Umphrey’s McGee: The Jimmy Stewart Story

“I personally think, if you get into the band, it’s just one thing that we do that other people don’t,” Bayliss said, “If you know what to look for, it’s kind of cool. You might see us write something that we’re going to record on an album a year from now.”

[Photos by Matt Ziegler]

The name “Jimmy Stewart” is taken from a reception hall the band played named after the late actor, and it has become a staple of Umphrey’s live performances. After playing a wedding for friend Jeremy Welsh in 2001, the band headed back down to the basement of the swanky hotel to the Jimmy Stewart room with their soundman Kevin Browning.

“It was at about three in the morning that night, we were—I don’t how many drinks we were into the evening—but we went down to the concert hall and just did a little jam and Kevin (Browning) taped it,” Bayliss said, “We had one of the best improv’s we’ve ever had. It was really kind of a different approach to playing that we had never done before and we really liked it.”

Cinninger said the original recording is still floating around somewhere between Browning and himself.

“So we went down there and barely turned on all the instruments. And kinda sat on the floor really. I think I grabbed my acoustic and we were just barely tapping on things,” Cinninger said. “It’s pretty funny, it runs about 30 minutes or so. We get away with literally like tapping on our stuff. It was kinda loosely based there and because of the room, it was called the Jimmy Stewart ballroom or whatever, we decided to christen the name,” Cinninger said.

After the impromptu 2001 late night session, Bayliss said the band started making a conscious effort to incorporate “Stewarts” into each show, usually between verses or between songs, similar to any other type of regular improv.

“We wanted to make it where, alright there’s not a crowd present, how adventurous can we get with just a clean slate? Because we never really would think about going into 30 minutes of improv territory and make it sound like ok this sounds like a written piece of music. Everyone was patient, and listening and thinking,” Cinninger said.

Transferring the style to a live setting was the next step for the band. “Stewarts” can start in a variety of ways, whether it is bookended by a song, or it flows smoothly off the tail end. The band then perpetuated the idea of having sections and using signals, as loose boundaries. For example, a first section that would revolve around a slow funk jam and the next section would be a Miles Davis style E flat section, and so on, Bayliss said.

“It was like we all had a map to look at,” Bayliss said “It’s just kind of like a guideline. Nobody knows what they are going to play, just the key and the tempo. If something is written down, it will just be chords, or an idea like ‘funk’ or ‘hip hop’.”

Certain songs have implied “Stewarts” sections that will, for the majority of the time have improv in them. For example, songs like Der Bluten Kat and Hurt Bird Bath can have multiple distinct “Stewarts” with multiple sections that flow between the verses with one person directing using baseball style cues.

“We can obviously use baseball signals to translate what we are trying to talk about. Over a period of time we started to realize that if everybody was watching and one person was throwing a cue, and if it was in time, everyone could really react and within one measure or four beats. So one measure would happen, or four beats, and then on the next one we would all react and play the change. With the use of this sign language now there’s more options, instead of just the obvious ‘go to the 4!’ like a little funk band would normally do,” Cinninger said. “Now we have this bed of chords, what do we put over the top of it? We have to choose who is going to play the violin role, or the bassoon role, or the lead role over the chord progressions. So we can have some kind of polyphonic sounding music or we’re just going to be trudging through chords the whole time unless someone’s going to play a nice lyrical line over the top,” Cinninger said.

The developing system of signals helped further the band’s ability to communicate early on especially, simple motions like leaning back or a hand wipe in front, will signal to go back to a previous section, or to stay in the current section.

“(Jimmy Stewarts) have kind of evolved into this thing where we would try to write on the spot, because we started listening to the tapes and we would start to come up with sections for songs, we thought to develop this system of cues, for tempos, key signatures, things like that. We started getting into using these as song writing on the fly,” Bayliss said.

While improv is changing on the fly Umphrey’s will usually have one member directing the “Stewart” throwing cues. For example leaning back, which signals a “bounceback” to a previous section, helping distinctly solidify the sections. “The Bounceback” section began being heavily incorporated around 2003, band archivist and compiler of the “Jimmy Stewart 2007” album, Jon McLennand said.

“It’s really the most important tool they have up their sleeves. With their stop-on-a-dime chops honed by their segue approach, they are able to create two sections that develop in tandem, as if they are too bored to patiently develop only the one, they can work on another one while letting the initial stew go, then dive right back into it a moment’s or measure’s notice,” McLennand said, “As far as structured improvisation goes, this is the one that adds a completely new dimension to the mix, whereas many of the other common ones are modulations.”

In addition to the bounceback other signals include hand letters or numbers for the sections, pointing up and down for tempo changes, raspberry tongue to make someone stop playing. Sometimes it can just be one member leading and the rest of the band following the thrown cues.

