How To Jam Session

After being in the house bass player at a neighborhood jam session for 4 years, I made a list of the things that help make a jam session be a success.

EVERYONE

  • We’re all here to make beautiful music together. You should be able to do that with an advanced pyrotechnician or a first-timer. Everyone is responsible for making the music sound great.

  • Play at a volume appropriate to the venue. If you’re in a cafe, that might mean brushes and no amps.

  • Keep your instrument silent between songs.

  • Keep your instrument silent between sets. Never play once the house music is on.

  • Listen to music away from the gigs! Know the names of the songs and their forms.

SINGERS

  • I’ve played with a lot of great vocalists who didn’t know exactly how jazz worked, so this may be review for a lot of you. Jazz jam sessions/casuals work like this: It’s best if you pick a song from the books the band carries around. This is the canon of music that local musicians know and you’ll get the best results if you choose from it. Solos aren’t a free-for-all — the song keeps the same structure throughout. You sing the beginning, and then instruments take turns soloing over the exact same “form” you just sang over. It’s like the rhythm section keeps playing a karaoke version of what you just sang, and the soloists improvise over it. At the end it will be your turn again. Soloists will be let down if you start singing again and it’s not your turn. Stand off to the side and follow the form (the easiest way to do that is to keep singing the song over and over in your head ). Hopefully someone will nod or cue you when its your turn to close the song out. Very often, this will happen in the middle of the form — on the “bridge”, So look for that.

  • If you want to do an awesome scat solo, you want the head to come back in on the bridge, or anything special like that, talk about it with the band ahead of time.

  • Have the lyrics memorized.

  • Know what key is good for you for that song. Ideally you pick a song where your key matches up with the key in the band’s book/brain. If you have to ask for a different key, bring chord charts if you can.

HORN

  • Stay focussed while you’re not playing. Follow the form in your head. Keep track of who has soloed and who hasn’t. Know when the head is coming back around.

  • Don’t rush it. Careful that you don’t drop a beat/measure in quiet passages/turnarounds. Those parts are important to the song form and tension/resolution.

  • Similar to the advice for the rhythm section, if you think people are getting lost, keep it simple and start laying down melody quotes.

BAND LEADER

  • Call the tune. Say the name of the song, count it in, and discuss how to start, and any tricky bits (preferably between sets and not on the bandstand), especially if this isn’t your regular band.

  • Know the song you’re going to play next.

RHYTHM SECTION

  • Most of the time you’re playing, you’re not the most important member of the band. Who is? The soloist. Your job is to make them sound their best. If they’re a newbie, stick to the vanilla chords and rhythms. Bust out your switch to 3/4 time over a Coltrane matrix on someone who’s ready for it.

  • Be in control of your dynamics. Bring it down for quiet soloists, like a flute or a bass. The soloist should have plenty of room so they’re not completely focussed on producing volume. A great way take control of the dynamics is to bring the entire rhythm section down at the beginning of every new instrument/soloist for a whole A*section or even a whole chorus, and then build up to the right volume.

  • Chord instruments: If the guitar, piano, vibraphone all decide to handle playing the chords, it’s going to get muddy. Ideally, you work this out ahead of time. Changing who holds down the chords every few choruses can make for easy, cool dynamics. If you haven’t worked it out ahead of time, defer to the piano, with the guitar just playing accents, turnarounds, etc. Less is more.

  • Be careful of your volume/dynamics at all tempos. Fast doesn’t always mean loud.

  • If you get lost… There’s probably someone in the rhythm section who’s sort of the section leader. Look to them. If you have to, ask them to call out “Top!” when the top comes around, or otherwise show you where they are. Otherwise, strolling/laying out sounds better than playing the wrong chords.

  • If the soloist gets lost… Switch to the most vanilla version of the song you can play. Quote the melody. Lead the spaceship back into dock.

  • Keep the tempo as it was called. Otherwise, speeding up is generally preferred to dragging.

DRUMMER/PERCUSSION

  • A lot of the drummers I’ve played with are recent converts from some other American style of music (rock, R&B, etc). The big difference with jazz is that just about every other style has a snare hit on the backbeat. If you do this in jazz, it makes the song swing less. For some reason, the snare on the backbeat tends to creep into ballads. Try to keep the ballads swinging – if you play the backbeat too many times it ends up sounding like a rock power ballad.

  • The drums are lower in the mix in jazz than in other American styles. Make sure you’re leaving enough room. You should be able to hear the bass clearly, because you need to lock in with the bass player.

  • If you’re having trouble keeping up with a super-fast song like “Cherokee” or “Anthropology”, don’t try. Either lay out, or switch to playing accents in appropriate places. Everyone in the rhythm section has a tendency to play harder when they’re trying to keep a tempo past their abilities. This means not only will you be dragging down the tempo, you’ll also be playing over everyone else. Similarly, the secret to nailing those super-fast tunes is to learn to play extremely lightly. Less is more.

  • People would rather you trade fours than solo. Trading fours is awesome. Ask about it before the set/before the song.

  • Drummers need to learn songs too! Know the names of the songs and their forms.

PIANO

  • You are likely to be the best jazz theorist in the rhythm section, the best reader, and the most likely to speak jazz natively. If that’s the case, you can do a lot to keep everyone from losing the form (see the RHYTHM SECTION parts about people getting lost).

  • Careful with your left hand. If there’s a bass player, let them handle the bass notes.

BASS

  • Take it from a bass player, bass solos aren’t the most popular thing in jazz. Keep it to one chorus most of the time.

  • Know lots of songs. Memorize them! I find that I can swing, or sight-read, but not both.

  • If you use an amp, you may benefit from pointing it at the drummer, especially in smaller places with no monitors.

  • If you use an amp, you may cut through the mix better if you cut the bass and boost the mids. Don’t lose the thump, though.

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