I teach jazz Skype lessons, and one of the first things I ask my students is if they are jamming with anyone. I especially consider that important to ask because video lessons don’t allow you the luxury of actually getting to play with the student, which does indeed miss out on an important aspect of learning jazz.
Playing with other people is ultimately the end goal for any musician in any style of music. No one wants to be stuck by themselves practicing all of the time. Of course not! Half of the fun of playing music is getting to share it with others.
This is especially true in jazz. Why? Because jazz music and it’s most pivotal innovations were born out of jam sessions. Think of the emergence of bebop. Bebop was part of the evolution of the after-hours jam sessions. The musicians would gather together after their respective gigs and have “cutting sessions”.
Jazz is a conversational music at its very core. It’s communal. Think of the call and response aspect of jazz in the early 1900’s. Think of the rhythm section and how it responds and accompanies the soloist. Even the idea of taking turns playing solos embodies the essence of community.
So when I ask my students if they are jamming with anyone, I ask because without the communal aspect, their jazz education would not be complete. In order to become better jazz musicians (or musicians in general) we need to be playing with each other, sharing, and bouncing ideas off of each other. This is the essence of jazz music.
Now when I refer to jazz jam sessions, I’m really just referring to the general act of playing jazz with two or more musicians. This could be at a public jam session, or this could just be a private jam session you or another musician has set up.
Public jam sessions are simply musical get-togethers where musicians from the region can come together to play jazz standards. Many cities have one or more weekly public jam sessions. In my city of New York, we have a lot of them. These jam sessions are where the collective jazz community can come together, network, get to know each other, and learn from one another.
Private jam sessions are of course just you and your friends, or musical acquaintances getting together to play some tunes together.
Both of these are important for a jazz musician to partake in. Think of your local public jam session as going to church on a Sunday, or your weekly book club meeting. Think of private jams as simply having a regular social life. What do sports fans like to do when they get together? Watch sports. What do jazz musicians do when they get together? Play/talk jazz.
Obviously this is not that complicated. The idea is you need to be a part of a jazz community. Without this, you are missing out on a huge aspect of being a jazz musician.
But I don’t have any jazz musician friends! You might say. Well, a great place to start meeting other jazz musicians is at public jam sessions. If you’re in this boat, make it your goal to find your local jazz jam session and start attending.
But there are no public jazz jams where I live! I get it, you may live in a small town, or a not-so metropolitan area. It’s true that jazz thrives in bigger cities, and it always has. But I also grew up in a small town, and I know that no matter where you are in the world there is a small jazz community nearby. In my particular case, I happened to discover the local jazz teacher in my area who was mentoring a bunch of students. Through studying with him, I met his other students. We started getting gigs together, my teacher set up a weekly jam session at a local coffee shop, and the word started to spread. Before you knew it a jazz community was born!
So understand that unless you live in a very rural area, there is likely to be other jazz musicians around. The key is to find those other musicians and create a community. And yes, I did just put the responsibility on you. Someone has to start these jam sessions right?
But I don’t think I’m good enough to play at a jam session! I understand that you might be new to jazz, and therefore might not have the skills to “hang” at a public jam session. You definitely need to spend your due time in the practice room honing your skills, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be playing with others. In fact, you will grow the most when you actually play, versus just practicing.
This is where having a teacher comes in. If you are trying to get your chops together, having a good teacher to play with you and guide you in the right direction is essential. But it doesn’t have to stop there. If you have a friend (or can find one) that is roughly on the same skill level as you, you can have a practicing buddy. You can work on songs together, and just play together.
When I was starting out on jazz, I had a piano player friend who was on the same page as me. So we constantly got together and jammed with each other. We eventually got a weekly duo gig together. By doing this, we were able to grow together, push each other, and prepare ourselves for playing with other musicians.
So to truly develop as a jazz musician you need to be jamming and part of a community. Here’s my challenge for you:
If you are not a part of a jazz community today, get involved.
If you have been dormant from a jazz community, start setting up session and get back to playing.
And of course, don’t forget to join our jazz community here at Learn Jazz Standards.