Jamming For Dollars
The History, Care, Feeding and Booking of the Jazz Jam Session
"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.
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.
With a "haus" band that at times included Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker backing visiting national names, the place was wildly successful. What helped put Ortlieb's on the map was the Tuesday night jam session, a spot where amateurs, students and pros on their nights off could come together on the stage and play some jazz. Not too long after, a Sunday jam was added, which did as well as the Tuesdays.
Eventually, Souders sold Ortliebs and it continued under new owners. It should have lasted longer and the city was saddened by its eventual closing. But several months ago, a "new" Ortleibs opened, with a different type of entertainment booked for each night of the week. The new proprietors brought Sounders back to host a "new" Tuesday night jam session, and it was packed from night one. As in years past, there is talk of adding a Sunday jam to the mix.
A year later, a Dutch architect/amateur bassist named Herman DeJong, saw the winner that Ortliebs had on its hands, and put together his own session. DeJong's concept differed from Souders.' DeJong owned no club and there were few, if any, professional players involved. DeJong just wanted a place where his friends could playwith him on bass, naturallywhich at that time included a speech therapist who once played trombone with Woody Herman, an amateur alto saxophonist who was a cardiologist by day, a veterinarian who loved to play Dixie-styled clarinet, a piano-playing antiques dealer, a drummer who owned a chain of women's shoe stores, and a one-time pro singer who left the business years ago to raise her family.
It was quite a crew, and ever the entrepreneur, DeJong soon found a center city hotel interested in booking the session onguess when?Tuesday nights.
Just based on word-of-mouth, the early sessions did well enough to move the shebang to bigger quarters a few blocks away in the form of the 23rd Street Café, where it's still held on Tuesday nights (actually the only night that the Café is open) 24 years after its inception. Eventually, the jam attracted the cream of veteran Philadelphia players and singers, youngsters who wanted to blow with the pros and maybe learn something in the process and jazz-loving amateurs who hadn't played in years. Just like the Ortlieb's jam. Unlike Ortlieb's, there was no house trio, and the quality of the music depended upon just who walked in the door and how good they were.
Today, the format remains pretty much the same, except there is, thankfully, a paid house trio, with pianist "Father John" D'Amico, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer/session producer "Big" Jim Dofton. The evening starts with a set by the trio, and after a break, the sitters-in, who have all signed up to play, are brought to the stage either singly or in some type of hopefully workable combination. For reasons that have more to do with tradition than anything else, the core group of horn players, and a few have been around since the sessions' beginnings, remain on stage and play along with the guests. The stage is often jammed and the songs are sometimes long.
Those versed in what is now called "jam session etiquette" know when to lay out. Some don't and virtually nothing stops them.
That's to be expected in this environment, and if one is seeking musical perfection or anything close to it, you've come to the wrong place. As singer Joy Adams frequently said, "That's why they call it playing."
After DeJong tired of the grind, he handed over the "directorship reigns" to Adams and yours truly. Given that the 23rd Street Café was one of two events of its kind within a 90-mile radius, running the highly-populated event often wasn't easy. We were sometimes traffic cops, sometimes social workers, sometimes music teachers, and sometimes junior Norman Granz's, hoping to put together the right musical combinations and the right accompaniment for the many singers who wanted to perform. We sometimes had in the neighborhood of 40 players and singers who wanted to show their stuff during the three-to-four-hour session.
The results? Like composer Johnny Mandel once said of the Duke Ellington band, "It was sometimes sublime and sometimes awful." But there wasn't anyone who didn't have fun in the course of the night. The eight years of our stewardship, though a tremendous amount of work, was not without its satisfactions. A number of young players got their starts on our stage and moved on to better things. Others told us that being on stage, playing or singing was, for them, "a musical 'make a wish foundation.'"
I'm particularly proud of one precedent we set: That the house rhythm section be paid.
The fun goes on at the 23rd Street Café. Last night, a one-hundred degree summer evening in Philadelphia, the session played host to eight drummers, four guitarists, three bassists, three pianists, four singers, a clarinetist, trombonist and conga drummer.
The idea that Pete Sounders and Herman DeJong had more than 20 years ago wasn't anything revolutionary, but it revived, with appropriate modifications, what has long been a part of the jazz tradition. The formula was so successful that it was duplicated by hundreds of jam sessions across the country.
For the club or restaurant owner who is thinking about presenting one of these sessions, I can only suggest learning something from history.
End of history lesson.
