Jamming For Dollars
"Fusion and the new stuff? It doesn't offend me, but a lot of the soloists sort of sound alike, like they all learned the same licks from the same school. When I was coming up in the 1940s, it seemed that every corner bar had a piano, a set of drums and some kind of jam session happening. That's how I learned to play, and that's what I think is missing today." Zoot Sims, to the author, 1981.
What Zoot said was "missing" more than 30 years ago isn't missing any longer, in that jazz jam sessions seem to be popping up everywhere these days. In the Philadelphia area, as one example, there are in the neighborhood of ten sessions happening every week.
This is a good indication that jazz is healthy.
How They (May Have) Started
No one knows where and when the first jam sessions took place, because no one knows exactly where and when jazz was first played. If we must have a time line, we do know that the celebrated, never-recorded trumpeter Buddy Bolden, said to be among the first musicians ever to play a type of music we now call jazz, joined an orchestra in New Orleans led by a fellow named Charley Galloway in 1895. In all likelihood, Bud and Chaz were trading hot licks way back then.
Gene Krupa told me he was going to organized, "after hours" jams as early as the mid-1920s. "We went to them after our regular jobs with 'Mickey Mouse' bands," he said. "So we could play the way we really wanted to play."
Over the years, some documented jam sessions have taken on mythical proportions: In 1936, the Benny Goodman Trio was born when BG jammed with Teddy Wilson and Krupa at a private party. Then there was the "cutting" contest between tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in the late 1930s, the staged session at Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 where members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington band joined some of Benny's boys for an extended "Honeysuckle Rose," and the Jazz at the Philharmonic traveling and recording troupe of the 1940s and 1950s where saxophonists, drummers and trumpeters battled it out on the concert stage for alleged supremacy.
Because it was immortalized in a motion picture, probably the most fabled jam of them all, even if it didn't happen, was said to occur in Kansas City in latter 1930s. As the story goes, a young Charlie Parker participated in a jam in his native Kansas City where he totally botched the bridge to "I Got Rhythm." Supposedly, this angered drummer "Papa" Jo Jones so much, that Jones threw down his cymbal at Bird's feet.
Some aspects of the jam session have changed. By and large, the "cutting contest," whereby one player tries to publicly out do another, no longer exists. Indeed, the concept of musical competition in the jazz world is often frowned upon. As an example, when I proposed a title of "Classic Drum Solos and Drum Battles" for a series of videos I wrote and co-produced for Hudson Music, the company's principals were staunchly opposed to the word "battle." They used it anyway, and it turned into a DVD series that still sells.
And as for young players like Bird, who needed some time to shed the channel to "I Got Rhythm," no one would even think of "gonging" him off the bandstand today. In all probability, an older player would have taken Parker aside during the break and gone over the changes with him, or else bought him a copy of "The Real Book."
Ideally, jam sessions were and are informal workshops where players can exchange ideas, dig what the others are laying down, learn from the pros, dish and talk some trash, and generally have fun. The few surviving elder statesmen of jazz have often said that the jam was a place to learn not only the music, but to learn about life.
No single individual can be deemed responsible for the resurgence in popularity of the jam session in its contemporary configuration. The growth of the jazz education movement over the past 25 yearsthanks to bandleader Stan Kenton's pioneering concept of the "jazz clinic" in the late 1950sand the increasing number of colleges offering jazz as a major, has to be a factor, if only because all these young players need a place to play.
Two Long-Term Success Stories: Ortlieb's Jazz Haus (now Ortlieb's Lounge) and The 23rd Street Café
In Philadelphia, due credit must be given to a jazz fan and swing-oriented saxophonist named Peter Souders. This was a man who wanted to own a jazz club and to play in it. And he felt the city needed it. In 1987, Sounders took a real chance by buying a property that was once a part of the abandoned Ortlieb's Brewery, located in an as-yet-to-be gentrified neighborhood. Souders christened it Ortlieb's Jazz Haus, named for the late and lamented beer company and opened for business.