The majority of jazz music is defined by improvised collaboration, and whether you are a professional with the night off or a nervous student holding a gig bag at a nightclub doorway, one of the most exciting and satisfying things a jazz musician can do is participate in a jam session. This article doesn’t seek to advise you on how to improve your playing or your jazz knowledge; it is merely intended to help you step into jam sessions with greater comfort and confidence.
Most clubs that feature live jazz have regularly scheduled sit-in sessions, usually during early evening hours on off nights. They are a great way for young musicians to develop real world experience and for established musicians to play with old friends and meet new players. The tradition of the jazz jam session goes back a long way and has a variety of protocols and traditions that vary from session to session. They vary so widely, in fact, that a first recommendation from this desk is to get a feel for the session before deciding to sign up, or perhaps, before even bringing your instrument into the club. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, there are as many kinds of jazz jam sessions as there are kinds of jazz. Some lean more toward standards and the great American songbook, some have a be-bop orientation, some lean toward post-bop modal material, some are more oriented to fusion, and so on. If you lack the vocabulary the session is using, you probably won’t be comfortable trying to fit in, and attempting to drag a session out of what it has already established as its character and into your own bailiwick can be an unwelcome imposition. It is always best to identify and respect the tradition the session is seeking to present, and if it isn’t your bag, well, maybe that’s not the session for you. Have no fear, though: there is a jam out there somewhere that celebrates the style you most want to play.
Second, even if the session fits your appetite in terms of idiom, it may not match your playing level. Although they are fewer and further between than they once were, there is still some component of the jazz “cutting session,” a high-level competitive steeplechase of a jam session in which the local jazz cognoscenti do their best to intimidate one another into having an off night and set upon newcomers with a particular viciousness. Those sessions are satisfying and fun if you can indeed hang at that level, but if you can’t even, or even if you can’t quite but you jump in anyway, it can be an unpleasant experience for you and for the band.
At a jazz jam session, when you get called up as a horn player with a rhythm section already on stage, you will sometimes be able to call the tune. If you have practiced the head of a jazz tune and know its changes well, I recommend talking to the host of the session before you go on, and telling him or her the tune or tunes you are prepared for. I have never seen a jam session host throw anyone to the wolves after that kind of outreach.
It's also not unheard of to bring lead sheets in, especially for a singer who prefers odd keys. There is a certain monotony that can come of selection after selection of jazz standards, each with identical arrangements, so while it's not cool to take over the vibe of a session, it absolutely is cool to bring in printed sheet music for the bass player and piano player to follow. It's a fine line, one that you'll have an easier time locating if you check out the session a little bit before you decide to join in.
It’s good to bring a couple of backups in mind as an alternative to your big number, as someone else might already have played it that evening, or it might be the bass player’s least favorite song to play, or maybe it was the piano player’s ex-husband’s favorite song. There are many reasons a bandstand suggestion gets passed over, so you should show up at the session with a minimum of three songs prepared, each of which resides logically within the framework of the session. I recommend at least ten exhaustively prepared songs, but if you don’t have three right in your pocket and ready to go, perhaps your time is better spent developing repertoire than it is bringing just your favorite song to the jam.
There exists a deep and rich catalog of jazz material, but there are some songs that rise above the nice-to-know category and find themselves instead in the need-to-know category. I have culled a list of ten songs here that are more than a good idea to have in your repertoire when attending a jazz jam session. In many circles, not knowing these ten songs will quickly identify you as not having done the minimum amount of preparation. After each song title is one or more DGRs (darn good reasons) for learning them, along with an inspirational quote.
You get to practice your ii-V sequences in five different keys. “Disneyland can wait, Ma. I’m going to practice my ii-V sequences!”
Up-tempo peppiness for your Dixieland chops. Amuse yourself with some ii-V changes and a counterclockwise circle of fifths. “This song is great for making up humorous alternate lyrics.”
This one has a three feel, and you can hear the changes coming from a mile away. Blues musicians, this is a good way for you to put a toe into the water. “Trumpet players get to break out the Harmon mute on this one.”
It shifts between G major and its relative minor, E minor, and offers vast soloing opportunities over both structures. It was recorded more in Bb/G minor, but was printed in the wrong key in the famous "Real Book," a much relied-upon collection of tunes. Be prepared for both! “Such a great melody, even Sting couldn’t resist appropriating it (Moon Over Bourbon Street).”
