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Home LJS Podcast Jazz Tips and Advice LJS 95: 10 Tips for Successful Jazz Gigs and Jam Sessions

LJS 95: 10 Tips for Successful Jazz Gigs and Jam Sessions

Welcome to episode 95 of the LJS Podcast where today we are walking through 10 important tips for playing successful jazz gigs and jam sessions. At the end of the day, the end goal for our practicing and honing our craft is to get out there and play. These tips will help set up you and the other musicians you are playing with for success.  Listen in!

Listen to episode 95

It’s January 1st, 2018, a brand new year, and every time a new year comes we hopefully jump into it full of motivation and excitement for a fresh start.

When I was planning for what topic to do for our first episode of 2018, I was coming off of a long month (December) of holiday party gigs and casuals. Though as a professional musician I gig quite often, the welcomed increase in gigs had this fresh on my mind.

What better way to kick off the new year than talk about actually getting out there and playing with other musicians.

Today’s episode hones in on 10 important tips for successful jazz gigs and jam sessions. These are all things that I have observed and experienced having played hundreds and hundreds of gigs throughout my career.

I truly believe that if you and the other musicians you are playing with are following these principles, some pretty incredibly musical moments will be allowed to come to life.

Here are the 10 tips I talk about today. Be sure to listen in to the episode where I go deeper into each.

10 Tips:

1. Know the repertoire

2. Listen first, play second

3. Take the focus off of yourself and serve the music

4. Show up with your homework done

5. Be your own timekeeper

6. Spread positive vibes only

7. Know your role in the band or the musical context

8. Leave competition at the door

9. Don’t overplay- say your part and pass the baton

10. Reflect- what should you work on for next time?

If you aren’t playing gigs or going to jam sessions yet, make it one of your goals to start doing so this year. If you are doing these things, make a point to engage even more.

Read the Transcript

Brent: Alright, what’s up everybody? My name is Brent, I am the jazz musician behind the website, which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician.

Welcome and happy new year, if you’re listening today, which is January 1st, 2018. Special happy new year whether you’re listening a little later in the week because you were partying on New Years day, welcome, really excited to just launch a new year and to have you as a listener on the podcast and if you didn’t listen to episode 94, last episode, I talk about how I’m gonna be setting up my 2018 for a successful music year.

I talked a little bit about my successes and some of my failures, I do hope you go back and listen to that episode if you haven’t yet. Whenever we talk about the new year and resolutions and goals, all those things are really important for our success and our case, our musical success. Our success with becoming better jazz musicians. Be sure to listen back to that one.

While I was thinking about what would be a great podcast episode to launch 2018, I thought to myself, what better way to start than to talk about actually playing music, going out there and playing. ‘Cause you know what, why at the end of the day do we spend all the time that we do in the practice room, working hard, working on our technique, working on learning jazz language, working on learning repertoire, why do we do it.

The end goal and hopefully, you are doing a little bit of this already, is to actually go out there and play. To play gigs or even to go out and play jam sessions. I’ve been playing a lot of gigs lately, I am a professional musician so I do play a lot of gigs in general, but I just got off of December, which is the holiday season, tons of holiday gigs, just lots of playing. I thought to myself, it’d be great to talk today about 10 tips for successful gigs and jam sessions. Things that I have just observed from just playing hundreds and hundreds of gigs over my career and especially as it’s so fresh from my mind of just night after night of gigs.

I’d love to share that all with you today. If you’re not playing gigs yet, I want you to make this a very big part of your 2018, or at least a goal. I have a couple Skype students that I teach, I don’t teach as much these days but when I do teach some Skype students, one thing that’s always lacking and it’s always missing, is the playing side. Us actually getting to play with each other. It’s more like a consulting session, which is really awesome, but I always encourage them to be getting out of the practice room. To be getting out and to be playing gigs and to be playing jam sessions cause that’s where the real learning happens, that’s where the real experience happens.

You know you can read books, you can theorize about things you can practice exercises, do all kinds of stuff but at the end of the day you have to go out there and do it. I hope that you will make 2018 the year that you either start playing gigs or start going to jam sessions or if you’re already doing that, playing more of these things. Getting out there even more. Not only is it going to beneficial for your jazz education, it’s gonna be beneficial for you. It’s gonna be fun. That’s really why we do this, right, we can go out there and play with others. Without further ado, let me jump into 10 tips for successful gigs and jam sessions.

