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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: What is a jam session?

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What is a jam session?

With the popularity of jam sessions and open mic nights I thought I would try to explain what happens at these sort of events. If you are a budding musician then you will come across these at some stage and its best to have a bit of clue before you get there.

First up:

Open Mic Nights

I’m sorry, but I hate them. In my opinion, this is another way to exploit poor, naive musicians. Usually a venue decides that it wants to attract more punters, but instead of booking a decent band they will invite musicians to come and play for no fee and call it an open mic night. The tagline will be something like:

“Get exposure for your music at one of the best live venues in the area”

The advantage to the venue is massive but the only positive for the acts themselves is that you can play what you like. This does mean that 20 minute two chord guitar strumathons can happen or a morbid lament about how nobody likes me. You can witness some good stuff but it’s rare.

So, moving swiftly on:

Jam Sessions

Jam sessions can of course be a private affair but Im talking about public events where your ability to improvise is on display. The fiercest of these occasions can be likened to a gladiatorial battle where axes are lifted and musical sparring leads to ego damage or sometimes jaw-dropping mass slaughter! These sessions tend to take place in larger cities or in close location to a music school or conservatoire.  I heard a story once where a trombone player from the country went to New York for a short break. He took his trombone and on finding a cool club he sat patiently waiting for an opportunity to join in. At last an old standard was announced and as he had played it at the county fair that year he knew all the changes off by heart. With beaming optimism the guy leapt to the stage and played all over the tune. At the end, the sax player looked at him with contempt. He was annoyed that this musician had played so much during the song, so as penance he counted off the next tune at a blistering 300bpm and did not allow the trombone player to leave the stage. The trombone player didn’t know the song, nor hear the changes, nor was he able to move his slide at this insane speed. In the jazz scene this would be known as ‘getting roasted’. The sax player…..was Charlie Parker.

I can’t remember where I read this story so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, perhaps someone else out there has heard it too and can fill in any details? I’m not even sure what moral lies within it, but in my mind is a pretty cool story!

Jam sessions are usually organised by other musicians and when combined with an enthusiastic venue it can be a great opportunity to learn some great lessons. The best sessions are good quality but with an inclusive vibe. Its no good feeling so nervous to get up and join in that you end up sat in your chair all night. Also, nobody should end up hogging the stage as its a chance for people to join in rather than trying to steal the show.

There are a few jam sessions out there which have strict rules on who gets up and when but these ‘rules’ can vary massively. Some lists of tunes are emailed prior to the event and participants are expected to have learnt them. Some organisers decide who plays when and where but I prefer the looser sessions where you can join in as you please.

In my experience you normally have a house band which will provide the backline (the engine of the band). This normally comprises of piano and/or guitar, bass and drums but vocalists or horn players can feature. The house band provides a bit of stability and can accompany soloists until eventually one or all of the house band are replaced with jamming participants.

Once arriving at the jam session you usually have to fill in a form or make make yourself known to the organiser. This simply means telling them what you play, what tune you would like to play or if you are happy to just join in and wing it.

Music notation is not always used, but when playing standards, you may see realbooks and its acceptable to take your own copy onto the stage. This is frowned upon in the big league jam sessions but I don’t see why it’s a problem anywhere else.

Once you’ve decided to play on a tune and you are called up, then discuss with the rest of the musicians who is going to play the tune. Too many instruments playing the same line in unison sounds bad and is unnecessary. If you are playing the tune then try to do it justice but you can take a few artistic liberties if you wish. If you are not playing the tune then you can perhaps offer some gentle backing or just ‘lay out (jazz speak for ‘shut up’!)

Make sure you pay attention and listen. Let me say that again…LISTEN. It’s important.

Once the tune has been played then the form will repeat to offer players the chance to solo. The solos are not usually predetermined and its usually best to keep it spontaneous, however, do not get in a situation of polite procrastination about who goes next. If you want a solo…jump in! Solos are usually directed with body language or eye contact from the band leader so if someone looks at you with raised eyebrows it will probably indicate the following:

  • Play
  • Stop playing
  • I like what you just played
  • I didn’t like what you just played
  • I like your shoes

Knowing the subtle difference in these cues is all part of the fun. If you don’t pick up on a subtle cue then usually a more abrupt cue will be given, such as a nod of the head, a wave of the hand, a vocal direction or an elbow to the ribs.