Why a Jam?
The jazz jam session benefits nearly everyone involved. It's relatively easy for the club owner to book, it's a bargain in terms of what a venue gets for its money, and a good audiencethe players, friends of players, parents of players in addition to the club's regular audienceis almost a given. And the jam is also being wisely used these days to fill in what might have been a dead or dark night, or even dead, early hours, at the club. In the promotion area, the club is presumably already advertising its attractions on other nights of the week, so it's little trouble to add "open jam session hosted by so-and-so" to the weekly web or print advertisement. And when word-of-mouth begins to spread and the area music schools hear about it, business is practically guaranteed. Bet on it.
Still, a packed house does not happen all by itself. The proper promotion, detailed later in this piece, is vital.
Choosing the night of the week is important. Again, I'll use Philadelphia, but as an example in this regard of what not to do. For some inexplicable reason, several jams, ones that I know about, anyway, are scheduled on Tuesday night. If club owners cooperated rather than attempted to undercut each other and grab each others' audience, there could be swinging jam sessions each nightor afternoonof the week. The first order of business, if you want a captive audience, is to choose a night where there are no jams, or few jams, scheduled elsewhere. That's not only good business, it's common sense.
If your place is open on weekday afternoons, think seriously about booking a jam or jams during those hours. Years ago, afternoon sessions, in addition to evening jams, were the norm. Why not try it? Yes, there are a few afternoon jams around, but there's room for plenty, plenty more.
A house band, a.k.a. a rhythm section, and someone to direct the session, almost always a house band member, must be hired. And gosh darn it and I'll say it again, they all must be paid. Even if the bassist, drummer and pianist are not playing all night, as other rhythm section members may sit in from time to time, they do have to provide the instruments and probably a sound system, be on the premises for the entire session, schlep everything back and forth to the club, set everything up, and allow a bunch of strangers to bang the heck out them.
The jam session director has to direct traffic, serve as announcer/master of ceremonies, help sitters-in choose tunes and keys, come up with viable musical combinations, keep a check on the clock, know when to bring on the next act, and do whatever possible to ensure that each and every player or singer get their moment in the limelight.
Two sum all this up, whoever is running the jam must do everything in his or her power to make a thrown-together group of amateurs and pros, young and old sound, and look professional. It can be done.
Fun? Certainly. But this is work. Those who work get paid. There are those who disagree. I invite you to explain why.
This brings up the question of cover charges. Occasionally it's worked, frequently it hasn't, and some places who started with it gave it up or lowered the cover amount. One place charged five bucks for those who wanted to play, until everyone realized that musicians were paying to play for free. Colonel Parker may have loved that concept, but it didn't last. Another waived covers for musicians only. Yet another offered players a discount off the cover. Those ideas didn't make it, either.
In general, I'm not for it. Cover charges drive people away, and logistically, clubs don't need the red tape. If things are done properly in the advertising and promotional areas, and if you present a good and professional show, you'll sell plenty of food and drink. And, jam or no jam, never, ever underestimate the importance of quality food and drink, reasonably priced, and an affable wait staff and bartender(s).
Just Who Runs This Thing?
The vast majority of the time the session director, or producer, if you will, is a member of the house band. He or she should be conversant in many of the jazz styles; be an affable, welcoming, calm, patient and non-judgmental presence on and off stage; and ideally, know a lot of players. The pianist and bassist in the house band should have a wide-ranging repertoire, and be able to transpose, if necessary.
In short, you're seeking a saint. But they're out there. Maybe a good candidate is already working at your locale in another band, or at another joint in a band you've heard. Putting feelers out in area jazz departments will likely get you a slew of qualified, enthusiastic and interested individuals.
Certainly, someone already proven who is running a jam at another venue on another night, could be considered. I'd proceed with caution in this area. As a courtesyand courtesy is very important in the music businessI would secure the permission and the blessing of the club owner booking the other jam before thinking about raiding his or her talent pool.
As an aside, the jazz community and club/restaurant owners who book jazz need to work on the issues of cooperation and communication. No one suggests revealing business secrets, but just think about what could be accomplished if everyone worked together.
The Promo Possibilities
Promotional possibilities related to booking a jazz group have been detailed in our previous "Booking Jazz: A Subjective Guide" article and much of the same guidelines apply. And remember, not all of it is free.