Now today’s tips aren’t so much on the professional side, like as in showing up early to the gig, making sure you show up on time, making sure that you’re dressed properly and not abusing your breaks, that’s not really so much that stuff today, although all that stuff is certainly important. This is more tips for actually being prepared and actually having great musical situations, playing with other people, being successful and actually creating great musical moments, both for yourself and for everybody else.

I thought I’d start by saying that but if you are interested, if you are more interested on the professional side of things, one of the earlier podcast episodes … episode 23 I believe, is Gig Etiquette 101 for Musicians. If you want to go back and listen to that episode, I talk a little bit more about some of those aspects of actually playing gigs.
Today, I’m gonna go through these 10 tips. I’m gonna go through them rather quickly, I’m not gonna spend too much time on each one, I’m just gonna elaborate on each. I hope you have your notes out and ready but if you don’t and you’re out running right now, you’re at the gym, you’re on a commute, you can go to the show notes later, to check out all of these 10 tips if you’d rather see that all in writing.

Now number one, first tip for a successful gig or a jam session and that is Know Repertoire, know the repertoire. Whether that be Jazz Standards, which is obviously a really important thing for jazz musicians to know or whether that be knowing how to play a particular piece, an original composition that is required of the gig. If you are playing someone else’s music, know that music. Have put in the study time ahead of time or make sure that you know a number of jazz standards to get through. The most common ones that you need to know in order to have a successful time.

Now, in a more recent episode, episode 84, I talk about important jazz standards you need to learn. In that episode, I break down 40 standards at a different important category. If you’re wondering to yourself, what jazz standards should I know, this list of 40 is a really good one to go off of, especially because I do break it down at different categories so that you can go back and listen to episode 84 if you want to dig deeper into that but the bottom line is you need to know repertoire. Whether it’s a gig, where you’re actually playing for money in front of an audience or as background music, or if you’re playing at a jam session and you want to go play and network with other musicians, which is incredibly important.

Jazz is a social music, you need to know repertoire. Be sure to spend time in the practice room learning repertoire so that you have a handful or 10 or 20 songs under your belt that you can play.
Okay now number two is Listen First, Play Second. Listen First, Play Second. Now what do I mean by that? When we are playing with a group of other jazz musicians, our top priority should be to be listening to what everybody else is doing and responding. Listening and responding. That is the root of thins music. Call and response. Listening to what other musicians re playing and feeding off of that energy and it should got the other way around too. If you’re playing something and the other musician should be responding to you as well.

Everybody has their own part. Everybody has their own seat at the table, but it’s up to us to listen to each other so we can have the best musical situation possible. The best musical experience possible. Oftentimes with amateur musicians or less experienced musicians, that doesn’t always quite happen. Sometimes, it just happens to be that the musician just plays. Just plays whatever they know, whatever they’re hearing and ignore the rest of the band and we need to listen first and then play. Don’t just start playing and assume things, listen to what’s going on and react to that. That’s a really big, golden tip for you when you’re playing with other jazz musicians. That’s the spirit of jazz, improvisation call and response. Number two is listen first and play second.

Now going off of that, building from that, is number three, which is Take the Focus Off of Yourself. Take of the focus off of yourself because it’s not all about you. If you’re listening first, then you’re automatically taking the focus off of yourself. It could be really easy to indulge yourself in … especially with jazz music, it’s kind of an indulgent sort of music. Improvisation and focusing on virtuosity. There’s the soloist and you pour yourself into all of that but if you take your ego out of the picture and you just show up to a gig and you show up to a jam session with an attitude of service, serving the other musicians, you take that focus off of you, automatically a lot of problems are gonna be fixed.

I played with lots of musicians and I played with some, who walk in, are completely humble and they’re there to serve the music and therefore, the music turns out awesome no matter what kind of different level of players are playing. I’ve also played with some other musicians who come up and they’re in it for themselves, they’re in it to show off, they’re in it to let themselves shine and not listen first and just play for themselves and kind of hog the show for themselves.

