Jam Session Etiquette

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Have you ever watched one of those old gladiator movies from the golden age of Hollywood? Ben Hur, Spartacus…where two lethal warriors fight for their lives in a blood soaked battle to the death, showing no mercy in front of a crowd that is whipped into a frenzy of blood-lust?

If so, then you have gained some idea of the atmosphere of a New York jam session.

Perhaps you think my introduction over-dramatic. Make no mistake my friend, jam sessions are not for the faint of heart. It is not unheard of for musicians to be defeated on the bandstand, and then disappear into obscurity. I heard one time there was a guy who pulled a calf muscle trying to play the bridge to “Sweet Lorraine,” and had to be carried off on a stretcher. And “Sweet Lorraine” is a ballad.

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Any musician who tries to tell you music is about individual expression, and not about competition is a LOSER. Do you think Louis Armstrong got famous from his excellent musicianship? Of course not. He got it by playing lots and lots of really loud high notes. Suck it, other trumpet players.

So drop and give me twenty, Dirtbag; and get ready for The Professor’s Jam Session Guide.

If you’re planning to step into one of these contests, proper preparation is vital. In case you haven’t caught my original point: this means war.

I recommend watching the training montage of any of the Rocky movies. Raw egg-whites: recommended. Running up a big set of outdoor stairs: a must.

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To get your stamina up: play your instrument while running a marathon. (The theme from Benny Hill is a good song choice.)

Also try going into a biker bar, find the toughest guy in the room, and blow your trumpet in his face. “What good will that do?” I hear you ask. I don’t know. I’ve always been curious though. Let me know how you go.
When you finally arrive on the bandstand, size up your competition. What sort of horn are they playing? Are they wearing a cool hat? Are they sloppily dressed? You should either be the best dressed in the room (I’m the boss) or the sloppiest dressed (I’m so good I don’t care).

Vibing out your competition is very important. Ask the other sax player, “Is that the reed you’re gonna use?”
Or say to the trumpet player: “Dizzy Gillespie could play so much higher than you.”

Or, the ultimate vibe: say nothing at all. If someone asks you a question, just give them intense eye contact while blowing a loud Charlie Parker lick.

Make sure you’re front and center on the bandstand. Call an obscure song you’re confident no one else knows, and then ask, “You don’t know that song??”

Then when the others agree on another song everyone knows, mutter under your breath, “Ugh, this song is soooo cliché.”

Make sure you take the first solo. If somebody else starts to solo, play louder till they stop. It is important that you’re the loudest musician on stage. At the end of your 14 choruses, walk off the bandstand whilst still playing and go straight to the bar while the next guy starts his solo. But most importantly: don’t listen to any of the other solos.

Order a drink in your “outdoor” voice and “Cheers!” everyone standing close to you, toasting your victorious musicianship.

(NB: the above advice doesn’t work so well for drummers or bassists. You guys just have to play behind people like me. Sorry ’bout that.)

It’s doubtful anyone would ever hire your conceited ass, but that’s a small price to pay for that glowing feeling of superiority. You’ve trained hard for this victory. Enjoy it. And no need to feel guilty. This is jazz, where men are men, women are men, and…well…I guess everyone is men. It doesn’t make sense if you think too much about it…but then again neither does the bridge of “Sweet Lorraine.”


Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. His most recent CD is Ain’t That Right! The Music of Neal Hefti issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit his both his sites on the world wide web: www.adriancunningham.com and professorcunninghamjazz.com.

The Professor is delighted to field your questions regarding jazz and a variety of other germane topics. Write him at oldschool professor@gmail.com.

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