Jazz Jam Sessions: A First Timer’s Guide
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3) The Music

Now that you know a little bit about the room and the players, it’s time to turn your attention to the music.  Your new-found knowledge will give you astonishing insights. Let’s look at some typical session landmarks:

Picking the Tune

Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one.  That’s a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jam session group processes.

Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians.  They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown.  But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny:  “So this is how you sound at your best. Hmm...” It’s a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune.

The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and—under extreme conditions—even impromptu elections.  The politics of tune selection makes for some of the session’s best entertainment.

Example 1:  No one wants to pick a tune

(previous tune ends)


trumpet player: “What the f#@*?  Is someone gonna to pick a tune?”


trumpet player: “This s%!* is lame.  I’m outa here.”  (Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab).

rest of band (in unison):  “Yes!!!”  (Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player’s tab).

Example 2:  Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection

(previous tune ends)

(pianist and guitarist simultaneously):  “Beautiful Love!”/“Donna Lee!”

guitarist to pianist:  “You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!”

pianist to guitarist:  “You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!”

saxophonist:  “Giant Steps”.—  (I.H.: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)

guitarist and pianist (together):  “Go ahead, asshole.”

trumpet player:  “This s%!* is lame.  ‘Night in Tunisia’.”  (I.H.:  a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.)

saxophonist:  “Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard.”

(long, awkward silence)

pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer:  “turn, Skin-head.”

(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune) I.H.:  a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes

drummer:  “Stablemates.”

trumpet player: “F#@* this! I’m outta here.”  (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)


trombonist:  Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?”

Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. I.H.:   As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances.  You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling.  Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles.  Things are complicated enough already.

The Newcomer

The first set ends without further controversy.  The guitarist, still sober, has kept his volume down.  The saxophonist eventually found a reed that didn’t traumatize him. The trombonist handed out business cards.  The pianist kept his ego in check.  No one told any drummer jokes, and the bassist grunted during the better moments. Sure, they lost a trumpet player, but no one really likes trumpet players anyway (except women and misguided critics).

Now other musicians will sit in.  Some are regulars, others are unknown.  Look toward the bandstand. Musicians new to the session will be hovering about the fringes, wondering how to proceed.  There should be a sign-up sheet, but isn’t. There should be a charismatic leader, too; forget it.  These are fundamental concepts that, again, run at odds with jam session group processes.

I.H.:  Pretend you’re in charge. Approach these hovering musicians one by one.  Ask who they normally play with, then stare at them blankly.  Ask what tune they’d like to play, and shake your head in disgust. Ask if they’re students.  Ask why they aren’t at a paying gig.  Ask if they mind waiting until a singer shows up. This is important work you’re doing—cultivating insecurities, planting seeds for eventual drama.  If instigating doesn’t come naturally to you, go have a drink or two.  There.  Now try again.  Good.

Eventually, things sort themselves out, and the set begins.  Interpersonal dynamics grow more complex.  As a newcomer approaches the bandstand, the house musicians sit in judgment; the visitor is on trial.  At the same time, the house musicians are slyly observing one another’s reactions, not fully trusting their own.  Meanwhile, each is also acutely conscious of his own reactions being judged, and is hesitant to react at all.  Added to this is the backlash factor:  If the newcomer proves to be a great player, his own judgments of the house band—especially if it was initially unwelcoming—could be devastating.

So the house musicians take the safest route, hiding behind impassive faces, affecting a veil of stoicism.  This further unnerves the newcomer. He may feel that he is being “vibed,” or that he has somehow failed before he has even begun.

But there is no turning around—one of the few set rules in the session Code of Conduct.  The newcomer reluctantly calls a tune, looks in vain for approval, then counts it off. His job now is to sound relaxed and confident, and, of course, to have fun.  His success in doing so will lead either of two outcomes:

1) Rejection

newcomer:  “How about a ballad?”

saxophonist:  “Are you crazy? LISTEN!”

(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)

newcomer:  “Okay, how about something loud and fast?”

(pianist points at guitarist):  “What, you want to set Eddie Van Halen loose?”