What happens when musicians do that is the music suffers because that’s just not how it works. Not in most styles of music and I would say especially not in jazz, in my opinion. Number three is take the focus off yourself, show up in service of the music and the other musicians that you’re playing with.

Number four is Show Up with your Homework Done. Okay show up with your homework done. What do I mean by that? We all need to spend time in the practice room preparing ourself for the musical situations that are gonna come up. We need to practice. We have to pay a little bit of our dues. I don’t mean to say that in a sense of, well you have to put in X amount of hours before you go out and play a gig or show up at a public jam with more experienced players.

Again, the music, going out there and actually playing is a very pivotal, important part of your education but at the same time, you need to have studied the music. You have to be listening to it. You have to know what jazz sounds like of course, you have to know the elements and the essence of it. You have to have put in some time on your instrument so that you can hang so that you can play in time.

You need to know some jazz standards, you need to know the repertoire, like I mentioned in number one. You need to have some of these things put together at least on a basic level. It doesn’t mean you have to be a great player. By no means do you have to be any of that, but you have to have some knowledge, you have to have some preparation in place so that you can execute a song or a number of songs with a group of musicians.

Number four is, do your homework, don’t show up without having done your homework. Don’t think that you can just show up and play with other experienced players without having put any work into it. You do have to, you do have to spend some time in the practice room, that’s really important so be sure that you do show up with your homework done.

Number five, Be Your Own Time Keeper. This is a really important one, okay? Be your own timekeeper. It’s kind of funny, sometimes when you’re playing with a group of musicians and you feel like the music sped up or it dragged, it slowed down. A lot of times, the drummer seem to get a lot of flack for this, right? Or the bassist get flack for this. The truth is, everybody in the band is a timekeeper. I know the drummers listening to me today will love me for this and even the bass players, but yes if you’re a horn player, if you’re a piano player, if you’re a guitar player, it doesn’t matter what instrument you play, you are a time keeper in the band. Everybody is responsible for it.

We all have to be working with that. We have to be working with our metronomes so that we can build an internal clock. We have to be practicing along with records and trying to keep the form, we have to practice that kind of stuff. We’re all time keepers, we’re all responsible for this kind of stuff.

It actually amazing, by the way, everybody in the band has a certain amount of power to make the music go faster or slower, regardless of what role you play. A piano player can comp in such a way that it makes the band speed up or slow down. A horn player can play lines in such a way that could cause the band to speed up or slow down. When a drummer is taking a solo, it’s everybody’s responsibility to track with the drummer where they are.

It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep time. That’s really important and I see this happen on gigs all the time is when not everybody is taking responsibility of this, the music can suffer, the music potentially can even fall apart. Be sure to work on that, keeping your time and realizing that you are part of that tune no matter what instrument you play.

Now number six is Positive Vibes Only. Positive vibes only, now there’s nothing I hate more than vibey jazz musicians, pretentious, vibey, jazz musicians. It’s so disheartening, it’s a terrible culture that sometimes exist in jazz and it’s awful. In fact, I dedicated an entire podcast episode to that, episode 71, Why the Vibe Culture in Jazz Has to Go, just because I think it’s an awful thing that really does not help anything. We’re all in this together, we’re all on the same path though different parts of that path we may be. There’s no reason to put somebody else down because you think you’re better than them.

Leave your ego at the door, we don’t need to have any of this stuff going on so please, no vibing, keep positive, positive attitudes towards other musicians, positive attitudes towards the music and even positive attitudes towards yourself. Don’t be showing up to a gig or a jam session and just constantly feeling down on yourself, the way your playing. It brings energy down for everybody else as well. If we all show up with positivity, then there’s something positive that’s gonna come out of the music. If we’re showing up with negativity, I think that things can suffer. Please, positive vibes only.
Number seven is Know Your Role. Know your role in the band, this is really important. This kind of covers a few different areas here. There’s number one, as your instrument, what typically, what role typically does your instrument play?

For example, I’ve been playing a lot with singers lately. As a guitar player, I’m required both to be able to play melodies and I’m also required to be able to accompany other musicians and singers as one that I especially have to deal with.

