The World According to Keitho

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The art of the jam session

Posted by keithosaunders on October 4, 2010

Zapple asked: I always wondered how the jam sessions worked. Did you just ask them to sit in?

While there is no pat answer there is a certain routine to most jam sessions.  For those of you who don’t know, the a jam session is an informal gathering of musicians who do not necessarily know each other.  You never know who you will play with and how the music will sound — it’s part of its charm, frustration, and excitement.  I have played with some incredible musicians just by happening to be on the bandstand at the right time — Roy Hargrove Jr., Joe Lovano, Jeff Tain Watts, and Esperanza Spaulding are a few who come immediately to mind. 

On the other hand, I have played with some real nut cases in my day.  There have been singers who don’t know their keys and can’t stay on pitch anyhow, sax players who play ten minute solos before stopping in the middle of the chorus, and anal trumpet players who shout out instructions on when, where, and how to play during their solos.  Just as in daily life, you meet all kinds of people.

I found that what works best for me is to go in with an open mind and a sense of humor.  I’m not looking to have the deepest musical experience, but I am delighted when things click.  More often than not I have a good time at jam sessions.  The beauty of it is, unlike a gig, you can leave whenever you want.  

You have to realize that jam sessions are like networking sessions for musicians.  It’s where we go to meet people and to showcase our abilities.  In this sense there is a certain pressure to perform.  In my younger days I was more nervous about playing good at sessions.  These days I’m more philosophical — I”ve done a lifetime of work practicing at home and playing at gigs.  If things don’t click instantaneously it’s not my fault.  In fact, usually it’s not anybody’s fault.   

The thing about music is that it’s impossible to quantify what combinations of people will or will not work.  You can put five great musicians together and the results can be less than spectacular.  The chemistry might not be right — maybe the drummer and bass player don’t agree on the time, which could make the soloist uncomfortable.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Jam sessions are really a horn player’s game.  They saunter into the club with their horn, take it out of the case, and sit in.  After they’ve had their fill they put the horn back in the case and leave.  They’re like musical Lotharios.  They have their way with the rhythm section and leave. 

If you’re a pianist, bassist, or drummer, jam sessions are a different story.  You can end up waiting a long time before getting called up to play.  For me this is the hardest part of going to jam sessions, for the longer I wait to play, the more I drink and the worse I’ll sound.  As I said before, you never know who you’re going to play with.  I could wait 45 minutes to play and end up with a mediocre drummer, or a bass player made surely by a parade of endless horn solos.  It’s a crapshoot to say the least.

For the most part, however, jam sessions work.  They work because in the end you have a group of like-minded people.  These are folks who comprise an increasingly miniscule portion of the population — jazz lovers.  So I say to you:  Let’s celebrate our musical differences and let the chips fall where they may!

…and at last, the answer to zapple’s question:  There’s usually a sign-up list.

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