One of the very first musical topics I ever wrote an article about was the importance of going to jam sessions. My opinion has not changed, but I have a lot more to add to what I originally wrote, over twenty years ago.
Today I want to focus on one aspect of the importance of jazz jam sessions: communication. I’m not talking about verbal communication. I’m talking about the conversations we have while we improvise, conversations with the other members of the band.
Have you ever had a conversation with a group of friends when someone blurted out something completely unrelated to what the group was talking about? Even better, have you ever done this? Every time we improvise in a jazz setting, we are in a conversation with the other guys in the band. That communication occurs on a variety of levels, but it is ever present. To “say” something completely unrelated to what the rest of the band is saying is just like bringing up a completely unrelated topic in a verbal conversation.
One of the beautiful things about jam sessions is that you never know who you will be playing with. You never know what direction the conversation will turn. You never know, before you start, what your role will be in that musical conversation. As improvisers, if we are to do this right, it forces us to forget all the technical stuff we practiced and open our ears. It forces us to make an extra effort to match styles, to listen to the band’s rhythms, to match intensity and dissonance levels.
The Failings of Jazz Education
Unfortunately, this concept of communication is rarely taught to up and coming jazz students. We live in an age when the budding student jazz musicians sit at home and “solo” over Band-In-A-Box or Aebersold tracks. Even if they manage to learn “how to do it”, they are training for the wrong gig. One does not learn to give lectures or speeches when preparing for a party or social gathering.
All of the licks you learned, the scales you know, the cool ideas you worked on, none of it is relevant if you can’t communicate in context with the rest of the members of the band. Jazz education typically focuses on that side of the art. Most jazz teachers will drill you on scales or make you practice licks in every key. But very few of them will even mention the true to life aspects of this beautiful art.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all of the jazz teachers are like this. I know a handful of wonderful teachers who do teach something more than just plug-n-play patterns and licks. But those teachers will undoubtedly agree with me when I say that they are in the minority.
Perhaps this is because of the nature of jazz improvisation. Because jazz is a spontaneous art form, composing music in real time, on the fly, someone who cannot improvise well himself will not know how to teach. There are a lot of things you can teach in this world, even if you cannot do it yourself. But I do not believe that jazz improvisation is one of them.
Hitting the Jams
For this reason, it is extremely important for the younger players to go out and sit in at the local jam sessions. What you learn from the jam sessions you will never learn any other way. That’s why they have been a big part of the jazz tradition since the earliest days of its history.
There are a lot of other reasons to go to the jazz jam sessions. Part of it is social. Some of it is a matter of spending time improvising with other people to help your creative juices to flow. It’s also a great way to do networking. I remember when the term “networking” became popular in the early 90’s as a way to do business, but us jazz musicians have been doing it for a hundred years now.
But for all the good reasons there are for going to the jam sessions, I believe the most important of them all is to spend time communicating with the other musicians in the musical language we call jazz. It’s a matter of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t spend time in musical conversation with other jazz musicians, you will, without a doubt, develop into one of those rude players who “solos” over the unimportant rhythm section. You don’t want to be the guy who gives a lecture about quantum mechanics at some dude’s birthday party. The only way you can learn to listen and speak appropriately is to spend time doing it.