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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is there a jam session etiquette?

It is a relatively rare thing for me to go to a jam session. I don't have anything against them. I recently played with some really great students in Montreal at a jam session and we all had a great time. I love the hang both musically and personally with musicians especially students who I only see around McGill. I guess it's just hard to get out of the house with a 2 year old at home or some lame excuse like that. The truth is I was really grateful to get the chance this summer to get out to see some of the jamming both here in Montreal and in Ottawa during the jazz festivals. A couple of summers ago I played with Julian Lange, a young guitarist from the states. I also got to play with Bill Evans who was touring with his Bluegrass band and I still remember the amazing experience I had sitting in with both Bill and his band. They weren't primarily jazz players but jamming on tunes was still an effortless and truly enjoyable experience.

"Yo mang, I got some
chit to play ya"
At their best jam sessions are really about unwinding and letting it all hang out. Like shooting the breeze with people at a party it doesn't seem to matter who knows each other if the attitude of openness and positivity is there. Sometimes nothing spectacular is discussed but then sometimes (often unexpectedly) we encounter someone we realize we can really share ourselves with. I remember recently at a dinner party I ended up chatting with the elderly mother of a mutual friend. I had never met her before but I remember being entirely engaged and enchanted with this person to the point where I couldn't remember having ever laughed that hard in my life. The age difference between us was so great that if I had the opportunity at the beginning of the evening of choosing who I was going to hang with I never would have picked this person. And yet there we were cracking each other up with our conversation and patting each other on the back like drinking buddies. It must have been quite a sight.

I really relate my own understanding of what jam session are about to this experience. I have been in situations on stage with musicians from all kinds of different ages and musical backgrounds and have had really heavy musical experiences. Sometimes I've been jamming with players and nothing really gets off the ground but we still hang and have a good time. I just can't understand musicians who give up the opportunity to take that chance and hang with people they may have just met and instead play what amounts to be a showcase with their own band. It would be like showing up at a party with my posse and refusing to converse with anyone else but the people I came in with.  I was pretty taken aback by how many touring musicians I saw doing this at the jam sessions in Ottawa and Montreal this year. The worst example was watching a certain well-known young pianist (records on Blue note etc) sit in on drums and literally run the poor band down with his playing. I guess he wanted to practice his "shit" or something. But when it came time to play his primary instrument he brought up his trio to accompany him. For sure they sounded great. They brought the house down. The people there were getting another taste of his concert and for free. But I couldn't help but think to myself "ok but what do you sound like with other guys?" My guess is that from experience he knew his bag wouldn't hang well with other players. And what does that say about a jazz musician, I wonder, if they don't like taking chances with other musicians?

So back to my question : "Is there an etiquette at a jam session?" Are you there to hang with musicians who, for better or worse like the mortal human beings we all are, might not allow you to get off the way you know you can with your band? Or are you there to give up your own agenda and be curious about what what life could offer you when you're willing to take a chance and really let it hang out?  For me these choices say a lot about what I find interesting in the people that I want to hang with and I'm really perplexed when I see musicians generally credited with playing daring and innovative jazz but are unwilling to take part in one of jazz's most enduring and edifying experiences. Life's a funny thing because you never really know who you're going to connect with. And when it happens, for me, that's what gives life and music its magic.