Jam Session Survival Tactics

Here's a guest post by trumpeter Josh Shpak on a few concepts he's developed to make the jam session experience more musically satisfying. Enjoy!

First off, I’d like to thank my good friend Kevin for inviting me to present this guest blog post.  I’ll use this opportunity to convey my thoughts on something that has become a significant (and somewhat precarious) part of the life that I—and most people who call themselves jazz musicians—lead.  I’m talking about jam sessions.

First off, let me introduce myself: my name is Josh Shpak and I’m a 19 year-old trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader entering my 2nd year at Berklee College of Music.

I recently finished a summer semester at Berklee; during that time, I played a good amount at Wally’s Jazz CafĂ©. Wally’s has really been the foundation of my opinions on jam sessions and I’ve found that one can find the whole spectrum of musicianship in this little Boston dive—from the beginning jazz players to some of the seasoned pros that lead today’s global jazz scene. I was in the house band about 2-4 times a week, playing shows at different times of day and in many different groups. 

So killing, man.
After doing a few of these sessions— really, after doing a few sessions anywhere—you get hit with a revelation: most jam sessions really suck.

Unlike the first set, where the players might have focused on communication, tastefulness, getting a particular musical vibe, etc., most people just come out to jam sessions to play.  For musicians who are aware of and attuned to what makes music enjoyable, “just playing” usually means being focused on the aforementioned variables of performance in all playing situations.  However, especially in an environment like that of a music school, this is simply not always going to happen.

A good friend of mine came back to Boston in early August after I’d gotten into the swing of things at Wally’s, and decided he wanted to start going to jam sessions.  He picked a night when he knew I’d be playing and stopped by for the second half of the gig.  After he played a few tunes, I noticed that he’d stopped coming up to the stage, and mostly watched the session from a few tables back. 

Afterwards, I asked him about why he stopped coming up.  Hadn’t he wanted to start playing at jams? My friend put his face in his hands and told me that the session had been one of the most physically and mentally draining experiences of his life.  From the first notes he played, he hadn’t been able to connect with anyone in the band.  He had no flow, no way to get going.  Whenever he tried something new and different, it was ignored, as if the players would have reacted the same whether he had played or not.  He asked me how I did it every week, but before I had the chance to answer, he noticed that I didn’t seem dark about what had just happened onstage.  “How do you do it?” he asked again.

I realized then and there that I’ve developed a series of techniques to get through these jams—jams that can suck the life out of an eager but inexperienced young musician.  Believe me, I’ve felt the same way that my friend did that night.  There have been days when I’ve been at a jam where the majority of the players are playing totally for themselves.  The term “musical masturbation” comes to mind.  The question that usually comes to mind is, “Do people really do this for a living?”

However, despite this apparent ranting, I do believe that jam sessions really are worth ones’ time, especially sessions with people whom you have a distinct desire to make music. Even at open jams when anyone off the street can walk in, you might have a truly inspiring experience. 

These techniques that I’ve developed for jams that aren’t so happening are actually nothing more than different states of mind. Some might think they’re stupid, but I thought I’d share what works for me.  I hope this might help to players who’ve felt the same way as my friend and I. Here it goes:

1.    Change

The easiest and most obvious way to make a jam session more enjoyable is to initiate change.  In the words of Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”  A session can only improve when people try new things, even if they don’t work.  Personally, I find that boredom is the ultimate element to avoid when making music; a boring jam session is musical death.

Case in point: if thirteen sax players have played before me and all sounded like Charlie Parker, my first instinct wouldn’t be to “prove” that I shred bebop better than they can.  Instead, maybe I’ll play whole notes or something for a half chorus or so—contrast is more likely to encourage musicians to disengage autopilot and become more musically aware. 

            Other common scenarios:
Has the jam been really “out”? Develop towards playing more “in".
Have people been blowing their brains out? Whisper.
Has the time been really loose or floaty?  Groove for a while. 

2.   Personal Perfection

Although initiated change usually works in a group of experienced musicians, less mature players are less likely to realize that this change should induce more change, so you end up going down the same path that’s everyone’s been going down the past 40 choruses.  This is the situation my friend struggled with at Wally’s when nothing he played led to a connection with the musicians on the bandstand. 