Once you have finished your solo (assuming you are not a rhythm section player) then lay out (see definition above). Don’t play over someone else’s solo. There is nothing worse than a cacophony of noise made by too many people playing at the same time. There should be an informal hierarchy within the band and if the leader tells you to stop then stop. Don’t take it personally, its just that in order to keep the form going and the tune to be presentable to the audience of regular Joe’s and fellow musicians, split second decisions must be made.

If you are soloing then try to keep your solo to an acceptable length. This is usually once or twice round the form. So if the tune lasts 32 bars then play a 32 bar solo. If the tune (or ‘head’ in jazz) is just 12 bars then you may take 24 bars solo. Any longer than that and you have to be really good to get away with it!

The usual format for a jazz jam session is an introduction or sometimes ‘straight in’ with the tune. After the tune, solos are dished out and then its a return to the tune/head and an improvised ending usually led by the rhythm section.

Here are a few things that you can try if you’re feeling adventurous. Perhaps only try these if you’re familiar with how things work as there’s nothing wrong with the basic format I’ve just explained.

  1. Vamp – a repetitious sequence of chords that can be used as an introduction and/or ending.
  2. Trading 4′s – soloing for, most commonly, 4 bars and then handing it over to someone else before returning to you. The old ‘one-two’ if you like.
  3. Trading 2′s – sometimes used after a bout of trading 4′s. This is used to increase the intensity of the two way conversation
  4. Trading with the drummer – This works well in a 32 bar form as you can play 4 bars, let the drummer have 4, back to you for 4, drummer for 4, you, drummer, you and then finally the drummer which should total 32 bars. If it doesn’t, then it can screw things up, so only try this is you are sure you and the drummer can cope.
  5. Trading (follow the leader) – Ive just invented this name. I have no idea whats its called, but its a common jazz trick. The first soloist plays 4, the drummer plays 4, the second soloist plays 4, the drummer plays 4, the third soloist plays 4, the drummer….you get the idea. This works well with even numbers. Otherwise, you will need to do some lightening fast mental arithmetic to work out when the beginning of the form will come around again.
  6. False endings (or tabs) – this is a musical theatre trick. A piece sounds like its coming to a close, the last note is held then the groove starts up again and you play a short vamp or ‘outro’.
  7. Candenza – usually played on ballads. This is the Italian musical term that separates the wheat from the chaff. If you want an opportunity to really show off then just as the tune is wrapping up and sustaining its penultimate chord you can launch a full scale attack on the dominant chord. This is usually a virtuoso improvised extended phrase which will ultimately finish the song. The soloist will cue the last chord with a red face and obvious body language.

I realise that this summary of jazz sessions is brief and slightly tongue in cheek but I hope that it sheds a little light.

As a musician, I have found jam sessions to be incredibly useful. I played my first jam session when I was about 15. An older friend took me to a local jazz club and bought me one pint of Stella Artois. For a thin, gangly teenager, that was more than enough dutch courage to get me up on stage. I loved it. We played Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock and I wanted it to go on forever. It was a joyous experience. The guys were really nice and encouraged me before, during and after my solo. More recently I have found jam sessions useful for trying out ideas and collaborating with musicians. I’ve picked up a lot of contacts and even gigs so they are well worth checking out.

A final piece of advice: like most occasions, don’t let fear stop you from doing something rewarding. Get up, join in and experience the joy of flying by the seat of your pants whilst being surrounded by like minded musicians.


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4 Comments Add a Comment
  1. John Ward
    January 16, 2017

    Hi Jay – I’m not able to come to the jazz sessions this week, but I’ll try to come to the next one. Is there scope for singers to do a song – or does that make it too structured? I play the guitar and have jammed at blues clubs, but I don’t know much about jazz and might be a bit nervous…

    • Jay
      January 26, 2017

      Hi John

      Vocals are fine! Come along and give it a go

  2. Onno
    January 18, 2017

    In Germany even if you jam on something existing the bar must pay a decent amount for a license every month to the authorities. The small venues, where the jams are often more delicate, can’t afford this as little as they charge here for drinks. I for one am grateful for these “open mics”, this original stuff cannot be “charged” (it turns into a game a bit) and if the performer is flexible it can even turn into a little jam. Often it’s more about the likeminded people you can meet and the new opportunities it creates.

    • Jay
      January 26, 2017

      Hi Onno

      Sounds like a different situation in Germany. I’ve never gigged there. Thanks for the comment, good to get an idea of what happens elsewhere

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