck out to take a nap now and then.

You have painters as part of this event, you have speakers coming in, visual artists and magicians...

I'm still looking for a magician. I reached out to David Blaine but he didn't get back to me.

Will the jam be catered to what the featured person is up at the time? 

Yeah. If somebody's up there telling a story or speaking ... like for instance, there's a part in there with Allee Willis, who's a very dear friend of mine. She was just inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. She wrote the song "September," you know that '70s classic [from Earth, Wind and Fire], and she's gonna come and she's gonna tell the story about how that song was written. It's a really funny story that you gotta hear. I won't spoil it. But as she's doing it, we'll be playing it in the background.

I know you're playing host for this as well. Will you be directing the jam to coordinate with the schedule? Obviously, it's an improv, but...

Yeah, and I'm pretty good at that. It's not that complicated. We have a schedule of the names of people. At one point, I think there might still be some slots open where you can go to the website and go to the sign-up page and you know, everything's charity based. So for like $100, you can buy a 10-minute spot to come up and jam and that gives you admittance too which is like 30 bucks. But right now I think the only spots that are open are between midnight and 4 am. I'll be there.

If someone buys their way into one of these jams, do they know what they're gonna play or do they have to jump in where they can?

Well, it's based on their performance level. If you go to the website and you look at the schedules page, at the bottom, there's a whole list of cover songs we can do. At one point we were allowing people to suggest songs, but that became too complicated because I have rotating house bands. I can't have all of the house bands learn the entire set. There's no rehearsals or anything like that. So it needs to be something simple. So for the most part when people come up ... it's really very simple. It sounds intimidating but I've done this a thousand times. You just start playing, and you follow where it goes.

I have this Vai Academy Camp I do every year, and it usually has 100 to 250 kids there and I make it a point to jam with every one of them. They step up on the stage and some of them are like beginners and I say, "Just play anything." Even if they just play one chord, you're off and running.

Dave Navarro, Moby, Dweezil Zappa, Steve Morse and Al Di Meola, Vernon Reid, Nita Strauss and Derek Smalls are on the lineup. Will any of these be first-time collaborations for you, or do any particular schedule pairings of musicians really excite you?

I'm looking forward to all of it. Many of the guys I've already worked with, or I've jammed with. Some of them I haven't, but I know how it's gonna go. For instance, when Vernon Reid gets on the stage, I know that we're gonna have fun. I'm not concerned. Dweezil Zappa, Steve Morse, we've played together a lot. I threw a couple songs in for fun, simple songs like "Magic Carpet Ride." It's just a corny song, but when I play it or listen to it, it's like I'm 14 years old, and I'm in my friend's garage and we're smoking bad weed and jamming.

Al Di Meola is gonna take like an hour set on acoustic, so that's gonna be great. We have this girl Carolina Eyck. She plays the theremin. I've watched videos of her, and I'm really looking forward to playing with her to see what happens. I've never met her, just email correspondences, and a lot of this stuff is like that. I looked for interesting people and then invite them.

With Moby, it's gonna be fun, because he's incredibly creative, and he wants to do "Purple Haze" and "Whole Lotta Love." These are classic songs, but they're gonna be Moby-ized, and it'll be really interesting to see how that turns out.

And of course Orianthi, we've played together so much. Derek Smalls: I played on his last record, on this song called "Gummin' the Gash," and I'm gonna play that with him.

There's Doug Rappoport; he's a friend of mine and an outstanding player. Just a  wonderful player, and we jammed once. I'm really looking forward to that. I've never played with Lee Ritenour. Gonna do a song with him. Who else do we have on here? Brendon Small. He's a friend of mine, and we're just gonna go for it. A lot of these people, we're just gonna see what happens when we start playing.

Talk a little about Extraordinary Families, and what they do.

Thank you. I always like to be involved with one charity, at least, in a hands-on way. It's easy to [just] write checks. It's actually easy to get involved with some of these organizations and it is vital to them. They need people. So I found this one through a friend of mine who had adopted through them. Extraordinary Families is a foster care unit in the greater Los Angeles area. They're probably the biggest, and I started going to some board meetings and making suggestions and the idea of fundraising comes up, because that's always at the core, and that's when the idea to do the Jamathon came up.

The thing I love about this organization ... it's just filled with really wonderful people, selfless people that are doing incredible work. In Los Angeles alone there are no less than 20,000 foster children. I know a bit about the foster care situation, 'cause my sister is a director in various foster care units in Long Island. So I know the work they do for these children that are in such great need of some kind of a solid foundation in their life. They have mentorship programs, they place children in homes, for adoption, and for foster care.

The thing I love about them is they are very liberal. They're very thorough in their screening process but they're very liberal: if you're a single parent, or if you're a gay couple, you can adopt. This has proven to be incredibly enriching and substantiating in the life of so many of the kids that have gone through their system. So it's a great cause, and they're in need of funds like most organizations.

Also, one of the cool things is, if you go to the website, and you go to the donations page, there are various things that you can kind of purchase. The auction is just crazy. I got a guitar from Slash, and a top hat, and great stuff from so many people. But you can also go on and, for instance, for something like $100, you donate to Extraordinary Families, which provides a "Welcome home" care package for kids, that includes all these little things that are just niceties for kids, like toys, books.

Their mentoring program is so vital. A mentor is somebody that will take kids for certain excursions, and kind of be there, and help them, and be a foundation or an assistance for them. But it costs money. It's like $500 for a mentor a year. Just for their expenses and things like that. And for 500 bucks you're paying for a mentor for a kid for a year. So things like that exist on the pledge campaign page that are helpful.

Visit the Jamathon schedule to see when each artist will perform. You can also check in throughout the 52-hour span to view the activities via the Jamathon website. While there, you can also check out the online auction, make a donation and learn more about the Extraordinary Families organization that the event is benefitting.

Facebook: Steve Vai
Facebook: Steve Vai

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