It has an R&B equivalent in Mustang Sally and a bluegrass equivalent in Wagon Wheel, in that it's called a bit too often, but you need to know this tune. Here we get to contrast a major II-V7-I sequence with a minor ii-V7-I. “Don’t threaten me with a good time!”
Wide open for glorious runs and arpeggios, and it is in three. There's a hipper (correct would be more accurate) turnaround that a lot of bands don'tplay; the hipper turnaround is a nice-to-know, but the tune itself is a need-to-know. Ask the band if they play the turnaround F#m7b5 / B7/ Em7b5/ A7, and if they begin to squint, expect the D7 to Db7. “Here is a Wayne Shorter composition that easy to understand and play.”
This song, if there is one, is the definitive bossa nova. “Gentlemen, you don’t know it yet, but your future wife is in the audience and she wants to sing it.”
It starts with Imaj7 and goes to Imin7 in the first four bars. Add in the ii-V7-Is, and the soloist can make a real statement. The pros tend to play this one in Eb, though it's in the "Real Book" in C, so you can get a clash on some bandstands. “Books have been written about this one song.”
This song is generally played in F minor, and everyone in the band will understand if as a horn player you cannot contain your joy over that fact. “It’s in F minor! It’s in F minor!”
It can be a disaster, and it is beloved by great and dreadful singers alike. Keep your fingers crossed! In the case of a fine rendition, this is an opportunity for you to complement a singer’s performance. “Understand the lyric, its place in Porgy and Bess, and stress your sensitivity to the vocalist; you just may play something extraordinary.”
Pentatonic joy for one and all. “Pentatonic joy for one and all!”
This is a nice list of tunes to know, because they cover a wide range of tempos, keys and feels. Footprints is a bright jazz ¾, Watermelon Man is a funk groove, Song For My Father is usually played with a Latin feel, All Blues is a blues with an unconventional turnaround, Summertime and Girl From Ipanema are favored by a lot of vocalists, and Footprints, Blue Bossa, Autumn Leaves and Green Dolphin Street are each rewarding to learn, and carry with them a certain jazz credibility.
If you called the tune, guess what? It’s you. If you have a tempo in mind, you have two choices. Count it off yourself, or communicate your preferred tempo to the drummer. I like to leave it to the drummer because it is within his or her area of specialty and because the band is accustomed to taking the count-off from the drummer already. I recommend stating the name of the tune and the key in a clear and authoritative voice. Something like this: “Autumn Leaves, key of G. Right about here.” Then snap the tempo and give an indication to the drummer that you’d like the cue to come from behind the kit. That indication can be a nod, a point, or a verbal command. Let’s say the drummer’s name is Sparky. You might say something like, “Autumn Leaves, key of G. Tempo right about here (snapping your fingers). Stomp it off, Sparky.”
Generally speaking, the horns will play the “head,” or the main theme of the tune. After the head has been played, sometimes once, sometimes twice, the band will instinctively look to you for cues. I recommend taking the first solo if you called the tune. This eliminates one instance of having to cue a soloist, but that is nothing you need to stick to religiously.
After all of the soloists for that tune have had their shot, cue the head again, often done by pointing at your head. It is worth noting here that not every player on the stage needs a solo on every tune. Pay attention to who has soloed recently and who hasn’t, and cue them inversely. Have your second tune in mind and ready to go in case you were so awesome that you are asked to stay. You may be called upon to pick the tune again. Select it and say it clearly, and see if there is any objection from the band. If not, snap your tempo and once again call out to your drummer: “Stomp it off right about here, Sparky!”
It’s bad form to play your songs and then leave the club. When the players at jam sessions have stayed to listen to you, you should stay and listen to them. You don’t have to hang around until the last bar and get thrown out, screaming as they drag you away, “More jazz! I need more jazz!” Sticking around for a minimum of two performers after you is a good rule. The moments following your stage time is an opportunity to talk to some of the other players, make connections, or bathe in the adulation of your zombie-like, slack-jawed, doe-eyed followers.
Most of all, have fun with it. Take your music seriously in the practice room and at your performances, but less so at jam sessions. There’s not a lot at stake on Tuesday at 7:30, so relax and enjoy the shared music and humanity you find there. It is a place to learn, to make mistakes, and to accept the mistakes of others, so just stomp it off, Sparky; I’ll see you around the jams.