Some Thoughts from the Piano Chair of a Jam Session

Jam sessions are a fantastic tradition, and I don’t think I know any decent jazz player that hasn’t frequented them, or even run one. These sessions fulfil so many different functions and needs.

"No you can't sing bloody Summertime..."

“No you can’t sing bloody Summertime…”

They are social events. If you’re new to town, jams are where you go to check out the scene and make contacts. A lot of musicians recruit at jams. Like all social scenes, they can be cliquey, friendly and all points between. But jazz is a fairly minority interest these days, and jam sessions are where you’ll meet like-minded people.

They are educational. Experienced musicians are often generous with advice and encouragement to anyone of any level, as long as they have the right attitude.

I’m going to try to be as constructive as I am mean…

Right, where to begin?

DOS AND DON’TS AT JAM SESSIONS

Many sessions begin with a house set. Have the courtesy to catch at least some of it, unless you know the guys well. Jams are usually cheap gigs, and one of the compensations for the house band is that they get a regular play together. This sets a standard of playing and a mood, both of which you’d do well to absorb before deciding whether it’s appropriate to barge on stage ready to do your stuff.

Even if you’re a real hotshot, it can be great manners on your first visit to listen, suss out the feel and the standard, meet the gang, spend a few quid but not play. Believe me, you get a great deal of respect that way, and you’ll definitely be asked up next time.

Venues generally regard jam sessions as an opportunity to get loads of performers for free and try to gee up an otherwise slow night of the week. They are hoping that the vibe will attract listening punters, who will usually spend more at the bar than musicians tend to.

Remember that a jam session is still a gig and you should treat it as such, rather than a bit of a laugh. Perform. And buy a drink or two – most jams live or die when they count the till.

The house band has to maintain a level or they’ll soon lose the gig. Insecure bands can be cliquey arseholes, but mostly the house crew will be encouraging and supportive as long as you are considerate. In fact, jams tend to be long nights (compared to gigs), so the house band is usually grateful for breaks when you sit in.

Respect the territory and be appropriate. If you want to wig out on some hard rock, don’t do it at a jazz jam. Would you go to an Irish ceilidh and call Giant Steps? Halleluia is banned at my session…

Have two or three tunes in mind before you get up. There are few things more irritating to a house band than someone who gets called up then asks: “What do you want to play, guys?” The response can be quite terse: “Well if you don’t know, why the fuck did you get up?” It’s not a courtesy to the band to ask – they can play anything!

On a related point, it’s fine to have a little chat when you get on stage to decide key, tempo, feel, solo order, etc. A bit of banter is fine too. Just don’t turn it into a protracted philosophical debate or, worse, a rehearsal… Get ready then get up.

A typical pianist's reaction to the question: "Hey, do you guys know Canteloupe Island?"

A typical pianist’s reaction to the question: “Hey, do you guys know Canteloupe Island?”

NO MORE BLUES, I’M GOING HOME…

Some tunes are a bit “no go” for even the friendliest sessions. You may be totally besotted with Canteloupe Island, but the band will probably not share your obsession (set an alarm and tell me whether you feel the same in five years’ time). And if you call Summertime on a jam, expect the band to go weird on you. They might well play it, but they’ll go weird on you.

Some sessions even have an (official or unofficial) list of banned tunes. Someone might tell you a kind lie and say: “Sorry, did that one earlier, pick another.” Not that you should go out of your way to pick obscure tunes, but some things really are just played to death.

Be extra supportive of singers. Follow them, especially when they go wrong. While we’re on the subject, form often goes wonky on jams. Listen carefully and you’ll find someone, usually from the house band, playing in a way designed to give everyone else something to coalesce around. If there’s a total breakdown of form and no chance of rescuing it, someone will call a drum solo and wait for everyone’s attention to call the head back in. Watch for your cue.

Okay, people come to jams for the opportunity to play out on tunes they like and are working on at the time. No problem, as long as you are actually working on the tunes. Don’t turn up week after week choosing the same tune and playing the same old toss over it – they may indulge you a couple of times, but thereafter you won’t get asked up.

Unless you’re in Real Book country, bring charts – the band may not need them, but bring them anyway. The band will know a hell of a lot of standards, and will usually apply their collective experience to accommodate you on the less obvious stuff. But don’t expect them to know your favourite tune, just because you think it’s a classic.