In the extreme case that people aren’t just not paying attention but oblivious to what’s happening around them, I might think of them as a friendly practice tool—think: “live Aebersold.” Although this might sound awful musically and maybe slightly cruel, I’ve found that it can actually be a great growing experience. 

In this situation, I usually attempt something that I call “personal perfection” in my solo, which doesn’t mean necessarily that I’ll play a “perfect” solo (it doesn’t exist).

When I step up to the stage with this mindset, I’ll focus on one element of improvising and try to realize that as ideally to my ear as possible.  Maybe I’ll try to create the solo with the most “perfect” shape, or sense of escalating drama, that I can imagine.  Or, I might try to nail every single chord change to make sure I really know the tune inside and out.  This mindset is definitely more similar to (or identical to) that of the practice room than that of a live performance, but for me, I get more fulfillment out of using these less satisfying sessions more for personal growth than as an hour or two of boredom.  

3.   Young Players

At a recent jam, I was in the house band, playing trio with a bassist and drummer.  After the a few tunes, the drummer, who led the band, invited a couple guys to come play.  A couple kids stood up who couldn’t have been much older than 13.  Coincidentally, one played bass and one played drums, and both of my bandmates left the stage to let these younger players come up.  This left just me with the two young men, and we then talked for about 5 minutes how we were going to play an F blues before they were comfortable to get started.

I have no problem with guys who are just beginning their jazz experience coming to jam sessions.  I know I was just in their same shoes only just a couple years ago.  However, I intentionally play very differently in these kinds of situations for a couple reasons.

There are many perspectives on how to approach a jam with guys who basically just picked up their instruments: some people like to chew them up so that these beginners will either be so bummed out that they do nothing for 6 months but shed, or quit.  Others will play the same as they have been all night, but still vibe these guys into oblivion, thereby making them hit the practice room.

I don’t think that’s the right way to go, though.  In my opinion, the main goal of a jam session, especially an open jam, is to have fun.  If I’m a 14 or 15-year-old jazz musician and can muster up the courage to make my way to a jam session with much older players, I can think of no greater encouragement than having the time of my life at the session.  There will be things that I need to work on, but if I find a welcoming, supportive group of players, I’ll be much more inclined to keep playing than if I find a community of self-righteous, mean people. 

Additionally, when playing with these younger guys, I try to keep them involved in the music.  For me, this usually means being a little more “obvious” in my playing.  This can be in terms of the harmony, phrasing, whatever.  There’s no point in stretching out if the rest of the group won’t (or can’t) do it with me, so I don’t.  

4.   Cutting Sessions

If you’ve ever been to a session in New York, you’ve probably encountered a situation where the goal of many of the players appears is to prove their complete superiority or technical mastery or intellectual genius; vibing ensues.  

In these situations, I usually take on the same mindset as I do in #2 (Personal Perfection), for essentially the same reason.  If people are paying attention to you only because they’re focused on playing more killing stuff then you, I tend to ignore them.  Personally, I don’t like playing jazz to “prove” myself, and it shouldn’t be a requirement to play all your “burning licks” and whatnot at a session. 

5.    Leave

      Finally, the simplest solution is to do what your intuition told you to do in the first place: leave!  No one is forcing you to put yourself through an unsatisfying musical experience, which actually might leave you less inspired at the end of the day.  This option is extremely obvious to most people, but to others, who may be worried about hurting someone’s feelings, missing out on a good tune, etc., it might not be so obvious.  Go with your gut in these situations. 

      Clearly, this is impossible if you’re playing in the house band, but you’ve still got options 1-4.

* * * * *

Again, these are just some ideas of mine, and in no way do I think that they’ll work for everyone.  I really just wanted to contribute to the dialogue on jam sessions.  It seems to be one aspect of the life of a jazz musician that are often overlooked, and I’d love to hear more people’s opinions.  Thanks so much for reading, and I look forward to any feedback you have.  Peace.

Josh Shpak is the 2012 Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition winner in the jazz trumpet category and placed 3rd in the 3023 ITG Trumpet Guild's Jazz Improvisation competition.