The Jazz Jam Session Primer:
A First-Timer’s Guide
Copyright 2001, Bill Anschell
Ready to check out your first jam session? There’s much more
to jazz music – and to the “session” in particular – than meets
the eye. This primer will help you better appreciate the intense
psychodrama being played out on stage. Special “Insider’s Hints”
(“IH”) will help you make the most of
your maiden voyage.
IH: Although your food and drink
dollars are the lifeblood of the jazz economy, remember that
to the musicians, you’re irrelevant. Don’t make requests. Don’t
start dancing. And don’t try to sing along. The last thing the
session needs is another ego. Things are complicated enough
Session venues fall into two distinct categories:
Yuppie jazz dives
Yuppies don’t generally like dives, but jazz to a Yuppie is
a daring adventure. There may be no valet parking, but caution
The club will be located in a “transitional” part of town. Walking
hurriedly from parking space to venue will raise the courageous
Yuppie’s heartbeat above Stairmaster levels. All the more gratifying,
then, to finally feel the club’s warm embrace. Home at last
among the expensive cigars and fancy martinis.
The food will overpriced and lousy. There will be at least one
fake Cajun dish on the menu. There will be an abstract painting
of a saxophonist. There will be a state-of-the-art ventilation
system that makes the thick cigar smoke swirl around in impressionistic
patterns. In the restrooms, a fresh coat of Lysol won’t fully
suppress the smell of vomit.
There will be no piano or there will be a Samick. “Samick” is
Korean for “look like Steinway, sound like Hyundai.” The room
itself will be an acoustical nightmare. In the absence of carpeting
or drapery, sounds will reverberate and distort like a bad LSD
trip. Feeding this psychedelic nightmare will the bar’s blender,
cash register, big-screen television, and CD player cranking
out sounds that bear no resemblance to jazz. When the band starts,
no one will remember to turn off the CD player. To compete with
these sounds, Yuppie conversation elevates to a roar. Somewhere,
in the far background, a jam session takes place.
Non-Yuppie jazz dives
Same as above, but without Lysol.
IH: Sit as close to the band as possible. Stare intensely
at each musician during his solo and move your mouth along with
his lines. Never smile. Each musician will assume that: a) you
play his instrument, and b) you think he sucks. You are “vibing”
them and they’ll come undone. All jazz players, regardless of
age, instrument, or ability, are deeply insecure. Have fun with
While a jazz artist may claim to have a “unique voice” on his
instrument, sociological analysis tells us otherwise. In reality,
jazz players are simply the embodiment of instrumental archetypes.
Jam sessions, then, are the playing-out of archetypal conflicts.
Jazz “standards” performed at the sessions make up the script.
Over time, an epic play is realized. Here are the characters:
Piano: Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls.
They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most
are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should
have big hands, but often don’t. They were social rejects as
adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers.
Pianists have a special love/hate relationship with singers.
If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.
Bass: Bassists are not terribly smart. The best
bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple
lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments,
a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal.
Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are
always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during
a break, you won’t be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.
Drums: Drummers are radical. Specific personalities
vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest
person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest.
Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most
of which stem from the fact that they aren’t really musicians.
Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel
bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they
play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break,
be careful not to sneak up on him.
Saxophone: Saxophonists think they are the most
important players on stage. Consequently, they are temperamental
and territorial. They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but
have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take
exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak halfway through
and then just don’t stop. They practice quietly but audibly
while other people play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep
with their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If
you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot
of excuses about reeds.
Trumpet: Trumpet players are image conscious and
walk with a swagger. They are often former college linebackers.
Trumpet players are very attractive to women, despite the strange
indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics
then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending
whether they’re black or white. IH: Arrive
at the session early, and you may get to witness the special
trumpet warm-up game. The rules are: play loud and high. The
winner is he who plays loudest and highest. Caution: It is loud
and high. If you talk to a trumpet player during a break,
he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson,
the merciless God of loud-and-high trumpeting.
Guitar: Jazz guitarists are never very happy.
Deep inside they wanted to be rock stars, but now they’re old
and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair long, prowl
for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate
piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists
make up for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist
drinks, the higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts
to play harder, and the trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal.