MOST SESSIONS HAVE A BASIC UNSTATED PRINCIPLE –
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, DON’T BLOW

Horn players in particular are often primarily “ear players”, and I’ve no problem with that. But don’t get up and try to blag Stablemates if you don’t know the changes. Some sessions try to beat the blaggers by not allowing charts onstage. In my experience that can sometimes get the opposite result…

And anyone who uses the phrase: “let’s just freestyle it” is automatically regarded by jazz musicians as a hippie idiot.

On the level of playing. There is nothing better for your playing than getting up with musicians who are, let’s be honest, better than you. But it’s a matter of degree. If you can only just about stagger through a blues and the band are ripping up Coltrane changes at 280bpm while checking their email with their feet, you might need to look for a different session.

Or start your own. Never a bad idea to start your own – and once you’ve experienced what it’s like to organise a session, your jam etiquette will become immaculate.

Running a jam takes a lot of work – it may look effortless, but there’s a lot of work going on under that jazzy cool exterior. While all you’re worried about is doing your thing, the guys who are running the session are knocking themselves out trying to keep everything running smoothly and acting like a branch of the UN, taking care of all comers in all keys and keeping the venue sweet.

So don’t get pissed off when you don’t get to play your two tunes with the drummer you brought along. The organisers are busy trying to structure a concert on the fly.

I’VE GOT A LITTLE LIST…

Most sessions operate a list (I’ve done it without, but that was rare). The guys running the night try to be sensitive to “first come, first served”, but if three on the trot want to play bossas or sing, they’ll rejig the order to vary the music – remember, it’s a gig.

The organisers also have to accommodate a bunch of rhythm players of differing abilities and tastes, and that involves quite a bit of manouevring too. There’ll also be regulars, who often get preferential treatment – and should. They’ve been supporting the session for some time.

Be flexible. You may be all fired up to do some rip-snorting fast modal shit and then you get called up to do tasteful obbligato behind a singer on a soupy ballad. Even more galling, someone else then gets up and plays like a total wanker on the vibe you wanted. It happens. Always be musical. Perform.

Rick Neilson famous beast - all five necks go up to 11, for a total of 55...

Rick Neilson’s famous beast – all five necks go up to 11, for a total volume of 55… And back problems.

Guitarists – if in doubt, turn down. Far better for you to be hard to hear than you to be all that can be heard.

I’m quite happy to regard guitar and piano as interchangeable in jazz, ie you don’t need both and swapping between the two can make for a refreshing change in texture. But when you do have guitar and piano together – only one comping at any one time, please. The other can add splashes of colour and fills, but be sensitive to who’s going to be the dominant chordal voice at any point and apply the principle “less is more”. I’m not down on guitarists at all, but both parties have to damn well listen to each other. That applies to pianists too.

Bassists – take your watch off when you’re borrowing someone else’s instrument. Some bassists prefer you to slide your belt buckle to the side too.

Drummers – keep time and pulse. Don’t fill every gap, particularly if you’re going to balls up the feel by doing it. Pianists and guitarists, the same. Listen. A rhythm player who is tasteful, supportive and keeps the groove going will get asked up more often than a self-obsessed genius soloist.

Everyone – no drinks on the piano, ever. If you’ve ever had to maintain a piano you’ll know why. And I don’t park my G&T on your trombone, do I? The pianist can be the only one who doesn’t bring their own instrument to the gig, but when they do it’s an electronic keyboard – stick a drink on that and you’re likely to wind up in hospital!

Regarding acoustic pianos, and this is particularly aimed at guitarists with electronic tuners, pianos at venues are rarely at exact concert pitch… Everybody tune to the piano please.

SOLOS
Gladys was thoroughly enjoying the 27th chorus of All the Things You Are and couldn't wait for the drum fours

Gladys was thoroughly enjoying the 27th chorus of All the Things You Are and couldn’t wait for the drum solo

Coltrane may have pushed the boundaries out to 20 mins and beyond, but even he got boring. There’s a wonderfully democratic feel about solos on well-run jams. As a rule of thumb, take at most about the same time as the last guy did.

But if the last guy took eight choruses on a ballad or played a great solo, decline your slot – it’s the most musical thing to do in the circumstances.