“A lot of the times it will be (Umphrey’s bass player Ryan) Stasik who is a good ‘rug puller’ as I like to call it. If we are grinding a section too long, he’ll take the confident role in saying ‘Ok, I’ll take the focus so you guys can break it down, or just not play,’ keep the cadence moving forward,” Cinninger said, “So a lot of it is melody instruments drop out so Stasik can reinstate a new groove, change the key signature kinda do whatever. It’s basically a good mechanism for good forward movement if you’re looking to get out of something.”

Signals help with some “Stewarts” but both Cinninger and Bayliss stressed the importance of eye contact as well.

“Eye contact is #1. Constantly looking up, not too much eye contact where it looks uncomfortable onstage. It comes back to the whole sheep and shepherd thing. A lot of the times when someone is controlling the forward motion, everyone sorta needs to watch him. Then anyone can kinda come in and make a move whenever they want to also, so it’s pretty much wide open. Someone has to be the sheep and then there’s the shepherd and sometimes there can be two shepherds, but not really three, there always needs to be more sheep than shepherds,” Cinninger said. “As long as everyone is making eye contact and looking then we’ll be able to get to where we need to go,” Bayliss adds.

Any pre planning comes the day of the show, creating a new “Stewart” every day, letting the idea “incubate” as Cinninger explained, then seeing what happens at the end of the night come show time.

“A lot of it stems from a lot of down time in the day. I’m a big advocate of trying to practice a lot during the day with my down time. Sort of devoted to the craft. A lot of it manifests within the day. I think that’s what makes the ‘Jimmy Stewart’ idea kinda cool. That we try not to go back to the idea and we try to keep it fresh,” Cinninger said.

Sometimes these pre-show sessions can lead to footnotes or a chord progression that will be a jump off point.

“I mean, I would definitely probably be the one who does a little bit more the structured kinda chord progressions. You can hear the changes are rolling by a little quicker. There is definitely that direction going on. I really like that. And coming out that it feels good to go back and listen back to it and go ‘oh that works or maybe it didn’t,’” Cinninger said.

Along with the incorporation of a bounceback, the next step of adding improvised lyrics solidified “Stewarts” as a songwriting tool for the band. With everyone helping push Bayliss into coming up with a melody line for improv vocals the idea was born, Cinninger said.

“Basically what happens is, let’s say that Jake (Cinninger) starts a progression, I’ll start singing to myself in the microphone and I’ll look at him to let him know that that’s what I want to do, and he won’t change anything. If it sounds like something that I can sing over, I’ll try to come up with a melody,” Bayliss said. “Once I have that, I’ll try to think of a word and that will be the rhyme scheme. I don’t know how to describe it, I’m not a good rapper, but the closest thing that I can equate it to is freestyle rapping, but it’s with a melody.”

For lyrical “Stewarts,” Bayliss said around 90 percent of the time the lyrics are improvised, matching them with the pacing of the song. Some are easier than others, depending on the pace and style, and even then it’s a gamble, Bayliss said.

“Sometimes I’m thinking ‘Ok, maybe I can sing over it’ and I’m making up words off the top of my head, and making up a melody and thinking ‘does this suck?’,” Bayliss said laughing. “It’s more interesting to me, sometimes it sucks, and sometimes it’s really bad, but that’s the nature of improv.”

With the use of improvised lyrics, close to a dozen songs have been born out of “Stewarts” directly, while others have incorporated sections or “lego” type pieces from select “Stewarts,” McLennand said.

A perfect example is Morning Song which was taken from two separate “Stewarts” in October of 2005. With the addition of another verse and some reworking, it was debuted in full back in February of 2006 and has since grown into an improvisation vehicle of it’s own.

Other songs that have been taken from “Stewarts” include Bridgeless, which was taken from five separate “Stewarts” as well as, In The Kitchen. Along with those current concert staples, newer songs like Gulf Stream and Waist Down, are both culled from “Stewarts.” The latter of which is featured on the Jimmy Stewart 2007 album, McLennand said.

“A lot of times Bayliss will come back and go ‘Hey I’ve been listening to that one ‘Stewart’ that we had a while back and I think I’ve got some words for it.’ I think that’s how it (Waist Down) kinda came about. And I was like ohh ok, well let’s go back and listen to what we’ve got. And we go back to the recordings, see what’s going on there. Then we say ‘How do we fit another little section in here. Maybe tighten it up here. Stretch it out here. Add a little lead line here. A little four part harmony there,’” Cinninger said. “Then the chemistry of the song sorta comes together and it gets the Umphrey’s sound stamp. That one’s still real new, we just recently completely changed the mid-section to it that we played in Chicago. We re-worked a whole middle section and threw like a little two and a half minute change in the middle song just to break up the groove. Little things like that. It’s a constant tweak. That’s the way it is with trying to write what you think is good songs. You have to destroy a lot of parts to make it work in the end. A lot of it is like a big ball of clay and you have to form that thing into the right shape or it’s really not working.

