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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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Ready to check out your first jam session? There's much more to jazz music—and to the "session" in particular—than meets the eye. This primer will help you better appreciate the intense psychodrama being played out on stage. Special "Insider's Hints" ("IH") highlighted throughout the text will help you make the most of your maiden voyage.

IH: Although your food and drink dollars are the lifeblood of the jazz economy, remember that to the musicians, you're irrelevant. Don't make requests. Don't start dancing. And don't try to sing along. The last thing the session needs is another ego. Things are complicated enough already.

The Room

Session venues fall into two distinct categories:

Yuppie Jazz Dives

Yuppies don't generally like dives, but jazz, to a Yuppie, is a daring adventure. There may be no valet parking, but caution be damned!

The club will be located in a "transitional" part of town. Walking hurriedly from parking space to venue will raise the courageous Yuppie's heartbeat past Stairmaster level. All the more gratifying, then, to finally feel the club's warm embrace. Home at last among the expensive cigars and fancy martinis.

The food will be overpriced and lousy. There will be at least one fake Cajun dish on the menu. There will be an abstract painting of a saxophonist. There will be a state-of-the-art ventilation system that makes the thick cigar smoke swirl around in impressionistic patterns. In the restrooms, a fresh coat of Lysol won't fully supress the smell of vomit.

There will be no piano, or there will be a Samick. "Samick," translated from Korean, means "looks like a Steinway but sounds like a Hyundai." (IH: an actual piano; can Yugo be far behind?) The room itself will be an acoustical nightmare. In the absence of carpeting or drapery, sounds will reverberate and distort like a bad LSD trip. Feeding this psychedelic nightmare will the the bar's blender, a cash register, a big-screen television, and a CD player cranking out music that bears no resemblance to jazz. When the band starts, somebody will forget to turn the CD off. Yuppie conversation, to compete with these sounds, is elevated to a roar. Somewhere, in the background, a jam session takes place.

Non-Yuppie Jazz Dives

Same as Yuppie jazz dives, but without the Lysol.

IH: Sit as close to the band as possible. Stare intensely at each musician during his solo, and move your mouth along with his lines. Don't smile. Now watch—each will assume that: a) you play his instrument, and b) you think he sucks. You are "vibing" them, and they'll come undone. All jazz players, regardless of age, instrument, or ability, are deeply insecure. Have fun with this.

The Musicians

While a jazz artist may claim to have a "unique voice" on his instrument, sociological analysis tells us otherwise. In reality, jazz players are simply the embodiment of instrumental archetypes. Jam sessions, then, are the playing-out of archetypal conflicts. Jazz "standards" performed at the sessions make up the script. Over time, an epic play is realized. Here are the characters:

Piano: Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don't. They were social rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the pianist during a break, he will condescend.

Bass: Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he's listening.

Drums: Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which stem from the fact that they aren't really musicians. Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, be careful not to sneak up on him.

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