On Jam Sessions

In the past few weeks, I've heard some pretty long tunes: one version of "On Green Dolphin Street" that went for about 40 minutes at Smalls (incidentally also the last tune of the night); 25 minutes of "Bye, Bye Blackbird," with 6 saxophones and multiple vocalists; etc..

By the time you're up to play, the rhythm section's worn out—they'd thank you for not playing at this point, but you've waited and waited and waited and heard more variations on Coltrane and Bird and Brecker licks than you likely would have ever voluntarily agreed to sit through. And now, what are you going to play?

Last semester, Miguel Zenón was firm about my getting out more to jam sessions around Boston, i.e., the sessions at Wally's. One reason to go to jam sessions is to learn tunes and figure out how they're played by pros, semi-pros, and rising pros. What Miguel impressed on me, though, was the importance of being able to deliver under pressure. That's exactly what he told me: being able to play well under pressure.

As I've realized after playing at a couple sessions since coming to New York, it's a lot harder to sound good with an unfamiliar group of musicians—oftentimes who are tired after supporting the many musicians who preceded you on this one tune—than it might seem. Even if you've transcribed a ton and can play with good time, good sound, and a good sense of melody, it's just not enough in this kind of a situation. If an audience, many whom are musicians but also many of whom aren't, has been sitting listening to a bunch of horn players play the changes over "Bye, Bye Blackbird," it's probably not worth their time to hear just another horn player do the same. 

JATP 1955
I don't know yet how to sound good at a jam session, but on the way back from Smalls last night, I was thinking about the Jazz at the Philharmonic records that I had checked out when I was younger. These largely informal jam sessions were organized by Norman Granz, an impresario who might be best known for his work at Verve, and often featured long solos by horn after horn after horn. Of course, these were musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and the like, but still—an audience can only sit through so many choruses of playing changes. I think part of the reason that these sessions worked was because the musicians were stellar players. More specifically, they each had a distinct, personal, and confident mode of expression that catalyzed the rhythm section by their sheer force of personality. Also, there was a lot of reciprocal listening going on, but I'd say that's a given for any well-playing group.

I used to think jam sessions were for learning tunes and figuring how to play; now, I think that they're partially for learning tunes, but primarily for hanging out with musicians and being part of the scene, as well as for learning how to play under pressure. It's like a test of your personality and your listening skills: once you can make the entire band sound great, regardless of the context, then you're on to something.

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Look out for a jam-session related transcription coming soon!