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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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( silence )

trumpet player: "What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?"

(silence)

trumpet player : "This s%!* is lame. I'm outa here." ( Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab ).

rest of band (in unison) : "Yes!!!" ( Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player's tab ).

Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection

( previous tune ends )

( pianist and guitarist simultaneously ): "Beautiful Love!"/"Donna Lee!"

guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!"

pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!"

saxophonist: "Giant Steps.'" (IH: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)

guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead, asshole."

trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. 'Night in Tunisia.'" (IH: a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.)

saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard."

(long, awkward silence)

pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skin-head."

(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune) IH: a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes

drummer: "Stablemates."

trumpet player: F#@* this! I'm outa here." (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)

("Stablemates")

trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"

Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. IH: As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.

The Newcomer

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...

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