Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide

While I shudder at diluting our content here with nothing but post after post of “hey look at this” links, sometimes you read something you just have to share, so here:

Jazz Jam etiquette!



The first time I read this, I laughed so hard I cried. It’s as if the institution of the jazz jam is some long running epic drama that plays out on different stages with different people all over the world but always follows the same basic script, and it’s obvious the author has been to his fair share.

The open jam is a longstanding jazz tradition, and serves a unique and important purpose within the community. It allows seasoned players to stretch their chops against one another and the less experienced an opportunity to play in front of actual people and with better players- two of the most effective ways to improve. But it can also be very stifling.

Non-musicians are often flabbergasted to learn that jazz jams are carried out with little to no group preparation, and that horn players whom no one has even seen before can sit in with the regulars with no problem. But this all hinges on the assumption that the musicians share a common repertoire and harmonic vocabulary. What can seem so free and unfixed from the outside in is actually governed by a rigid set of conventions that don’t tend towards variance. The things that make these musical conversations possible can be the very things that keep them from expanding. Then again, if I may refute myself, any community of players reserves the prerogative to collectively explore new musical dialects together- but for the most part jams follow a very traditional mold.

The session is an enculturating tool, it is inherently conservative. It serves a wonderfully specific purpose and does it very well. Jazz improvisers who can navigate a jam should be proud that they exist in that tradition. It’s a great place to hear good music, to meet like minded people, and to test your skills against the community you find there. If you’ve never been to a jam, you definitely owe it to yourself to check one out. They can be a lot of fun, especially if you follow the advice in the above linked to guide.

And try the veal… tip your waitress.

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