Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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The first set ends without further controversy. The guitarist, still sober, has kept his volume down. The saxophonist eventually found a reed that didn't traumatize him. The trombonist handed out business cards. The pianist kept his ego in check. No one told any drummer jokes, and the bassist grunted during the better moments. Sure, they lost a trumpet player, but no one really likes trumpet players anyway (except women and misguided critics).

Now other musicians will sit in. Some are regulars, others are unknown. Look toward the bandstand. Musicians new to the session will be hovering about the fringes, wondering how to proceed. There should be a sign-up sheet, but isn't. There should be a charismatic leader, too; forget it. These are fundamental concepts that, again, run at odds with jam session group processes.

IH: Pretend you're in charge. Approach these hovering musicians one by one. Ask who they normally play with, then stare at them blankly. Ask what tune they'd like to play, and shake your head in disgust. Ask if they're students. Ask why they aren't at a paying gig. Ask if they mind waiting until a singer shows up. This is important work you're doing—cultivating insecurities, planting seeds for eventual drama. If instigating doesn't come naturally to you, go have a drink or two. There. Now try again. Good.

Eventually, things sort themselves out, and the set begins. Interpersonal dynamics grow more complex. As a newcomer approaches the bandstand, the house musicians sit in judgment; the visitor is on trial. At the same time, the house musicians are slyly observing one another's reactions, not fully trusting their own. Meanwhile, each is also acutely conscious of his own reactions being judged, and is hesitant to react at all. Added to this is the backlash factor: If the newcomer proves to be a great player, his own judgments of the house band—especially if it was initially unwelcoming—could be devastating.

So the house musicians take the safest route, hiding behind impassive faces, affecting a veil of stoicism. This further unnerves the newcomer. He may feel that he is being "vibed," or that he has somehow failed before he has even begun.

But there is no turning around—one of the few set rules in the session Code of Conduct. The newcomer reluctantly calls a tune, looks in vain for approval, then counts it off. His job now is to sound relaxed and confident, and, of course, to have fun. His success in doing so will lead either of two outcomes:

1) Rejection

newcomer: "How about a ballad?"

saxophonist: "Are you crazy? LISTEN!"

(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)

newcomer: "Okay, how about something loud and fast?"

(pianist points at guitarist): "What, you want to set Eddie Van Halen loose?"

Seeing no potential for consensus, the newcomer starts playing a blues tune. It's a smart move: everyone sounds good on the blues, so no one complains. And since this is the first tune of the set, there haven't been ten other blues tunes yet, though there will be. A good start, no doubt, but the jury is still out...

IH: There's much more on these players' minds than just melody, harmony, and rhythm. Let's see what they're REALLY thinking, captured in mid-tune:

saxophonist: S%!*! Another sad-ass, no-playing student: Improv 101, licks-to-go, play-by-number, your name here. Who needs ears? Who needs history? I need a drink.

guitarist: Holy s%!*—this cat's got licks from hell! Burning it up! (looks around; sees saxophonist scowling) But I gotta be careful—these guys already think I'm some kinda Van Halen chops freak, like I got no soul, like I didn't pay dues in Motown cover bands for eight years. They won't cut me any slack, the arrogant bastards. Now if I hook up with this new cat, they'll just laugh about it. F#@* them! I should call "Dock of the Bay" and see how they do. I don't know. Maybe I'll just go get a beer (leaves stage).

drummer: Man, this cat is swinging! Here, baby, take THIS (plays a complicated rhythmic figure against the newcomer's lines, loud). Are we going somewhere? We might be going somewhere. I FEEL LIKE WE'RE GOING SOMEWHERE! Yeah, baby. This is for you! (catches newcomers rhythms with his high-hat). We could be hooking up now. WE'RE HOOKING UP NOW! GO, BABY!

bassist (digging in): Grrrhh. Gnmnt. Glppnt.

pianist: I'm so sick of this crap. Yeah, I can play the same twelve bars over and over while you jerk off ad nauseum, you little s%!*. You and all your friends. Then we get to my solo 25 minutes later and no one even notices all the s%!* I'm playing. Put the tune out of its misery already, for chrissake. But wait, what's that? Whoa, hang on! This cat's playing some serious lines—maybe better than my lines? My God, what if I'm not really that great? But, s%!*, I mean I've heard Herbie (IH: Hancock, legendary jazz pianist) play lines worse than this, too. So maybe this cat's great, and I still could be really good. Or, maybe he's really good, and I'm just pretty good. Or maybe he's barely decent, and I suck. Why won't anyone just tell me? I hate this asshole.

trombonist: Oh, God, Help!!! Two guys dig him. Two guys don't. The guitarist left. They're all looking at me. Think, man, think: The pianist was maybe gonna use me on a gig next Sunday; can't piss him off. But I was working the insurance thing with the drummer—no, that was the guitarist. Wait: who was about to buy an amp from me? The bassist—hell, that don't matter. But this new cat, he sounds pretty damn good—maybe he'll get some gigs I can play on. The saxophonist's never gonna use me for anything, anyway. But everybody seems to respect the crusty bastard. I don't know. I guess this new guy sucks, kinda.

