August 12, 2009

The New Cut of the Jam

I just returned from a week in Pittsburgh, mostly focused on working with an Aesthetic Education group. I also managed to get some jazz in. Because of that experience, I was mildly curious about the etymology of the word “jam,” and wondered if the Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz had anything to say about it. Indeed they had a brief listing for the word “jam,” and defined it as “to improvise, usually in a group, whence to take part in a Jam session.” Nothing new there, but I would have preferred that the Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz avoided the word “whence.” At any rate, we all know what jam means in a musical context. The part they left out is that jam is usually used in a context of informality. It often takes place with people sitting in, frequently with a band that is not rehearsed, a group of musicians who are just together for this one particular evening. It is not only a jazz word. There is now a genre of rock music attributed to “jam bands.”

I’ve participated in my share of jam sessions over the years, although I rarely seek them out. I acknowledge that I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to playing in a band. I like things to be somewhat arranged. It’s not that jam sessions have to be totally random. There are riffs and little figures that musicians can often come up with on the spot to make the music sound almost arranged. I recall one very memorable moment watching clarinetist Kenny Davern subtly organize the band on the spot using “footballs” [shaping his thumb and forefinger into whole notes to indicate a background riff].

While I was in Pittsburgh someone encouraged me to stop down at an Ethiopian restaurant called Tana on Wednesday night, where a local band is in residence for an open jam session. I took my soprano sax and went, and was immediately welcomed into a very friendly atmosphere. The saxophone player, Tony Campbell, saw me with my case, came up and introduced himself and asked me my name, and said “yeah, we’ll have you up in a while.”

Normally I like to sneak in and check out what is happening and then decide if I want to stay or not, but in this case I was committed. In these situations you can’t help but listen to the group, and size it up. How do you match up with these players? What kind of tunes are they doing? It was clear this band focused on what we would call contemporary jazz, if you still consider the 70’s and 80’s as contemporary.

The next step is to sit there and think okay, if that’s their thing, what do I know that fits in, in case he is kind enough to ask me what song I’d like to play. I was thinking “Cantaloupe Island,” Herbie Hancock’s sister composition to “Watermelon Man” might be a good choice. Just as I’m thinking that, what does he count off to play but “Cantaloupe Island.” So I sat and listened, and went on to my next choice. Of course a blues is always a staple of jam sessions, but rather than just improvise a head it’s nice to be able to mention a blues tune. What’s better than “Blue Monk?” So they ended “Cantaloupe Island,” I heard the sax player turn to his rhythm section and say “okay let’s go to B flat.” He counted off the tempo and guess what he played? Of course. “Blue Monk.” All right well those choices aren’t going to work. I think I should just try to forego the song selection process and just enjoy myself. There was another fine alto player who sat in the first set and I cooled my heels until after their break.

“Well what do you want to play?” And I pulled something out of the hat. How about “Summertime.” He goes “cool, A minor?” I said “sure.” So he goes up to the bandstand and counts off the band into “Summertime” and launches into the counter melody made famous by Miles Davis and later by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I jumped to my feet, I didn’t even have my soprano out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and picked up on the melody. Now I plan an old Conn soprano. It’s a beautiful, soulful horn. It’s also a bear to keep in tune. After a few moments of fussing with my mouthpiece in between phrases, after unsticking my G sharp and octave key, I finally found my place in the music. Not my best effort, I felt. But the crowd was welcoming. He said “all right, what else you got?” I thought of a Mel Torme/Herbie Mann song “Coming Home Baby.” Cool. He counts off a hip funky tempo, the other alto player joins in, and we do a credible job of creating a spontaneous arrangement. If anybody got blown away I think it was me, although this was not what jam sessions used to be, sometimes called “cutting contests.” This was not a cutting contest. This was totally friendly musicians responding to what I played, people buying drinks, and enjoying each other’s playing, a very jazz friendly atmosphere.

This convivial setting was miles away from the experience that jazz flautist Holly Hofmann described in our interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. She found herself in a situation that was beyond cutting. It was more like “let’s get this chick.” Holly described it as follows:

HH: The cutting session was a nightmare of its own.

MR: Well if you don’t mind, tell me about that. Because I’ve often wondered what that would be like — I’ve never been in I think a real cutting session like that. Was it the tunes they called?

HH: It was the tunes and the tempos. It was a very famous group in New York City who were quite appalled that Slide [Hampton] brought this little flute player in to sit in with them, and they just decided that they were going to see if I could play. Thank God my dad had given me a list of cutting session tunes, like “Cherokee,” and you know the ones that they really do it to you on. And they called “Cherokee,” and it’s one-one-one-one. It’s so fast that they can’t play it, but it doesn’t matter because they want to see if you can play it.

MR: Put you on the spot.

HH: Right. And then the saxophone player who shall remain nameless came over and said “well honey, do you think you can play ‘Just Friends?’” And I said “yes I can.” He says okay, B major, one-two, one-two-three-four.

MR: Get out. He did that?

HH: Yeah. And Slide went over and said “guys, you know, don’t do this, because it’s making you look bad.” And Slide just said — you will stay — I wanted to get off the stage and he said “you will stand there and you will play because this is the tradition. This is what’s been done. This is what Diz did to Miles. This is what has been done to people over the years as long as jazz has been an art form.” So he said just to stay with it and do it, and to do the best you can, and I did okay. And you know, “Just Friends” in B major is a real trip. But thank God I was playing by ear.

MR: Yeah. Thank God you got started when you were five with your father doing that.

HH: And they just kept calling tunes at that tempo. “Cherokee,” “Hot House,” it just didn’t stop for the rest of the set.

MR: And this was in a club atmosphere?

HH: Yeah.

Jam sessions used to be an integral part of a musician’s education and a way of establishing yourself (or not) as a new player on the scene. Throwing yourself into the fire, doing your best in negotiating on the spot was one of the best experiences a young musician could have. The decrease in jazz clubs and opportunities for jam sessions has mostly been replaced by music schools and jazz method books, but is an experience worth seeking out for aspiring musicians. I was glad I made the trip to this Pittsburgh club. The musicians and the audience were welcoming and enthusiastic. There was the traditional exchange of praise and business cards, even though it’s unlikely we will cross paths again. A local musician who I often share the bandstand with is fond of saying “anyone get hurt?” at the end of a challenging tune. There were no injuries that night in Pittsburgh, at least in this particular jazz haven.