The best way to understand a jazz jam is to compare it to a conversation between intelligent, well informed, articulate people who are passionate about the subject being discussed. In a stimulating conversation, all of the participants effectively communicate their views and much can be learned. A conversation may begin on one topic but can quickly turn to another and then another. None of the group plans what they will say, but as they hear what others say, they react and add to the conversation.
Jazz has been called a music created by “collective improvisation.” Jazzmen describe their music as being built upon a unique musical vocabulary that they use to express themselves. So a jam session is a spontaneous conversation between jazz musicians — but a musical one — that contains all the elements of a verbal exchange. It is a one-of-a-kind musical experience that can raise the art form to the heavens.
Issues such as the desire to be heard, to be right, to impress others and many more character flaws, unfortunately, can also be found in a jam session.
So how does it work? When we converse in a group, there is an implied etiquette that controls our exchanges. In a similar fashion, there are rules which jazz musicians generally abide by. And just like the fact that most of us don’t appreciate someone who dominates a conversation, in a jam session, the players don’t appreciate someone who always solos too long. And when someone doesn’t know the music but jumps in anyway, it is no different than when someone is ill-informed but speaks as an expert. In fact, there was a sign on the bandstand at a club in Philly that regularly held jam sessions that said, “If you don’t KNOW the tune, don’t PLAY the tune.”
To give some structure to a jam, there is generally a leader agreed upon, who “calls” the tunes and the key it will be played in. “Standards” are generally selected so that everyone is on the same page.
And just like a conversation that becomes too lopsided, the players have to be of comparable ability, otherwise the jam is brought down to the level of the least gifted player and everyone loses interest. That is why in some cases jam sessions are by invitation only.
Jam sessions began in the 1920s and were initially stride piano competitions known as “cutting contests.” By the ’40s these competitions had spread to other instruments and while competition has always been a major element of jams, the emphasis in some quarters was on a more cooperative approach to creating music during a jam. It was the early pioneers of bebop that took a less combative and more intellectual approach to the jam session. Some of the most important jam sessions in the history of jazz took place at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem during the ’40s. Competition raged, but so did collaboration, when players such as Monk, Dizzy and Miles began to work out the complex harmonies, chord progressions and rhythm changes of a new jazz vocabulary: bebop.
It should be noted that in most cases jam sessions were integrated long before the players could openly play together in many cities. In addition, most of the jams were “after hours” affairs.
Each summer, the Vail Jazz Foundation joins with Bravo! Vail to present jam sessions with the jazz-playing members of Bravo’s resident orchestras. Billed as “Jazz After,” since they follow the orchestras’ performances at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, they are presented in the Great Room at Larkspur, which is setup like a jazz club. The multi-talented members of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic are next up, with one taking place tonight and one on July 24.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. The Vail Jazz Festival is a celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.