One thing I’ve realized over the time of playing gigs with singers is that I need to be able confidently end the song and confidently intro a song for a singer. That doesn’t always comes naturally and there’s’ still times where I have to really consciously think, “I am in control of that, I need to really help lead that charge.” That’s my role when I’m playing with a singer.

I also play with another band at a club and it’s a sextet, so it’s a lot of instruments and there’s a piano player present and for that gig, I purposely really minimally comp, I don’t really accompany much, I kind of let the piano player take that. My role changes to more of horn player. When it’s my turn to solo or if I’m doubling the melody, then I’m doing that but I’m not stepping all over the piano player’s toes. I’m knowing what role I play.

If you’re’ a horn player, it could mean if you’re playing in a big band, right? You’re not going to be blowing over top of everybody else you’re going to want to be melding in with the rest of the section. If you’re the horn player that’s playing the melody, you’re the star. You have to lift it up, you have to take that responsibility, hone in on that. Maybe you’re a secondary horn player and you want to be playing counter point.

All kinds of different scenarios, if you’re a drummer, if you’re’ a bass player, think about what does your instrument traditionally play. How does it traditionally play, what is the traditional role. Then in the particular musical situation you’re in, what role are you playing? How can you make the music sound the best it possibly can. That’s number seven, know your role.

Number eight, it kind of ties in a little bit with number six about keeping positive vibes but it’s a little bit different. That’s Leave Competition at the Door. There’s some that may disagree with me on this, but I really do no think that music should be a competitive activity. This is not a sport, it’s music.

Yes, I am a totally a peace loving hippie sort of character in that way. Music should be all about spreading the good vibes and there’s really no need for competition in it. Like I said, everybody’s on the same path, different spots of the path, though they may be. It’s our job to encourage each other, not be constantly comparing and contrasting with each other.

It could be really damaging to your self too because a lot of musicians, they suffer from feeling down on themselves in the way the play and constantly comparing themselves to others and I found in my own career, in my own musical life that that could be quite damaging personally, really emotionally damaging to constantly to be checking yourself on somebody else and it can create a lot of bad feeling. It can create a lot of bad vibes and instead of being competitive, I would encourage you to do what my older brother does best and set personal records.

Focus on each gig or jam session as being your personal record. How can you outdo yourself? You don’t need to outdo other musicians. How can you outdo yourself and if you keep that attitude of constantly wanting to improve yourself, you’re always gonna get better and you don’t need to worry about how other people are matching up to you. You can be inspired by other musicians who are better that you, that’s one thing but I strongly encourage you to fight that urge to feel competitive against other musicians, I just don’t think it’s helpful to anybody. That’s number eight.

Now number nine is don’t overplay. Don’t over play, just say your part and then pass the baton on. I’ve heard jazz before described as a mini democracy of sorts. Everybody’s kind of sitting around and everybody plays something together and then everybody has a turn to say what they want to say and everybody gets a chance to be heard. I’ve that analogy before, I think it’s a cool analogy. It’s a good analogy but sometimes you have people that are kind of hogging things.

Again, this goes back to taking the focus off yourself like I mentioned in number three, you have to step away and think about how can I serve the music in a broader sense even outside of myself. Sometimes I hear this in the musicians taking too long of a solo. They have some great choruses of a solo but then they just decide that they want to keep going on. Sometimes that’s appropriate but other times it’s like, I think the music should have stopped there, I think you said what you needed to say and you probably should have started capping it off and closing it and passing it on to the next person.

It’s very subjective, but you can always tell when someone overplays. It also, you can take that another direction too and just put that in the hand of the improviser. If you’re overplaying all the time and not leaving space and breathing room, then that’s also going to make the music feel claustrophobic. It’s gonna make your solo sound claustrophobic. You got to get some air to breathe, leave some space.

What is it, there’s this Miles Davis quote that says, it think I’m gonna butcher it but, “It’s not the notes that you play, it’s the notes that you don’t play,” something like that, which you know is kind of a powerful, striking little quote, one liner that he said once, and it’s so true. A lot of times, what makes a series of notes or one note or a line powerful, is the notes that you didn’t play before. The entrance that it actually came in. Keep that in mind. Both, keep that in mind in your solos to leave space but keep it mind also in the broader sense of not hogging the spotlight too much. Pass on the baton, don’t overplay.

