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The Jam Session Survival Guide



If you’ve never been to a jam session before, it can be a nerve-wrecking experience.

These feelings can be compounded by Jazz lore (with stories of Philly Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker) and even self-doubt (believe me, I’ve been there). First and foremost, no one will throw a cymbal at you, so don’t worry about that.

However, there are guidelines and general Jam Session etiquette that you are expected to follow. This article seeks to give you the knowledge necessary to make your Jam Session experience go as smoothly as possible.

1 – Come Prepared

This might go without saying, but you’d be surprised: If you are going to a Jazz Jam Session, do NOT call anything other than Jazz Standards. Come to the jam session with 3-5 tunes prepared. This means being able to play the head, chord changes, and being able to solo over them. Pick tunes that people are most likely to know. A good house band is hard to stump when it comes to tunes. Sometimes, they might not all know a tune that you know, and that’s ok. This is why you have 3-5 tunes in mind. But don’t call something like “Senor Mouse” by Chick Corea. It’s a cool tune, but people aren’t likely to know it. Sometimes, the band will insist a tune is played and youdon’t know it. If this happens, use your ear, and try not to take out a Real Book. The house band might appreciate your effort, even if you don’t succeed.

2 – Check Your Ego at the Door

The jam session is the result of a group of musicians who are voluntarily letting you and others sit in and play on their gig.  It’s an environment that’s supposed to be a fun learning experience. Be humble and open to other musicians. This is a good networking opportunity, you don’t want to get a reputation of being anti-social or that you think you’re too good for everyone else. Respect other jammers for having the guts to be there in the first place. It’s not all about you.

3- Wait Until You Are Called Up to Play

Don’t come in and start setting up your gear. The house band will usually play a full set before the jammers come up. At the set break, introduce yourself to one of the members of the band, and ask them where they would like you to set up (If you’re a guitarist with an amp, etc.). They will tell you where to set up. The jam session may have a sign-up sheet dictating the order of jammers, or the host might call people up whenever they feel like. Either way, be tuned up and ready to play.

4 – Know Your Tempo

You should know the tempo of the tune you are counting off. You will be the one to count off the tune.

5 – If You Play the Head, Solo First

This one gets me sometimes. A horn player will play the head, then turn around and walk away without giving any signal to another player to take the solo, leaving the band to figure it out for themselves. Miles Davis would do this at times, but I’ll wager that if you’re reading this,you are not Miles Davis! If you call the tune and play the head, you usually will solo first.

6 – When You Are Done Soloing, Pass the Solo on to Someone Else

After you take your solo, pass it on to the next person. It will not be the bass player or drummer, unless you are the last person to solo,. Whoever is soloing, listen and work around them. Your job as a rhythm player is to try to make the soloist sound as good as possible (see #2). Also, if you’re a guitarist playing with a piano player, stay out of the piano player’s way.

7 – Don’t Vibe

Jam sessions are fun because you get to hear and play with all kinds of local Jazz musicians. Because it’s open to the public, you can get a wide variety of small group combinations. This can produce great results, but sometimes it doesn’t. For example, you may end up playing with a drummer that doesn’t play with a feel that you like. This happens, and it’s ok. Don’t make faces at him, or at all. Just listen and adapt. Don’t ask the drummer to change his style because you can’t groove with it. Listen and adapt. If it doesn’t work, than let it be. Besides, someone might not like your style either! But that’s part of the fun.

I see fewer and fewer young players coming to jam sessions, and I suspect it’s because of vibing culture. Nobody likes to feel like they are lesser than someone else. Remember what it was like when you were a beginner. We’ve all been there. Respect them too. Be encouraging to them, and if they need some pointers, offer them kindly. Even house musicians are known to vibe sometimes. Either ignore it, or don’t attend the jam session anymore. It’s a bad move for a house musician to shake their head while someone is soloing, or any other kind of vibing. People in the audience can see this, and it can change the whole atmosphere of the room. They need people coming in to keep their gig. It serves them no purpose to drive people away with negative attitudes. Let the music be what it’s supposed to be.

8 – Have a Good Time

If your experience at the jam session is not to your liking, go find a different one that you like more.

If you become a regular at a jam session, you will see a sense of community develop within that jam session among musicians and patrons, or you will see a community that is already established. This is a fantastic way to make new friends. It’s also a great way to figure out exactly what you need to work on in your daily practice routine. Have fun with it!

Get out there and play, and good luck!

Jonathan Ross


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