I was at the monthly meeting of the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society this past Sunday at the request of jam session director Jim Harget. the session was led by cornetist Dick Williams of the Mission Gold Jazz band, and this occasioned a few thoughts on how to lead a jam session, and also a few notes for those who wish to play in said jam sessions.
Dick is an accomplished leader, and easily maintained control over the jammers. He counted off each tune clearly, and before counting off, set the scene for the musicians by specifying tempo and how each break (if a break was present) should be handled. In addition, h went over the method in which the tune would be ended. He also had no compunction about stopping the tune should things go awry. Once the tune was started, he ensured that each musician or group of musician knew when his solo was coming and maintained contact with each member of the jam set.
This was a well-managed jam session, and I highly recommend aspiring leaders to pay close attention to the way that Dick managed the session. The main flaw of any jam session is the sheer number of musicians who wish to participate, and if the leader does not keep a close eye on things, it is easy for such sessions to disintegrate into complete confusion. Dick avoided this problem, and the jammers mostly paid attention to Dick’s direction. This allowed the dancers to enjoy the music while giving the jammers opportunities to play.
For musicians who wish to join in a jam session, it is important to follow a few simple directions. Firstly, it is important to make yourself known to the leader, and to follow his or her directions as to when (and when not) to play. Once the session begins, it is important to play within your ability. If you are a beginner, or someone who is unfamiliar with the repertoire, then you should listen to a musician who does know the repertoire if one such is present. This is especially important if there are multiple players on your instrument. Recognize the most skilled and/or experienced player, and defer to him or to her within the section. On Sunday for example, in addition to myself, we were fortunate to have both Bill Carson from the Natural Gas Jazz Band and John Soulis who leads the afore-mentioned Mission Gold Jazz Band present, though they chose not to play for the session.
If the leader chooses to have multiple players on the same instrument play a solo, it is important that at least one take a melodic line while the other improvises. This is a classic method, best demonstrated by an occasion when the great trombonists Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey played together in a studio session. Dorsey played an absolutely straight melody line while Teagarden improvised around it. By splitting things this way, it will allow both players to showcase their skills, while not producing an situation where both try to improvise and it results in a musical mess!
If a musician is granted the opportunity to play a single solo, it is important to maintain the principles of musicality. Volume and tone are of particular importance. The volume should never be too lound- if you cannot hear the bass line, you are too loud! This is also true of ensemble playing- if you cannot hear the lead line, then you need to modulate your volume. Many beginners in traditional jazz think that it is necessary to have a brassy, obnoxious tone. This could not be further from the truth. Traditional jazz contains as many opportunities for playing beautifully as does any other form of music, and maintaining an attractive tone makes it more pleasurable for the audience and also for one’s fellow musicians.
As for the actual solo, there are many schools of thought, but for beginners, it is important to keep things as simple as possible- this method minimizes opportunities for getting lost and potentially turning a good solo into a bad one. Until you are familiar with the changes, it is a good idea to stick close to the melody. As a side note, if you are not able to identify the changes and do not feel comfortable in taking a solo, there is no shame in waving off an offered solo- simply give the leader an unobtrusive head shake when he points at you, letting him know you are passing this solo up. However, you cannot learn if you do not do, so I recommend taking solos in order to increase your skills- even a bad solo can be a useful learning experience!
in closing, jam session are a wonderful way for musicians to participate, but it is important to recognize that it is very important to be cognizant of your fellow players, and to work as a team. Don’t play too loud, listen to the leader and fit in with the other players, and a jam session is one of the best ways for an aspiring musician to increase his or her skills and to play with people who can help you increase your skills.
CORRECTION: I mistakenly wrote Bill Carson’s name as Ed. Thanks to Jim Harget for the correction.