(house musicians, exchanging glances, begin rolling their eyes. Pianist starts hitting ugly chords. Drummer succumbs to the group will and forces a yawn. Bassist is oblivious.)

(newcomer ends solo. No response. He is not invited to play another tune. He leaves the stage dejected, head hanging. Boys can be so cruel...)

2) Acceptance

newcomer: "How about a ballad?"

saxophonist: "Are you crazy? LISTEN!"

(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)

newcomer (pointing at you): "But HE told me I could call whatever I want."

all musicians (turning to you): "Who the hell are YOU? Who put YOU in charge?"

IH: Shut your mouth. NOW.

newcomer: "Aw, forget that asshole. Let's just play 'Cherokee.'"

("Cherokee" begins. The musicians all bond in the face of a common enemy—you. In their newfound brotherhood, they drop their defenses and enjoy the music. They are pointing their horns at you and playing with great emotion. It is the sound of jazz: Joy, sorrow and anger. You should take the anger personally. You should leave while it is safe.)

(But, no, there's still so much to be learned. Take a chance: Order a round of drinks for everyone. Hope they'll forgive you. As it turns out, you're suddenly the hero. They need the drinks, in a big way, because approaching the bandstand now is...)

The Vocalist

She's wearing a tight-fitting dress. Her hair is a sculpture. She glides to the bandstand like a model on a runway, ignoring the drink stains and cigarette burns peppering the floor. Her posture is perfect, her arms move just so. She picks up the mike and balances it between three arched fingers. She turns to the audience, a stagey, far-away look in her eyes. "Oh Jesus, here we go," the saxophonist says under his breath.

"How about a hand for these hard-working guys," she says, just like she is supposed to. There is no applause. She laughs a stage laugh and tries again. "Where are you all from? Anyone here from New York?" Silence. The crowd is captivated—not by her, but by a racy rock video blasting over the television. Still, she tries. "How many of you are in love?" she asks, giggling a little girl giggle. She's looking right at you, because you're the only one paying attention. The musicians are looking at you, too. "You're NOT from New York, and you're NOT in love," their dark eyes say.

"Not a real talkative bunch, are you?" she asks rhetorically, then turns to the band. "Well, I guess we'd better give them something to talk about." She winks at the saxophonist, who almost spits. "Do you fellas know 'Summertime'?" There is a collective shudder. "What key?" the pianist asks, knowing she won't have an answer. Her veneer momentarily fades; she is in trouble. She did not prepare for the session by practicing or figuring out her keys. She prepared for it by buying a new outfit and having her hair coiffed.

But then she has an idea. With studied nonchalance, she says: "You, know. The regular key." There is a collective snort. "Regular?" asks the pianist. Not decaf?" The others join in. "Not unleaded?" asks the saxophonist. "Not minty fresh?" asks the drummer. "Not extra wide?" asks the trombonist. "Not the special prescription-strength formula with possible side effects including nausea, headaches, and dry-mouth?" asks the bassist. All turn and stare at him in amazement. The trumpet player shouldn't have left so soon. This is too much fun.

Now she is near tears. All she can do is start singing, and she lands half-way between two keys. "Lovely," the pianist mutters. "Quarter-tone explorations on 'Summertime.' B minor-and-a-half. C minor-minus. John Cage meets Liza Minelli. Ravi Shankar meets Barbara Streisand. Here, lady, I'll help you—forgive me, guys. Just because I'm brilliant doesn't mean I'm heartless. Let's put it in C minor, and here's your melody note. Now sing, or act, or whatever it is you do."

The band joins in, and she works her way through the song's two choruses. Her voice is pleasant, but barely discernable beneath a haphazard dungheap of inflections that are her "jazz bag." She approaches the end of the melody. "PLEASE DON'T SCAT! PLEASE, PLEASE!" the musicans silently implore. She scats. There are shooby-doos. There are piercing wails. There are throaty moans. There is writhing and grimacing. There are photo ops. She is smiling at the band, inviting them to feel the spirit. They return blank stares. Finally the saxophonist can take no more. He begins soloing loudly, pointing his horn right at her. The band launches into 20 minutes of improvisation, and the music is good. They have, once again, found a common enemy. Again there is great joy and sorrow and anger. This time, they are not angry at you.
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