Seeing no potential for consensus, the newcomer starts playing a blues tune.  It’s a smart move: everyone sounds good on the blues, so no one complains.  And since this is the first tune of the set, there haven’t been ten other blues tunes yet, though there will be.  A good start, no doubt, but the jury is still out...

I.H.:  There’s much more on these players’ minds than just melody, harmony, and rhythm. Let’s see what they’re REALLY thinking, captured in mid-tune:

saxophonist:  S%!*! Another sad-ass, no-playing student:  Improv 101, licks-to-go, play-by-number, your name here.  Who needs ears?  Who needs history? I need a drink.

guitarist:  Holy s%!*—this cat’s got licks from hell! Burning it up!  (looks around; sees saxophonist scowling)  But I gotta be careful—these guys already think I’m some kinda Van Halen chops freak, like I got no soul, like I didn't pay dues in Motown cover bands for eight years.  They won't cut me any slack, the arrogant bastards.  Now if I hook up with this new cat, they’ll just laugh about it.  F#@* them! I should call “Dock of the Bay” and see how they do.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’ll just go get a beer (leaves stage).

drummer:  Man, this cat is swinging!  Here, baby, take THIS (plays a complicated rhythmic figure against the newcomer’s lines, loud).  Are we going somewhere? We might be going somewhere.  I FEEL LIKE WE’RE GOING SOMEWHERE! Yeah, baby.  This is for you! (catches newcomers rhythms with his high-hat).  We could be hooking up now. WE’RE HOOKING UP NOW! GO, BABY!

bassist (digging in):  Grrrhh. Gnmnt. Glppnt.

pianist:  I’m so sick of this crap.  Yeah, I can play the same twelve bars over and over while you jerk off ad nauseum, you little s%!*.  You and all your friends.  Then we get to my solo 25 minutes later and no one even notices all the s%!* I’m playing.  Put the tune out of its misery already, for Christ-sake.  But wait, what’s that?  Whoa, hang on!  This cat’s playing some serious linesmd maybe better than my lines?  My God, what if I’m not really that great?  But, s%!*, I mean I’ve heard Herbie (I.H.: Hancock, legendary jazz pianist) play lines worse than this, too.  So maybe this cat’s great, and I still could be really good.  Or, maybe he’s really good, and I’m just pretty good. Or maybe he’s barely decent, and I suck.  Why won’t anyone just tell me? I hate this asshole.

trombonist:  Oh, God, Help!!!  Two guys dig him. Two guys don’t.  The guitarist left.  They’re all looking at me.  Think, man, think: The piano player was maybe gonna use me on a gig next Sunday; can’t piss him off.  But I was working the insurance thing with the drummer—no, that was the guitarist.  Wait: who was about to buy an amp from me?  The bassist—hell, that don’t matter.  But this new cat, he sounds pretty damn good—maybe he’ll get some gigs I can play on.  The sax player’s never gonna use me for anything, anyway.  But everybody seems to respect the crusty bastard.  I don’t know. I guess this new guy sucks, kinda.

(house musicians, exchanging glances, begin rolling their eyes.  Piano player starts hitting ugly chords.  Drummer succumbs to the group will and forces a yawn. Bass player is oblivious.)

(newcomer ends solo.  No response.  He is not invited to play another tune.  He leaves the stage dejected, head hanging.  Boys can be so cruel...)

2) Acceptance

newcomer:  “How about a ballad?”

saxophonist:  “Are you crazy? LISTEN!”

(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)

newcomer (pointing at you):  “But HE told me I could call whatever I want.”

all musicians (turning to you):  “Who the hell are YOU?  Who put YOU in charge?”

I.H.:  Shut your mouth.  NOW.

newcomer:  “Aw, forget that asshole.  Let’s just play ‘Cherokee’.”

(“Cherokee” begins.  The musicians all bond in the face of a common enemy—you. In their newfound brotherhood, they drop their defenses and enjoy the music.  They are pointing their horns at you and playing with great emotion.  It is the sound of jazz: Joy, sorrow and anger.  You should take the anger personally. You should leave while it is safe.)

(But, no, there’s still so much to be learned.  Take a chance: Order a round of drinks for everyone.  Hope they’ll forgive you.  As it turns out, you’re suddenly the hero.  They need the drinks, in a big way, because approaching the bandstand now is...)


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