Jamming For Dollars
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.