Friday, July 10, 2009

Draw! The Art of the Jam, Part I

I remember taking a legal philosophy class where we dealt with the concept of a "meta-question." I figured it's about time that I tackle a "meta-topic" here-- the jazz jam session. I really believe that someone could write a dissertation on this topic, so at the very least this will take me a couple of posts...and it may not be entirely sequential so please be lenient :-)

The jam session is, in my opinion, the central nervous system of jazz. It exists in every town and in every country where people play jazz. It has existed for at least a century, and probably a lot longer. In fact, if one were to calculate the total number of notes played at every jam session in history, that number would be roughly 10 times the global economy! Ok, I made that last part up. Seriously though, these things are pretty prolific. Jazz is a social music, and whether you're new to the scene and want to establish yourself and learn who the players are and what they're about, or you're a grizzled vet and want to see old friends and scope out new talent, you'll head to a jam session.

But jam sessions are also complex animals, managing to be both an Esperanto version of "We Are the World" and an episode of Fight Club rolled into one. The jam session has other names as well, including the slightly-less-inviting "cutting session." And while I'm no etymologist, that seems like a pretty accurate description as the musicians literally cut away at each other on the bandstand until only the best players are left standing. I'm often intrigued by how the audience only hears/sees the music, unaware of the old (and often epic) ritual taking place before their eyes. I suppose it's perceptible through the energy of the music...

Obviously, jazz has many sides. Sometimes it's gentle, sometimes plaintive, melancholy or even a little goofy (though still really hip :-)). And sometimes it has an almost violent ferocity, which I believe is forged in jam sessions.

I'll finish this segment by describing my first experience at a real jam session. Growing up in the Boston suburbs I had a lot of exposure to jazz-- great teachers and school programs, easy access to Berklee and a steady stream of jazz greats who came to perform at Boston clubs. But it had been cushy. So in the 1993 I decided to give the "bigger" scene a shot, and I hit Wally's. Wally's is a Boston institution, a hole-in-the-wall located in the South End/Roxbury neighborhoods, and has been a proving ground for decades. Legend has it that drumming revolutionary Tony Williams played there regularly until he joined Miles Davis' trailblazing 1960's quintet...

In later years, the best players from Berklee and New England Conservatory would serve as the house band for the Sunday afternoon jam session. Branford Marsalis was there in the 1980s, followed by Antonio Hart, Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove. By the time I got there, the group consisted of Teodross Avery, Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers and Mark Simmons.

I had never played at that level before, and I received a thorough butt-kicking every time I set foot in the place. They would call obscure tunes, or would take traditional tunes and make them virtually unrecognizable by playing them at ridiculously fast tempos. Sometimes they would throw in a double-time feel (making the tune seem twice as fast) or introduce more complex metric modulations-- basically all of the things the top players were experimenting with and attempting to add to their vocabularies.

Sometimes you'd be forced to "battle" a far superior horn player, trading improvisational choruses in a way that felt like playing a musical version of the basketball game of HORSE-- match the shot or get off of the stage/court. And there were unwritten rules of conduct and competency that were enforced: if you played too long, the rhythm section would literally stop playing! My hands would sweat so much that my fingers would slide off the keys, and I could never sleep after a Wally's session from the excess adrenaline...

So if you've hung in this far I'll give you a breather :-) That's an opening take on the jazz jam session under the microscope. I'll be coming back to this often as New York has the greatest jam session scene in the world...and I'd love to hear your experiences either as a player or a listener, so please drop me a line or leave a comment!


  1. I did a quick google search and found someone who wrote his sociology dissertation last year on "non verbal cooperation in jazz jam sessions." I couldn't resist. ;-) I think the battle element you're describing is fascinating.