Some “Stewarts” have been repeated a few times, sometimes with just certain sections, or even “legos”, possibly a certain bassline or groove. The most commonly played “Stewart” was first played on 06/16/2006 at Bonnaroo, out of Intentions Clear. Fans commonly refer to the “Stewart” as Mrs. Robinson’s Strut, because the riffs have a choppy strutting feel (that a sexy old cougar would have.) Since the original Mrs. Robinson’s, the theme has been repeated roughly twelve times, including on last year’s New Year’s run with saxophonist Jeff Coffin joining in.

“We’ll have a certain groove that really works, it leaves a good taste in the mouth enough to where it sorta reoccurs. It’s like this is the same way that good songs are written. We’ve got this riff but we don’t really have the end of the story here. So possibly that will eventually be a song in a year,” Cinninger said.

After releasing previous compilations of “Stewarts” on, the main difference will be is that Jimmy Stewart 2007 can be found on iTunes and a limited pressing of 2000, in an effort to turn more fans on.

“With iTunes, it will reach the general public…that would never visit” McLennand said.

Along with the release of the compilation, the band has been in the studio working on a new album tentatively to be released sometime in 2009, a follow up to the emotion filled Safety In Numbers, the band’s last proper studio album from 2006.

“I think everything on the record is going to be unheard, which is great. I don’t think anything has surfaced. Which is kinda the way we planned it. When we drop this record it’s going to be like wow, here are 10 brand new songs that no one’s ever had the chance to hear. Which is kind of the way the old dogs used to do it,” Cinninger said.

Until the new album is finished you can hear Umphrey’s during their recently announced cross-country fall tour. Check out to purchase JS2007, find fall tour dates and get free soundboard podcasts.

The next time you see the Chicago sextet perform give a closer look and listen to what’s going on and watch what’s being created on the fly with “Jimmy Stewarts,” and enjoy.

“Some people will say that it sounds like we rehearsed it or that we practiced it. That’s good, because we’re doing the right thing. If it sounds like we practiced then it’s a good improv,” Bayliss said.

Pietro would like to thank Brendan Bayliss, Jake Cinninger, Jon McLennand, Amy Cummins, Scott Bernstein, Dan Delaney and all of The Bort for The Repeated Jimmy Stewart thread. This piece was a long time in the works and I’m finally glad to see it come together and have a home. Thanks again.


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26 Responses

  1. Thanks for this wonderfully in depth write up. Hope this explains a lot for folks who think UM doesn’t improvise ;o) Great job!

  2. Is it near the longest? yes, is it near the worst? yes, when members are using baseball signals and winking or whatever they do (i didnt have patience to read on) that is not improvisation that is rehearsal, just as a baseball manager has players rehearse plays, like a hit and run. UMP sucks, they so desperately want to be Phish and they have given and taken “jam” music to a new low, let’s talk about someone who is putting a new spin on improvised ‘jam” music not regurgitating the same ‘ol stuff

  3. Umphrey’s and Phish are two different bands, both great jam bands with two different styles. People need to have an open mind and open ears, Umphrey’s is king of the jam scene right now, they have been ripping it up all across the country here the last few years. Great musicians that have a good time playing for thier fans and with one antother on stage. This is a great article and hopefully lots of people will read it and get into this great band. Can’t wait to see where these guys take us in the years to come

  4. That was a really well-written, lucid, and informative article. I always love reading about the Jimmy Stewarts and the band’s take on them, and my own personal thrill was the Mrs. Robinson’s Strut special mention. Thanks for writing this piece!

  5. LOL….at some you who think it is not improve. There are many different ways to improvise. UM and Phish have a totally different way of jamming and some close minded people don’t realize it. UM does not want to be the next phish. They consider themselves to be a prog band before they consider themselves to be a jamband. They are not a phish wanna be band, they have deeper roots in music than some phish wannabe group.

  6. Very informative and interesting, Pietro! will you be my date at the next UM show?? “ill never wash these ears again”!!

  7. Nice work, Senor Scuba.

    To those who posted the same old comments about UM wanting to be Phish – give it up, already. If you really don’t like the band, why waste your time reading this article and posting negative words about them?

    LAPD – are you a professional musician? Do you make a living touring the country, and playing shows in Amsterdam and Jamaica? I didn’t think so. A little jealous of the UM boys, perhaps?

  8. Hey Pete Boy…I am so proud of you…always knew you would be successful!!!! Great job and keep going…and don’t forget to let your ‘other mom’ in the loop of what you are doing! Missing some of the old days :o) sort of!!!!

  9. I’m a little late to this party, I think, but I just found your site. This article was tremendous! Thank you (by way of Umphrey’s) making my day.

    Keep up the good work!

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