Monday, November 21, 2011

Jam Session Etiquitte 2: Electric Boogaloo

I started a jam session at Portland State University. It's supposed to be Fridays between 3 and 5 in Lincoln Hall 47. (It's not required at the moment, but it might fall under the Area Recital category that the classical Areas use to get more playing opportunities for their students.) I wanted to have a challenging, fun, yet safe environment for the PSU students to get their "sitting in" chops together, so that they can hopefully gain the skill and confidence to sit it at some of the other "intimidating" jam sessions around Portland. Now, I've been going to a lot of these sessions since I've moved here, and I actually don't find any of the jams intimidating at all. Then again, I have been doing this for many years. Be that as it may, compared to some of the things I saw on jam sessions and gigs in New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., I would say that the "vibe" on most of these sessions is pretty mellow.

Maybe too mellow. Jam sessions are supposed to push people; historically, there has existed in the olden days a certain air of the competitive spirit. That's why they called them "cutting contests"! So if everyone is too polite, then no one gets their butt whupped enough to buckle down and get better. But how much is too much, or too little? A young Portland based musician named Nicole Glover, who is a very talented tenor saxophonist, asked me this question via Facebook:

 NG:  I'm sure you have noticed how the Blue Monk sessions don't really function too effectively.There is lots of dead space, lots of awkwardness. As someone who frequents the sessions, and has far more experience with leading/running sessions than I do, how do you like to see jam sessions run? Alan Jones, who has set up the Blue Monk session,  was saying that there are many different models that jam sessions could take, and i was wondering if you had a couple in mind that you think seem to work well.

GC: I think a jam session can be organized, selective, and also inclusive. By that, I mean whomever is leading it has to lead from a musical perspective and also from a humanitarian perspective. For example, do a short set of prepared music to set the vibe, treat it like a gig, and showcase the highest level of musicianship that you can. Then try to find people you know first, and try to keep that level of musicianship, but maybe with some more well known tunes. Then, gradually open it up for everyone, even the lower level cats. But stay as engaged as you can without going insane! If it seems like it's becoming pandemonium, and no one will pick a tune, or people are vibing, be the referee and say, " OK, here is a blues or a tune that everyone knows, go!" Something like that. Oftentimes, there is a non-performing audience(not like comedy open mikes, those things are almost always ONLY comedians and they mostly DO NOT laugh at each others jokes and they are very depressing.) and they want to hear music, not watch a bunch of juvenile-delinquent looking people milling about on stage acting like their version of "Solar" is better than Miles Davis.

"Freebird? Is it in the Real Book?"
I ran a jam session in Washington D.C. in the early 90's for a brief period. Although some of it was good, sometimes it was rough. I was young and a lot of the cats didn't respect me. That can be tough. I think people are much friendlier here. It's not as competitive. However, sometimes this docile, over polite attitude descends into perceived apathy, and it just slows everything up for me. Plus, these jam sessions are short, why waste time going " Uhhhhhhhh, I dunno, what do you want to play? Uhhhhhhh, is it in the Real Book?" It's a two way street, and I think one can be inviting but also firmly say (through your actions, not necessarily your words), "We are trying to maintain a certain respect for the bandstand. We want you to play, but bring something to the equation, as in a tune you want to play. Or, if you come regularly, show us improvement. Show us that the tunes we called last time, that you should know in the first place, you wrote it down and learned it. Or, if you happen to call a tune you called before, that you are playing something new on it, not just repeating what you played last time.

Things are obviously not, and never will be like they were on 52nd St, when bebop was created. That was a pretty intense period of concentrated musical development. Those cats, all they did was eat sleep and drink music. They didn't leave at 10 cause they had homework or they had to walk their dog or look at funny videos on youtube. They played all night into the morning, and then practiced all day. (I'm leaving out the drugs, cause regardless of what anyone thinks, we don't want to emulate that part of it.)However, when we are at a jam session, we can give it our all for that two or three hours, and try to play our best, play MATURELY and MUSICALLY, and respect other cats by listening to them and so forth.

The jam sessions I've seen in Portland are by and large pretty cool. There's always room for improvement. I like to go now and then, but I also like to play my own music. But jam sessions are a way to keep my chops and reflexes up when I'm not working so much.

NG: It does definitely gives me a lot to think about. I think when we announce at the beginning "come talk to me if you want to play", I think we should also start saying "have a tune in mind when you come up to play". I think the major weakness of people out here in Portland is knowing tunes, from what I've experienced. On the east coast people knew way more tunes, and if they didn't know a tune like "Just Friends" or "Black Nile" they'd be incredibly apologetic, then go home and learn it! at least, that's what i did/do.So i think that leads to all the "derp........ what do you want to play?" moments.It's really pretty frustrating. I was contemplating making a list of 20+ obviously essential jam session tunes that people could possibly take home and learn and have ready for the next session. Alan Jones  has mentioned before though that lists don't seem to necessarily work out so well all the time.
Drummer and educator Alan Jones

GC: Believe me, trying to get people to do things like this can be frustrating. I think there are always going to be varying degrees of seriousness when it comes to musicians, especially at a jam session. It's harder than ever to motivate people nowadays. At least twenty years ago, you might get a nice gig or even a tour or a record date if you had your stuff together. Now, what is the motivation? There's so little guarantee of financial reward. You have to do it because you love it, because you can't rest until you learn those tunes, or master those changes, or whatever. That's why I did it. I was lucky that I got opportunities because of it.

The great Ron Carter
I think the Blue Monk session overall has a good energy and the students are humble and well intentioned. Even the ones who are pretty lost technically and stylistically. Just be patient. If you keep pushing people, some of them will figure it out. I believe people can grow. Who knows? Maybe some people need to be VIBED into learning some tunes. I've definitely gotten motivation out of being embarrassed on the bandstand, or wanting to avoid embarrassment. Maybe you need to embarrass some people! I heard that Ron Carter left some of his first jam sessions in tears, and he went on to be one of the most recorded acoustic bassists in history. Allegedly, someone threw a cymbal at Bird at one of his early jam sessions.  Anyway, if you end up VIBING somebody, don't tell them that I told you to do it. Tell them that my friend and colleague Alan Jones told you to do it! HA HA!


  1. Nice take on this. It's hard to find that happy medium between too much vibing (which breeds ill will and makes it hard for people to enjoy themselves) and not enough vibing (which can lead to boring or poorly executed music and doesn't spur people to improve). I know that I rarely enjoyed (public) jam sessions in NYC due to the plethora of players with the "in town for 3 days and need to shred as many people as possible" attitude, and tend to enjoy them much more here(in the SF Bay area, although they can sometimes border on being a little TOO tolerant.

  2. Ironically, don't you think the tune "Blue Monk" itself can often be one of the most painful parts of a jam session? It gets called all the time because it's an easy head that everyone knows, but it's really not to be taken so lightly. A Monk tune and a blues with no turnarounds? I would want to be prepared. Even though I wish there were more/better jam sessions in general, it's too bad what happens to tunes like this.


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