There’s a Reason for the Tradition
It is completely unreasonable for anyone to ever think that they could become good jazz musicians without ever having gone to jam sessions. You can work on your scales and your technique, you can learn a dozen transcriptions, you could memorize a hundred tunes, but until you start going to the jam sessions, it will all be for nothing.
It’s a big mistake to see the jams as performances. No, the gigs are the performances. When you get hired to play in front of a paying audience, that’s when you treat the music as a performance. Instead, the jazz jam sessions are much, much more than that.
Jazz Jam Sessions Are Cultural
Jam sessions are where we assimilate into the jazz sub culture, which is a lot more than just calling each other “cat” and throwing the word “lick” around now and again. I know this will come as a shock to most of the educators who read this, but the cultural side of jazz is actually more important than the mechanical aspects of the music; the chords and rhythms, etc.
I won’t go into detail about the etiquette, the language and the customs. It’s just good enough for the purposes of this post to point out that jazz has it’s own, just like any other kind of music. And you really cannot consider yourself a jazz musician if you are not part of that community, submerged in the culture and following its rules of etiquette, speaking its language and following its customs.
I have pointed out in previous posts that one of the most important aspects of my career has been my stylistic versatility. What most up and coming musicians do not understand about this versatility is the cultural aspects that go with it. I don’t only play classical music, I understand the culture of the classical musicians well enough to be part of that. I don’t only play salsa gigs, like some ignorant outsider hired because they couldn’t find anyone else. When I play those gigs I submerge myself in that culture. I do this with every style I perform, otherwise I have no business calling myself a salsero or a big band player, etc.
Jazz is the same way. Going to jam sessions is a major part of the jazz tradition, the jazz culture. If you miss that part of it, then you are NOT a jazz musician. You are someone who just plays jazz (and probably not very well).
Trial and Error
I have always said that one of the most important reasons to go to jam sessions is to insure that your practice stays on track. How do you know that you are heading in the right direction if you never test your work?
Today we have so many play-along resources like Music Minus One and Band In A Box that it gives us the false impression that we don’t need to play with real people anymore to know if we are heading in the right direction. Please don’t fall into that trap. Your play-along resources cannot hear what you are playing when you improvise.
Good jazz is a dynamic art form. There is a constant communication of ideas between the musicians and for that reason, fixed, memorized licks and scales will never work. Save that for Karaoke night at the ice house. Every good jazz performance is a musical conversation. Someone who just plays licks that he memorized is like someone saying rehearsed lines in an informal conversation. It’s unnatural and awkward.
When we practice at home, it should be for the purpose of increasing our ability to communicate with the other musicians and to communicate with the audience. But when we get to the jam session, we should forget what we practiced in much the same way as we forget all of our vocabulary lessons from school in conversations.
There have been many times in my career when I was working on something in my practice sessions, but when I got to the jam sessions, I realized that what I was working on was inappropriate or irrelevant. I would have never known to alter my practice sessions if I hadn’t been to the jam session to actually use what I was working on.
That’s a very important reason to go to the jam sessions, to make sure that what you are doing is appropriate and relevant.
Be On the Scene
On a very popular image being circulated online, Steve Lacy has a list of Monk sayings that I wrote about in one of my posts. One of the points on that list was “Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene.” Jam sessions have long been upheld as places for jazz musicians to go to try to get jazz gigs. While I do consider it rather disingenuous to make that your only reason to go to the jam sessions, there is really no other way to be “on the scene” without going to the jams if you aren’t gigging yet.
Personally, my experience has been that going to jams is probably the least efficient way to advertise your availability for gigs. I have plans to write other posts about the music business, because I have had a successful career and don’t mind sharing some of my “tricks of the trade” so to speak. And although getting gigs was never my reason for attending the jam sessions, I can tell you that the number of gigs or even leads for gigs that I got from the jams was practically zilch.
What I think the jams do for the business side of our art is give us more credibility. It’s like Monk said, “be on the scene.” No one wants to hire a wild card musician. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? The player we know is better than the player we don’t. It’s about establishing trust. So when you are on the scene, that means you are no longer a stranger. Jam sessions are the best we to be on the scene.
Passing the Torch
What if you are already an established player, why should you be going to the jams?
It is my understanding that the jam sessions have always been a place where the accomplished players share the band stand with the beginners in a way that encourages the younger students to grow. This is an opportunity for those more advanced musicians to give back to the culture that nurtured them and helped them grow into the musicians they are today.
I have gone to jam sessions all over the USA. Of course, I’ve jammed in El Paso and Houston, but also in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Tuscon, Austin, San Antonio and more. I’ve been to so many jam sessions that I can’t remember them all, but I can honestly say that I learn a little something more every time I go. Every jam session gives me something to think about, something to chew on, something to inspire me. I rarely see myself as only the mentor, passing on my knowledge and wisdom to younger students. Yes, there are times when I feel as if I am one of the older players, but just as often I feel as if I have so much more to learn. Even some of the younger musicians help me see things in a different light. So there is a give and take and general sharing of ideas.
If you are serious about becoming a jazz musician, you cannot avoid the jam sessions forever. Most people’s excuse is that they don’t feel like they are ready yet. They assure me that when the are ready, they will start going to the jams. Unfortunately, those players end up never going to the jams and I feel bad for them. I would have liked to have seen them grow, but they were afraid and so they never became part of the jazz family.
Go to the jams and play. Don’t wait until you are ready. Do it now and start the adventure in earnest.