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Vinny Raniolo on NYC Jam Sessions

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JGT asked Vinny Raniolo to share his insights into jam sessions around town.

He provided some of his personal experiences, as well as some jam session recommendations for visiting NYC musicians. Also, Vinny and Frank Vignola will be playing at the Iridium on Tuesday, June 18th celebrating Les Paul’s birthday (June 9th)!

Vinny, Frank Vignola and Gary Mazzaroppi

Guest Contributor Vinny Raniolo:

You’ve probably heard about or watched documentaries on the famous and epic Kansas City Jam sessions or how Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman played for the first time on a 45 minute jam of “Rose Room”.  These stories are so inspiring and draws us to the excitement of the “jam session”. Playing our instruments as much possible with as many different musicians as we can is great but these late nights and endless jam sessions can take over your life if you’re not careful. However, this is pretty much a rite of passage for the most dedicated jazz musicians. There’s a lot of mornings that have never existed for me and days becoming a cycle of afternoons and long nights. This may sound like a terrible idea for some but I’ve actually had many incredible experiences from my all-nighters that I’d like to share with you and give you some tips on how you can ruin your mornings too.

When I was a young and eager guitar player I walked into a local music shop in Long Island, New York inquiring about a job as a guitar teacher. After teaching there for a while, one of the owners invited me to a blues jam session. There I met many musicians of all different instruments, ages and backgrounds. It was a very friendly vibe with musicians of all levels who all had a chance to show their stuff and some were so incredible and inspiring that I gravitated towards them and wanted to learn more about their playing and how they developed their musicianship. I was actually a very shy person at first but I fell in love with this way of learning and it inspired me to become more sociable as I felt a sense of belonging with these musical night owls. 

This eventually led to me becoming a regular at this weekly jam session. I learned all the tunes that people liked to play and used them as vehicles for my practice and showcasing the skills I had. Soon I was asked to join bands and teach private lessons to others at the jam session and this late night hang was turning out to be a start of another facet of my musical career. I have such great memories of hearing music created right in front of me in a small club that inspired me to stay up all night playing and trying to steal as many licks as I could. 

I know this late night style of learning is impossible for most people who have day gigs but getting a taste of this every once in a while can be very beneficial.

If you find yourself sitting in your bedroom practicing all the time with not many gigs available to you then this is your opportunity to go and see how your new ideas work in a real-world context. I would also write down the tunes I didn’t know and make sure I knew them for the next time somebody called them. I was never at a loss for material to practice. After a while, you will really start to see your repertoire grow and since you are out there playing you’ll actually have a better chance of retaining all these new melodies and chord progressions because as with everything including music if you don’t use it, you could lose it.   

I’m so fortunate to be able to call New York my home and have Manhattan within my reach.

At jam sessions in big cities like this, you can meet musicians from all over the world who are maybe just passing through on a tour or that have moved to town to build a career so it is likely that many are there to network with other musicians. When I began going to a jam session in the East Village I would bring business cards to give to everyone I played with and talked about music with the hopes that we could collaborate somehow.  This would eventually lead to many calls for gigs around town and meeting even more musicians working in the scene. Before I knew it I was working every night and receiving many musical opportunities. 

Throughout the years jam sessions move around a bit but I’ve noticed that it is more about the community than the location.

If you are ever in New York City even visiting for only a week or a few days and have an instrument handy then here are some weekly jams I can recommend:

Sunday – The Ear Inn –  326 Spring St.

Jazz quartet performs from 8pm-11pm and is open to jammers towards the end. The level is very high so make sure you have a tune or two in mind and you are prepared. 

Monday – Mona’s – Ave B btw 13th and 14th st. 10pm – ????am

If you like strings then this is the hang for you. It’s actually a bluegrass jam full of guitars, mandolins, banjos and dobros but if you call a tune like “Sweet Georgia Brown” or something traditional like that then you’ll have everyone picking’ and grinnin’. 

Tuesday – Mona’s – Ave B btw 13th and 14th. 11pm – ????am

Traditional jazz jam so make sure you call a tune written before 1960. Anything by Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Walter Donaldson, Hoagy Carmichael, etc. is very much appreciated and you’ll earn yourself some friends and a few drinks. This is a late night hang for a lot of professional musicians who have already played a few hours worth of gigs so they’ll be all warmed up already. Make sure you bring your “A” game.

Wednesday – The Keep –  205 Cypress Ave. – 11pm – ????am

This is a rare gem with an eclectic theme and clientele so have an open mind. It’s a “Gypsy Jazz Jam” so it’s very much inspired by the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. A very friendly jam and most levels are welcome to jam as long as you know some basic jazz repertoire. 

I hope you can make it to some of these, take great experiences away with you and make new musical friends.

You just never know who may walk in with their horn. Going in with a good vibe and having your act together is important if you want to sit in but even if you’re not feeling like playing that night then find a spot and enjoy the community of musicians who live for the jam. 

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