What do I need to know to survive at a jazz jam session?
August 26, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I've played jazz for many years, but never done the jam session thing. What rules of etiquette should I follow?

I started playing jazz in high school, and played in groups in college. For the last six years I've lived in San Diego, where there is practically no jazz scene, so I scratched my music itch in other ways and just practiced jazz at home. Now that I've moved to Chicago, I'd like to get into the scene by playing at jam sessions, but I'd rather not make a fool of myself. What are some important tips I should know? Do I have to memorize tunes (I haven't bothered yet, for the most part), or can I read from a Real Book? Also, where are some good jams in Chicago to start with?
posted by IjonTichy to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've been going to Chicago gypsy-jazz jam sessions for around five years. (Gypsy jazz is a smaller scene than general/straightahead jazz, but I think some of the tips apply.) Here are some random tips:

* When you're getting started, just take one chorus (a solo one time through the song), no longer. It's much better to be in a position where the other musicians are excitedly encouraging you to take another solo than to wear out your welcome by soloing on and on.

* If you don't know a song and can't easily figure it out on the fly, it's classier to sit out than try to play a bunch of wrong notes/chords.

* You didn't mention which instrument you play. If you play an instrument that's intended to provide constant background rhythm (e.g., guitar, piano, mandolin, drums), play it straight. A great way to kill a jam session is for the rhythm guitarist to do a bunch of weird rhythm fills all the time. Nobody likes that; it messes up the soloist and makes it about you instead of the whole group.

* On a related note, more broadly, think about the overall ensemble sound, not just your own sound. Play with dynamics that match the other musicians'. If everybody's playing quietly, play quietly. The groove is important. Make it so that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.

* Yes, memorize tunes! Whenever I play with people who need to flip through a book whenever we play a new tune, it's an instant momentum killer.

BTW, welcome to Chicago! Which instrument do you play?
posted by adrian_h at 9:50 AM on August 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, adrian_h! That was helpful, especially the bit about playing rhythm straight (I play the piano). Sounds like I should keep my head down memorizing tunes for a while before I start playing out.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:21 AM on August 26, 2010

adrian_h has good tips.

Since you're a pianist, you have to carry the changes. That's also a tough seat to fill in a jam since there'll only be one pianist playing at a time. *DO* go out and assess some jams now, and maybe sit in even though you're still woodshedding tunes. It'll give you continuing incentive. Here's my tips:

*Scope out the session first. Your skill set may not be appropriate for all jams, amateur or pro.

*Know the standard 20 standards. They're likely to all be in the Real Book for almost every venue and skill level. Off the top of my head and vaguely in alphabetical order the list starts like this: All Blues, Autumn Leaves (RB key is "wrong"), All The Things You Are, Blue Bossa, Blue Monk, Black Orifice, Cherokee (kidding!)...

*If you don't know a tune and suspect it may be problematic, say so and freely relinquish your seat. Song For My Father is AAB, not AABA. Giant Steps is not a good tune to sight read. You'll get a lot more props and invitations to sit in if you don't kill a tune than you will for gamely hacking through it.

*Be heads up aware. Literally. Head up. Roving eye contact. Catch the subtle closed fist ("going out"), finger twirl ("again"), or head tap ("top"). Note the puzzled look on the bassist ("where are we?") so you can show the root or turnaround more obviously.

*Behave. Take compliments well. Compliment others when possible, and be specific. If you don't have something nice to say about a player, ask them about their axe or what tunes they like to play.

*Have fun. Let the other players know you're having fun.
posted by lothar at 11:41 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're far more advanced than me, but I quite enjoyed doing a couple of rounds of the jazz ensemble class at Old Town School of Folk Music. David Jennings, the teacher, was fantastic, and there were certainly people in the class a lot more experienced than me.
posted by HeroZero at 2:49 PM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: Good advice has been given up thread, especially: know thy classics; be heads up; behave.

Go and observe one of the many weekly jam sessions in Chicago. Watch & get to know how things operate. The Velvet Lounge has a Sunday night jam every week. The Velvet's recently deceased owner, Fred Anderson, was known for his welcoming and open attitude to players of all levels. No guarantees that it's still like that, but you'll know from hanging out a few times at a jam whether it's a collaborative thing or a cutting session. At an Anderson jam, those who couldn't keep up or missed a cue were fairly mildly roasted (by jazz woodshed standards), as opposed to some old stories I could share about suburban boys who tried to sit in with Sonny Stitt.

There's usually something going on at the Green Mill on Fridays at 1 am, or at least there used to be. Lower down the evolutionary scale (less pressure because of lower visibility) is the Cafe Galeria at Western Ave at Winona. Theirs is organized by The Chicago Studio Club and they seem to have rotating open mic/jam session locations depending on the night of the week. I do not mean to imply that these musicians aren't serious about what they do, just that the Green Mill and the Velvet have more national reputations and may tend to draw a more demanding cadre of jam participants. Best advice I can give is spend some time getting to know some of these folks before offering to sit in. (see: Sonny Stitt)
posted by beelzbubba at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2010

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