In the instance of the jam session, however, I cannot underestimate the importance of area schools and colleges with jazz departments. Depending upon how much promo work you choose to do in that area, a good deal of your players and your audience could come from the academic contingent. And if the jam session director you hire happens to be on the faculty of an area jazz school, well, just think of the possibilities.
Consider special promos on jam night, like two-for-one drinks or meals for players and/or their parents, special evenings being "sponsored" by the jazz department of a school or college, extending an invitation to a special guest and hyping same, etc. Constant and consistently updated web presence on social media, the venue's site and a site like AllAboutJazz.com is a must. Via the web, keep all participants, past and present; and appropriate parties apprised of what happened at last week's jam, who came in, highlights of the night, and what's up for the future.
Is "Perdido" in Bb?
The one constant in jams these days is the sign-in sheet, broken down by instrument. Quite simply, those who have eyes to blow sign up. By and large, the night starts with a set by the house band. The length of their set is often determined by the number of those who have signed up. After a short break, it's time for the jam director to bring on the guests.
Methods of running the actual session vary, though the following can be considered "the standard" or the most common: Playing or singing guests are brought up one or two at a time for one or two songs, backed by either the house rhythm section or a rhythm section comprisedentirely or in partby guests. Much of this, naturally, depends on how many potential guests there are in the house. In the weeks it takes to get the word out that a jam session is indeed happening, the house rhythm section may play more and sitters-independing on their level of talentmay be asked to play more than a couple of numbers.
The person in charge will know, or should know, what to do.
A Unique Situation
For close to ten years, I played a considerable part in a unique, jam-type, and I emphasize the word type, situation in Naples, Florida. A fine singer named Judy Branch, who uses the professional name "Jebry," spent considerable road time in her younger days with giants like Harry James and Lou Levy. Decades ago, she was booked for a singing gig in a Dixie-type setting in Marco Island, Florida, just over the bridge from Naples. Looking to settle down, she has ultimately spent more than 30 years on Florida's southwest coast and continues to be among the top jazz attractions in Naples.
Backed by a rhythm section she's had, with only a few changes, for years, Jebry is the focal point of the night's entertainment, but it becomes a jam from time to time via a group of sitting-in "guests" who take to the stage during the course of the evening. In large part, and with rare exception, these singers and players are "regulars," i.e. a core group who show up to perform wherever Jebry may be booked.
Singer Joy Adams and I sat in with Jebry and her trio from the virtual moment we arrived in Naples. Though we were "flatlanders" virtually unknown in those parts, because we were pros who performed to Jebry's satisfaction, because we received a good response from the audience, and because we made it clear that we were not out to "cop the gig," we were asked back. Our association lasted almost ten years, and Jebry was kind and generous enough to let me play drums, saxophone, trumpet, piano, sing, and do everything on the stage but somersaults. Believe me, I tried the latter.
More of a traveling show and revue than a true jam, this format has nonetheless proven to be tremendously popular, so much so, that during the six-month, October-through-March "season," those hoping to see Jebry's show in person often have to wait three weeks for a reservation. Yes, Jebry is generous and trusting with granting stage time. However, everyone knows who the "star is," and the whole format works in her favor. Hey, it all goes toward making her look good.
It's a situation club and restaurant owner's dream about, and given the correct alignment of the sun, the stars, the players, the jam director and the audience, there's no reason it couldn't happen again.
It Can Happen Here
At a Sunday afternoon jam session in New York City, a young---more accurately, under agedrummer wanted to sit in with the house band, a kind of "swing-out-of-dixieland" outfit that had a lot of fans. Even though the drummer was brought in by a well-known bass-playing friend of the bandleader, said leader fluffed them both off.
This went on for several weeks, until the bandleader finally relented, and let the drummer sit in on the last song of the session.
The drummer played and wowed the crowd, the band and the bandleader. The drummer was hired to play in the band on a full time basis a week later. In the years to come, the young percussionist became known, among one and all, as "the world's greatest drummer."
His name was Buddy Rich. And he was discovered at a jam session.
Who says it can't happen again?
"When barely out of my teens and stationed in Washington, D.C. with the Airmen of Note, my favorite hang-out to get my training was at a bar called 7th and T which of course was the address. I was sitting in with Gene Harris and The Three Sounds who were playing there. One night Sonny Stitt was in town and he came down to sit in. I was already up playing when Sonny came in. The next thing I know, I'm along side Sonny, who counted off a burnin' "All The Things You Are" and played it in all 12 keys. This left me at the starting gate. There was a lesson there: If you play in the kitchen you might get burned!