WHY PLAY JAM SESSIONS?
It’s the 21st century and things have changed a great deal in the music business since I started my career. One thing that hasn’t seemed to change that much is the jam session – a place where musicians can congregate to try new tunes, new ideas, or just hone their skills in a spur of the moment environment.
So why do them? You don’t get paid, you often don’t know who is sitting in with you and you might have to play tunes you don’t know as well as others in order to arrive a consensus within the group as to what everyone reasonably knows. It might even be a tune you haven’t played in a long time.
In fact, those are some of the most compelling reasons you SHOULD play jam sessions. In a professional music work environment you are often called upon to do something you weren’t prepared to do when you walked into the gig and you’ll have to fly by the seat of your pants. If you’ve been regularly playing sessions, you have the skills to navigate the often turbulent waters of professional music. That alone should be reason enough to do them.
But there are still more reasons.
A.) You can meet new peers. At an active jam session, you can meet and interface with other musicians of a like mind. That’s networking and it is something you must embrace if your striving to be a professional free lancer.
B.) You can interact with musicians who are more experienced than you are. You should seek that out. Jam sessions are learning experiences and there is no better source of ideas than musicians who know more than you do.
C.) You can interact with musicians who are younger, but talented and thinking outside of the box. YES, even experienced musician needs to keep learning and it important to recognize that you can learn from those who are younger and less experienced.
D.) The networking aspect can result in actual work. As your skills develop in these sessions, your newly discovered peers will be aware of it and work can spread about your playing that can generate gigs.
Now there are some things that you need to alert to. Some jam sessions can quickly devolve into “cutting” sessions – a lot of grandstanding and showing off with the intention of “impressing” as opposed to “expressing.” Don’t worry, you can spot it when you find yourself in one of those. You may choose to skip that session, if it proves to be a central theme of the session. It could just be a momentary thing as a result of someone with a chip on their shoulder walking in, but, you should stay alert. More importantly, try not to rise to the bait and join in on the grandstanding thing. You are much more likely to “get in front of your skis” and mess up and you are not likely to learn as much. You may also end up leaving frustrated.
Next be alert as to what sort of session you are walking in on. I recently went to a couple of sessions with a very loud band that just played grooves and vamps with very few changes. No standards were played. While it was fun, I had to figure out what the general theme of the evening was. Then there are standards – tunes sessions. Those are more common, but there are differences there. If the musicians sitting in are a little older be prepared to play lots of standards that are not necessarily what you are taught in college. If there are a lot of younger musicians, the college jazz instruction list is good. In the long run, you’ll need to learn them all. That is a big job, but it keeps it interesting. I once cataloged all the tunes I knew and I came up with about 150 or so, not including old R&B/R&R horn lines, and I can get stumped at jam sessions. Just the other day, I played a four hour gig, all dinner and background (long story…) and didn’t use any charts (it was a jazz quartet). Of course it helped that I was the designated leader and called the tunes.
Lastly, I would personally want to find a session or sessions that are generally accepting and patient. Folks going into to sit in mostly are there to explore new territory and will often slip up on a tune or chord changes. Remember, you’re not being paid, so folks don’t really have a “right” to judge you. As long as you are humble and self aware, the other musicians ought to be ok. If they aren’t you might want to rethink that session.
Now, I personally have a renewed interest in jam sessions. If you have been following my blogs, you’ll know that three years ago I suffered a significant setback to my work and it has taken three to battle my way back. Much of my the struggle was public as I had to get back in the saddle. Most of the musicians I work with were in my corner, but not all.
So when I started going back to sessions, I was very careful to pick ones that would be kind to inevitable cracked notes and fumbled technique. However, the effort paid off. All of my technique started to come back quickly. It also paid off professionally. A year ago I had very few gigs, typically 2 a month. This year I have five this week alone, much of it resulting from my showing up at these jam sessions.
Should you go to jam sessions? ABSOLUTELY! Just stay humble and keep your wits about you. Watch and listen – not just to the music, but also to the environment.