The last one I want to talk about, number ten is a really important one, it’s Reflect. Reflect after the gig. What should I work on? What went well, what didn’t go so well. A great way to properly reflect is to record yourself and I do this from time to time, you don’t have to record yourself every single gig, although I have some friends, some colleagues that do. They record just about everything they play and they listen back just to kind of check it out to see if anything great came out of it that they really liked they did or maybe to listen back and probably most importantly, listen back and see, what can I work on for next time? What went well, what didn’t go very well. How was my phrasing going? How is my comping going, how is my baselines. Did I lose the form in this area and if so, why?

Listen back to all these things or look back at some of the other thing like was I over playing. There’s a lot of things you and critique yourself. You could be kind to yourself at the same time, but critique some areas of your playing so that you can improve for the next time. That’s how we learn, that’s how we do it.

Sometimes, we may even show up to a jam session or a gig with some really experienced players and get a little bit smoked, right? Like, “Oh, that tempo was way too fast for me, I got lost, I fell on my face.” But you can listen back to that and be like, “Okay, cool. I think I know what I need to work on.” Then you can get into that practice room and work on that for next time.

That’s what I do. That’s the attitude that I always try to keep is, not let maybe a failure that happened at a gig or jam session get me down but try to learn from that experience and move on. That’s the most important thing that we can get out of playing gigs and jams sessions is actually in real practice, putting things to work and by doing so we can learn so much and better.

Really quickly, I’m just gonna run through, there’s a lis of ten really quick, just to recap really fast. Number one was know your repertoire. Number two was listen first, play second. Number three is take the focus off yourself, put it onto the other musicians. Number four, show up with your homework done, make sure you spent time in the practice room honing your craft. Number five, be your own timekeeper, everybody in the band is responsible. Number six, positive vibes only, no negativity needed. Number seven, know your role in the band whether that be your personal instrument and what you normally or what the musical situation requires. Number eight, leave the competition at the door. Go for personal records instead. Number nine, don’t overplay, just say yourself, pass the baton, leave some space in your solos. Number ten is reflect. What should I work on? What can I do to improve of the next time around.

If you do all these things, you are going to continually have better, more successful gigs and jam sessions. When everybody’s doing all of these things that I just mentioned, some incredible musical moments can happen. I’ve been in the before. I’ve totally been there before where everything just came together, all the musicians were on the same wavelength and some real, magical stuff happened. It’s the greatest feeling int he world and I want you to have that too. I want you to have that too.

If you have not started playing gigs, I want you to definitely dig in, jump in, start playing gigs in 2018. If you’re playing om, keep playing them, maybe you can try to play a few more and if you’re a professional or a semi-professional, more on the lines of how I operate in music, then try to maybe hone in to some to these finer elements of reflection and improvement on where you’re at and maybe some of the more professional elements.

I hope you get into this, and I hope you start playing more gigs here in 2018.

Alright that’s all for today’s show. I want to take you so much for listening. Thanks for tuning in and once again, happy new year, really excited to have you listening to the show. Hope you’ll be listening all year long now. If you’re listening to this and you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, 2018, I really want to work on my jazz playing. I really want improve. I really want to get better,” well I don’t think there’s any better time than now to start taking our 30 days to better jazz playing course.

Our 30 days to better jazz playing course, it’s a 30 step process going through goal oriented focused practice sessions where you’re gonna be practicing things that will actually improve your jazz playing. That kind of stuff is learning jazz repertoire, learning jazz solos by ear, learning licks and just having real solid instruction and actual structure to a practice session.

If you’re serious about practicing, if you’re serious about improving your jazz musicianship in 2018, I think it’s a great idea for you to go over to, that’s three, zero days. Check out this course, see if it’s right for you and if it is, go ahead and enroll and I’d love to see you in that course. Great way to start off 2018.

As I always say at the end of this podcast, if you got value out of this show, go to iTunes, your favorite podcast listening service, leave us a rating and review, it helps other people find the show and we really appreciate your help.

Now next week, we’re gonna be coming out with episode 96. I’m looking forward to seeing you back then.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."



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