Open Jam with Jason Palmer
October 18, 2009
It's New England, and a mixture of rain and snow falls on this October day. Beyond a red door lies a small, rectangular room. At the far end of the bar, a TV is tuned to the game. But you don't come here for the game. You come here for the music.
This is Wally's Cafe. A place with a long-standing tradition of Sunday afternoon jazz jams.
Beyond the bar, four musicians crowd together. The air comes alive as notes ring on Jason Palmer's trumpet. Palmer is accompanied by guitarist, and fellow New England Conservatory alumni, Greg Duncan. Bassist Lim Yang and drummer Lee Fish, join them. The band opens with "Guidance," one of Palmer's original pieces, and then plays "Dear Lord" by John Coltrane.
As Palmer finishes his slow, winding solo, applause breaks the room's silence. Palmer gently nods his head, and appreciatively holds his trumpet toward the crowd. He steps aside, admiring Duncan's guitar solo. For these few moments, Palmer is simply part of the audience.
With the conclusion of the Coltrane piece, Palmer opens up the bandstand. Scanning the crowd, he taps a bassist, guitarist, and drummerstudents from the surrounding community.
Taking a moment to address the audience, Palmer identifies Wally's, as a home away from home. He began attending these open jam sessions in 1997, back when he started his studies at NEC. He's been leading them since 1999.
Palmer calls a guest to the stage. Ken Schaphorst, present jazz studies chair at the New England Conservatory, has an announcement: The 40th anniversary celebration of jazz at NEC.
The music resumes. Palmer calls a variety of tunes: "Serenity" by Joe Henderson, "Seven Steps to Heaven" by Miles Davis, and Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" among them. At one point, the band alternates brief, four-measure solos or, in jazz parlance, "trading fours." A young drummer seems slightly hesitant, but Palmer pushes the musician, with a hand gesture directing him to solo. Embracing this new- found freedom, the musician begins to explore.
Palmer is from High Point, North Carolina, the same neighborhood in which John Coltrane was raised. He was encouraged to apply to NEC by Ronnie Ingle, his private trumpet instructor back home. While a student at NEC, the trumpeter studied with John McNiel, Danilo Pérez, Cecil McBee, and Jerry Bergonzi. Reflecting on his time at NEC, Palmer identifies several things he took away from the experience: "For one, I thought that solfege was a gym class. I learned how to transpose, orchestrate, arrange, transcribe, etc., but most importantly, I learned how to self-analyze my practicing habits. I was always encouraged to ask myself why I was practicing what I was practicing. I was led to ask, 'Am I practicing this because I can already play it and it sounds good to me, or am I practicing this because it's challenging to me right now and I want it to sound good later?'"
Sunday afternoons at Wally's aren't just open jams, they're also music clinics where musicians can learn and grow. In addition to exploring personal artistic limits, musicians experiment with different approaches to keeping the music fresh.
"We'll play a standard in its non-original key or we'll change the time signature of the tune," Palmer explains. "Sometimes, we'll play a tune that's meant to be played fast, then really slow, or vice-versa. We'll play a tune in one key and have the soloist play those change through all 12 keys. Sometimes we'll start a tune, that tune will morph into another tune, and we'll end on the new tune. So it's always interesting to me."
When describing Wally's, Palmer said, "It represents a place where musicians can come and hone their craft to the point where they can push themselves. I find complete freedom here, and I hope the other musicians feel the same way."
Palmer encourages young musicians, especially students, to attend the open jams. "When I was a student at NEC, I went to the session every week, and there were tons of players there playing and sharing. And now, many of those players have gone on to have very successful careers: Kendrick Scott, Warren Wolf, Jaleel Shaw, Lionel Loueke, Francisco Mela, Leo Genovese, Jeremy Pelt, and Walter Smith III to name just a few."
The names might change, but the open jam tradition is a constant. In the years prior to Palmer's arrival, students who could be found playing at Wally's include: Roy Hargrove, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Branford Marsalis, and Danilo Perez, who is now a faculty member at the New England Conservatory, which has been offering jazz studies for 40 years. To celebrate its 40th Anniverseary, NEC has arranged a week-long series of events. Among the live performances are: Hankus Netsky, the Michael Winograd Trio, the Dominique Eade Trio, the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet, the NEC Jazz Orchestra, and the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Additionally, NEC is hosting panel discussions focusing on jazz. For more information, see NEC's official web site
It's only fitting that this open jam would inaugurate NEC's celebration. Wally's, much like the Conservatory itself, is a place where students gather to learn and develop. Here at Wally's, it's just another Sunday.
Timothy J. O'Keefe