On a cloudy, cool Saturday afternoon in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (Old Town) neighborhood, the sound of live blues filters through the narrow streets. Curious, I follow the sound to the open door of a corner bar where I can see it’s standing-room only. Everyone is bobbing their heads, intently watching a band on a small stage go through quick-tempo, standard American blues.
Soon the stage is so packed with musicians that a sax player has to stand on the floor in front to play his hard-driving, gut-wrenching solos. Off to the side, sitting on a window ledge, a man pounds a set of wooden bongos.
The little room with the big sound is the Stampen Jazz club. Every Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m., the club holds a blues jam, free to the public. Brooklyn native and veteran blues guitarist Brian Kramer started the sessions more than a decade ago and you can still find him there every weekend.
With a Swedish wife and two children, Kramer became a permanent resident of Stockholm in 1996 but there was no place for a blues musician to jam at the time. “Mainly I started this out of my own desire to play blues in the most spontaneous way possible,” Kramer says. Club owner Josef Haddad encouraged him to experiment and from the first session, the club was packed. “It was an immediate hit,” Kramer recalls. “Musicians came out of the woodwork to be part of it.”
With the musicians came an audience. “Usually jams are for musicians by musicians and not considered good entertainment for the mainstream,” he says. “But the public was equally interested, and excited about watching spontaneous blues unfold before their eyes.”
While tourists do attend performances, it’s the regulars – what Kramer calls “Stampenites” – who make the scene a success. “They give us so much energy and it makes all the musicians want to play their best,” he said. “We have hundreds of friends who crowd the club year round.”
One harmonica-playing U.S. pilot actually rearranges his schedule, trading shifts with other pilots, so he can be in Stockholm on Saturday afternoons. It’s easy to spot the regulars. Prime real estate is at the bar, where single men take up the stools, clutching their beers and never budging for fear of losing their spot. Families with children sit in round booths by the window.
Kramer takes center-stage, doing most of the vocals, playing guitar, and inviting musicians he knows to join him and his band. As guest musicians replace the house-band members, he eventually joins the crowd.
Behind the band is a cloth backdrop that reads, “Happy Jazz.” Old trumpets, trombones, and drums hang from the ceiling along with relics from the club’s former life as a 1950s-era pawn shop. The scene is an eclectic mix of individualism, authenticity and weirdness.
“You just walk through the door and you can feel the history, sense the vibe,” Kramer said. As for Haddad, he’s happy to stick with American blues as long as it draws paying customers. On the first night of the jam, he turned to Kramer and said, “Brian, people who listen to blues music drink more than people who listen to jazz. Stampen is a blues club now. ”