Photo by Kevin Browning

In Part I of our two-part series we looked at the background and various musical beginnings and education of Umphrey’s McGee lighting designer Jefferson Waful. As we pick things up in Part II, looks at his origins on the improvisational scene not only as a band manager but also as a radio host and writer, followed by his stint as the moe. LD and subsequent status at the helm of the light board with Chicago’s finest.

Truss 1

There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk “his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor” on an outcome dubious.*Stranger in a Strange Land*, Robert A. Heinlein

__Photo by Bret Saul_

RR: Let’s go back to when you were managing Uncle Sammy. What did you learn? What did you take from it? What are your thoughts on the experience today?

JW: I learned everything about the music industry by working with Uncle Sammy. That’s how I learned about the way financial deals are structured with venues. That’s how I learned to do lights. That’s how I learned everything behind the scenes. It was a crash course in the music industry.

Obviously, there were a lot of people who were involved in teaching me those things, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even though Uncle Sammy eventually went the way of most young jambands—decided to get in the van and tour the country—it was an invaluable experience. You could go to music school. You could go to college and major in music business for four years, but to me I learned everything—I mean, I’m still learning—but I learned a great deal by managing that band.

I think like a lot of young jambands, we thought we could be the next big thing because Phish was this band that didn’t get played on the radio. They didn’t have mainstream appeal at the time, and you look at them, and you think, “Oh, we’re a young jamband, and we play bars, we have word of mouth, we’re not on MTV, and we’re not being written about in magazines, so we could do that and maybe, someday, we’ll play Madison Square Garden.”

Ultimately 99.9% of the bands that thought that way had a few years of touring and then never went anywhere. Most of my friends were in bands that traveled around the country in vans. They were motivated. “This is it; this is what we’re going to do with our lives.” It just goes to show you that there’s so much luck involved. Certainly we all worked hard. We all put in the time and the effort, but ultimately, there can only be so many bands that “make it.” Even the bands that make it don’t ever really make it unless you get to be arena level or, I guess, the theatre level.

Financially, it didn’t work out in the end because people go on to start families, and they have to get real jobs that have financial stability, but boy, what fun it was to have that post-college innocence and be able to dedicate your life to a musical project that we’re all so passionate about. I believe it went on for four or five years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

That’s why I started doing lighting. We didn’t have a staff of people. We had a sound guy, and in our later years, we had a tour manager. In the early days, I was the tour manager, I was the manager, I did all of the various things that needed to be done just because we didn’t have anyone else. I just started flicking par cans at the local clubs because I knew the music and my experience as a musician playing guitar and drums. I knew the songs as well as anyone because I was sitting in the house that we all lived in while they learned all the songs. In a weird way, I was at all of the rehearsals so it was just my way of trying to participate.

I’ve always been a musician, but these guys were in a different league than me, musically. They all went to the Berklee School of Music, and they were all real accomplished musicians. I could never compete with them on a musical level, but lighting was something I could do because I knew the changes.

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