Another Night In the Big City

Another Night In the Big City

The most valuable performance tradition in American music—more important than subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater, rock concerts, and the opera—is the jam session, where musicians of any age, stature, and stylistic bent will agree to improvise at least one song together with the intent of making the best music possible. The audiences at jam sessions are mostly musicians, aspiring musicians, or music aficionados, so the pressure to please a non-music savvy clientele is minimized, while the pressure to play well enough to attract musicians who want to play is maximized. I should mention that I’m talking about public jam sessions—where a musician can walk in off the street, put their name on a list, take care of the required cover or minimum charges levied by the hosting establishment, and, when called to play, play for as long as they’re permitted—and not the private sessions usually held in a pianist’s home or at a rehearsal studio, where a clique of musicians might audition new members, practice improvising on new and familiar material, or just try out new ideas. The latter is valuable for building relationships and for working out strategies for the artistic infiltration of the Culture Machine, while the former has a much more subtle role in the shaping of what we call music in America.

These sessions originated in American ghettos, especially early-to-mid 20th Century Harlem, as places where professional jazz musicians could play together without the stylistic restraints imposed on them by their work in “mainstream” American musical establishments (i.e., dance halls). It’s important to remember that jazz music of the ’30s and ’40s was different than what is called jazz music today and that socioeconomic restrictions based on skin color and national identity were more panoramic as well. It was the restrictions on place that made the public jam session an important part of the American musical landscape. In these sessions, musicians could play for as long as the audience would allow and, more than occasionally, they would turn into “cutting contests” where a few players would go toe-to-toe in an attempt to outdo each other. It is in these sessions that America’s National Treasure, jazz, developed stylistically as well as having the bar of technique raised to new standards. This was the inspiration for director Gjon Mili’s film, Jammin’ the Blues, the Oscar-nominated short released May 5, 1944. On July 2 of the same year, the film’s technical director, Norman Granz (who was also dating the film’s female lead, Marie Bryant) presented the first of his famous Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts. Granz (who also founded Pablo Records), kept the series touring in the United States and Canada until 1957 and in Europe and Japan until 1983. The JATP concerts were basically all-star jam sessions, with little or no rehearsal of material and a wildly varying artistic success rate. In a single tune one could hear Roy Eldridge, Flip Philips, Illinois Jaquet, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis and Jo Jones extemporize on a blues.

This week I have the honor of taking pianist and scholar Monika Herzig on a short tour of some of the jam sessions I (in)frequent. (To use Bob Russell’s explanation, “I don’t get around much anymore.”) Dr. Herzig is a professor at Indiana University; after earning her doctorate in jazz education there in 1997, she has been engaged in producing and organizing jazz-related concerts and educational programs. She is currently working on a project with her mentor, Dr. David Baker, about the jam session, its history, its protocols, its influence, and (I assume) its future. One of the topics that their project will be surveying is the repertoire of the jam session; what tunes are used to improvise on. Although I’ve been playing at sessions as either a house player or an attendee since 1970, I had never really given this subject much thought until Dr. Herzig brought it to my attention. She was explaining how Survey Monkey works. The names of the tunes can be correlated to demographic markers such as socioeconomic status, sex, region or age. I realized that when I was starting out, my friends who attended those sessions and I never “called” tunes; I never called a tune at a private jam session until I moved to New York in 1977 and at a public one until 1989. I imagine that is explained by protocol issues that involve age, familiarity of persons, and type of instrument. (Since I play the bass, and am rarely expected to play melodies, the main concern would be whether or not I knew the tune being called.)

At the time of this writing (Thursday), we went to the jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle, a restaurant and bar that has been presenting jazz seven nights a week since at least 1989. We might go to the sessions at Smoke, Small’s and/or Somethin’ jazz clubs, or not. (We are, after all, improvisers.) I’m pretty sure I’ll be interviewed at some point, since I was a house bassist for three relatively high-profile jam sessions in New York during the early 1980s: Barbara’s, led by Jimmy Lovelace and Monty Waters; Joyce’s House of Unity, led by Mark Elf; and The Lady’s Fort, led by George Braith. These sessions were attended by the likes of Leo Mitchell, Junior Cook, Mike Gerber, John Hicks, Tom Rainey, Steve Coleman, Rashid Ali, Herman Foster, Ricky Ford, Fred Hersch, and Jack Walrath. The playing that occurred at these and other venues helped to shape the way jazz has been played ever since. The influence was subtle. We played with and listened to each other work on presenting what we thought were our best efforts. Sometimes a single tune would last over an hour because everyone was inspired by what was going on. Sometimes one soloist would chase everyone else away after five minutes.

Needless to say, this will have to be continued next week.

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3 thoughts on “Another Night In the Big City

  1. Mark N. Grant

    Certainly it’s an important performance tradition, Ratzo. But why “more important than subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater, rock concerts, and the opera” ?? Is that just meant as an eye-catching phrase?

    1. Colin Holter

      My two cents: I don’t think it would be possible to prove that the jam session is more important (in what sense, by the way?) than “subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater, rock concerts, and the opera.” On the other hand – and I imagine that an enterprising musicologist in the area of performance studies could throw together some numbers to buttress this – I imagine that more jam sessions have taken place and continue to take place every year than orchestra concerts, rock concerts, etc.

      Ratzo makes mention of “the audiences at jam sessions,” but of course the presence of an audience isn’t a necessary condition for a jam session (unlike a “concert”) to occur. This convenience alone probably shoots jam sessions to the top of the frequency chart when it comes to performative instance-events in musical practice.

  2. Dawn


    You said you never called a tune at a public jam session for several years? Does that mean that when you sign the list, you don’t get to choose the tune you want to play? My hubby and I will be visiting NYC in the fall and I’m hoping to get a chance to play at a low-pressure open jam session where everyone isn’t expected to be a superstar pro jazzer. I’m still learning so am limited to the tunes I’ve been working on and can’t just get up and jam on some tune I don’t really know.

    Here where I live, when you join a jam session, you get to choose your own tune. Typically, I’ll play the head and the first chorus of whichever tune (usually a ballad done as a bossa ’cause I’m a classical flutist who doesn’t quite have her swing yet). I usually bring the lead sheet for the house band as I tend to pick less common tunes that aren’t played all the time though I do improvise and play from memory. Is that even possible at a NYC open mic and still choose one’s own tune? Just seems like a shame not to try to play at least one tune somewhere while visiting NYC. (We’ll only be there for a week so hope that’s enough time to find a friendly jam session that’s open to someone who is learning and wouldn’t consider herself to be a pro jazzer (though wants to be some day)! :)


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