In fact, ballads are often split mid-form with one soloist taking AA, the next BA or the singer coming back in on the bridge.

Not everyone has to solo on every tune. In fact, a bad jam involves the tiresome formula of everyone soloing for ever, then fours on every single tune. If a leader cuts you out of the solos, it’s not necessarily a slur on your ability, it’s about arranging the tune on the fly. Except when it’s a slur on your ability…

Cometh the tune, cometh the leader. By which I mean that someone will always be trying to gently shape the ad hoc arrangement. Sometimes even from off the stage. Usually the person who called the tune will be given the privilege of directing things, but if leadership is lacking, a member of the house band will step in and take charge. Keep your eyes and ears open.

NEVER EVER PRACTISE WHEN SOMEONE ELSE IS PERFORMING

I just can’t stress this strongly enough. It’s downright bloody rude, and perhaps the only thing worse is joining in from offstage when you haven’t been invited. If you have to warm up or tune up, fine – go outside or to the back of the room and do it quietly. And while we’re on the subject, jams encourage a casual and friendly approach to the stage space, but getting invited up is still a privilege so don’t take the piss.

Would you seriously think of jumping up on stage and having a go on one of the cellos during the intermission on a classical concert? Of course you wouldn’t, you’re a considerate soul. Some idiots do this kind of thing on jazz gigs though, and they usually get chased away with sharp objects…

Unison front-line heads (or partially harmonised ones) are great on a jam. But nothing sounds worse than sloppy heads. If you don’t really know the tune well, why not get together outside to tighten it up between you, or sing it to each other at the bar, or just talk it through in advance? On one jam I used to do, there were often a couple of horn players working up a melody in the toilets (and no, that isn’t a euphemism). I approve.

In the same spirit, some tasteful ad hoc backings behind someone else’s solo can be great, but if you get flashed a look shut up. Best is to suggest/ask in advance.

Jam etiquette: so important...

Jam etiquette: so important…

JAM TODAY OR GIG TOMORROW

Don’t take over a jam session as an audition for a gig at the venue. Some managements encourage this, but it never works out well. And saying: “I’d like to bring my pianist up on this one” is okay, but if you demand a total band changeover it’s obvious you’re chasing a gig or behaving like a **** towards all the other musicians. Not cool.

Music is not gladiatorial combat. The fabled cutting contests of yesteryear were usually far more good-hearted than legend would have you believe. They didn’t go to outfuck each other, they went to appreciate and learn from each other. Go to a jam to contribute and enjoy, not to prove a point.

Having said that, getting up at a jam can be a great way to prove a point to yourself, and I’ve no problem with that. You should be nervous and excited about getting up in a new situation and a good band will be aware of that and support you. They’ve all been there.

Even nowadays, when people increasingly get their ensemble performance experience on courses, getting up to play with anybody, anywhere in the world, is an education. There’s still a place for the jam session and I hope there always will be. If you’ve got the right attitude you’ll enjoy it.

Play for the team: you don't get points (or fish) for making others sound bad...

Play for the team: you don’t get points (or fish) for making others sound bad…

One final thing. Careful with the chat! If a number is going to shit, anyone you may feel the need to opine to is already aware of it – doesn’t need saying. Jams are also important social occasions and great for networking.

The trumpeter onstage who is murdering ATUR might be there to recruit band members and your chances are blown if his sister has just overheard you saying he should stick to bricklaying. Anyway, we all have off-nights and are at different stages in development. Leave the quality control, cynicism and bitching to the house band. We’ve had a lot of practice!

Any thoughts or horror stories you’d care to contribute below?

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
2 comments on “Some Thoughts from the Piano Chair of a Jam Session
  1. Adam Cole says:

    Yes, yes yes. And Lord bless you and keep you for running a good session. I’ve been at plenty of bad ones.

  2. Stephen Tanner says:

    Jason i was there last night (18th) and enjoyed the jam session. Contrite and humble to confess that I only listened to the last one and a half numbers from the house band which I note (above) is disrespectful. i will atone for my sins next week, hopefully, by listening with rigour and vigour to enable you and the band to assault (and arouse) my senses for the full set. i hope you can forgive my trespasses in the knowledge that i will be working hard to improve my jam session etiquette.

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