Early in the evolution of jazz music, jam sessions became the opportunity for players to develop musical ideas, learn repertoire and phrasing, performance conventions, and learn from their peers. Probably the most famous jazz jam session was held on Monday nights at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, NY, starting in 1941. Swing Era soloists such as jazz saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge joined the house band, which included Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others. The concept of "Jamming" allowed the players to experiment with new musical concepts and improvisatory ideas and the Minton's sessions became the incubator for the language and conventions of Bebop.
Jam Sessions can also be cutting contests and participation can be highly competitive and selective. Even the Minton's musicians reported performing compositions in unfamiliar key centers at increased tempi to keep novice players off the bandstand. Overall though, the main benefit of jazz jam sessions is the real time performance context and the oral transmission of the jazz language. Participants are expected to follow some ground rules, i.e. knowing the basic repertoire, supporting every band member's improvisations, structuring the length of their improvisations similar to their band members, etc.
Most jazz musicians will gladly share some of their memorable jam session experiences, such as meeting some of their heroes and future mentors, or realizing some glaring deficiency in their playing and repertoire and as a result going back to the practice room and reaching new heights. When I first arrived in the United States in 1988 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I was most eager to learn anything I could about this fascinating art form that had transformed my life and brought me via a one-way ticket and one suitcase to this new country and culture. Every Sunday night there was a jam session at Club 98 in Birmingham, Alabama. Club 98 was a place mostly frequented by the African-American population of Birmingham and in an area not usually considered safe. Coming fresh from Germany, I was completely color blind though and didn't know anything about safety conventions, all that counted was the most inviting atmosphere of the musicians in the club and their willingness to sit down at the piano with me and show me all their favorite voicings and introducing me to all their favorite repertoire. Some of the musicians there were also members of Sun Ra's band, another Birmingham native, and rather experimental. I must say that those Sunday nights at Club 98 were some of the best education that I received during my ten years of Graduate Music School.
Inspired by my memorable experiences, I recently helped initiate a jazz jam session series at Bloomington's new jazz club Jazz at the Station. It is on Thursday evenings from 8-11pm, sponsored by our jazz society Jazz from Bloomington, the Bloomington Area Arts Council and supported by a grant from Chase Bank. One of the finest IU Jazz Masters students Marlin McKay leads the house rhythm section and everyone is invited to come and participate. The series started this Fall 2008, and very soon a core group of participants seemed to develop. The group consists mostly of current IU students, some professionals from the community, and less than a handful amazing pre-college talent. As I was watching the dynamics and some of the amazing musical and pedagogical moments during the series, I was wondering why not more aspiring players, especially younger ones, would take advantage of this opportunity. Of course busy schedules, transportation issues, and probably some intimidation factors are involved, but maybe the new generation of jazz players is not aware of the values and opportunities of this setting and their learning experience has changed. It really sparked my curiousity and I want to find out more about the place of the jazz jam session in current jazz pedagogy. As a result, I have initiated a study involving surveys of jazz musicians and students on their perception and experiences with jam sessions. Any of you jazz musicians and students out there, please take five minutes and follow the following link to complete the survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=kqM8aQHIZ8xjFNWgiXAtsg_3d_3d
Your participation and help to shed lights on the issue is much appreciated, please spread the word to any other possible participants. Probably by this summer, I'll share some of my results and findings and further directions in this research endeavor. Also, if you know of any jam sessions please let me know. I'd like to visit and survey some of the participants and observe other settings. For a taste of the Bloomington jam session, check out this wonderful video that the father of my 12-year old piano student Evan Main shot, when he played Afternoon in Paris with the college kids in his soccer outfit:
or type in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0ebovmzltg