Suddenly, the saxophonist’s universe crumbles, because he is
no longer the most important player on stage. He packs up his
horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out of the room.
The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a
guitarist during the break he’ll ask intimate questions about
your 14-year-old sister.
Vocals: Vocalists are whimsical creations of the
all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test
musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz
world, but enter it surreptitiously. Example: A young woman,
playing minor roles in college musicals, is described by a misguided
campus newspaper critic as “...jazzy.” Voila! A star
is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,”
and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign
of session terrorism. When she approaches the bandstand musicians
flee. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe
(see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist
will try to seduce you – and the rest of the audience – by making
eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you
between tunes. Do not fall into this trap! Look away, your distaste
obvious. Otherwise, musicians will avoid you during breaks.If
you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you
to others as her “manager.”
Trombone: The trombone is known for its pleading,
voice-like quality. “Hey!” it seems to say, “Why won’t anybody
hire me?” Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes
become indistinguishable and thus immune to criticism. Most
trombonists played trumpet in their early years, then decided
they didn’t want a strange indentation on their lips. Now they
hate trumpet players, who somehow get all the women despite
this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and lean, with
forlorn faces. They don’t eat much. They have to be very friendly,
because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist
during a break and he’ll ask you for a gig or try to sell you
insurance or Amway.
Now it’s time to turn your attention to the music. Your newfound
knowledge will give you astonishing insights. Let’s look at
some typical session landmarks:
Picking the Tune
Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. This
is a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with
jam session group processes.
Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They
love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable and they tremble
at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune is to invite
close scrutiny: “So this is the best you can do? Hm....” It’s
a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one
wants to pick a tune, sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune.
The resulting disagreements lead to faction building and even
impromptu elections. Tune selection makes for some of the session’s
Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune
(previous tune ends)
trumpet player: “What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to
pick a tune?”
trumpet player: “This s%!* is lame. I’m outa
here.” (Storms out of room without paying tab.)
rest of band: “Yes!!!” (Band takes extended break,
puts everything on trumpet player’s tab).
Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune
(previous tune ends)
(pianist and guitarist simultaneously): “Beautiful
Love!” “Donna Lee!”
guitarist to pianist: “You just want to play a lot
of fat ten-note chords!”
pianist to guitarist: “You just want to play a lot
of fast notes!”
saxophonist: “Giant Steps.” IH: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.
guitarist and pianist (together): “Go ahead, asshole.”
trumpet player: “This s%!* is lame. ‘Night
in Tunisia’.” IH: a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for
loud, high playing.
saxophonist: “Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard.”
(long, awkward silence)
pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn
to drummer: “Your turn, Skinhead.”
drummer: (pauses to think of hardest possible tune) IH:
a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play
actual notes. “Stablemates.”
trumpet player: F#@* this! I’m outa here.” (Storms
out of room. Bartender chases after him.)
trombonist: “Did anybody turn off the CD player?”
Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions
that will last throughout the session. IH: As
an educated audience member, why not keep a flow chart diagramming
the bandstand’s shifting alliances. Include statistics on individual
tune calling. Under no circumstances, though, take sides or
suggest songs. Things are complicated enough already.
The first set ends without further controversy. The guitarist,
still sober, has kept his volume down. The saxophonist eventually
found a reed that didn’t traumatize him. The trombonist handed
out business cards. The pianist kept his ego in check. No one
told any drummer jokes and the bassist grunted during the better
moments. Sure, they lost a trumpet player, but no one really
likes trumpet players anyway (except women and misguided critics).
Now other musicians will sit in. Some are regulars, others are
unknown. Look toward the bandstand. Musicians new to the session
will be hovering about the fringes, wondering how to proceed.
There should be a sign-up sheet, but isn’t. There should be
a charismatic leader, too; forget it. These are fundamental
concepts that, again, run at odds with jam session group processes.
IH: Pretend you’re in charge. Approach these
hovering musicians one by one. Ask who they normally play with,
then stare at them blankly. Ask what tune they’d like to play,
and shake your head in disgust. Ask if they’re students. Ask
why they aren’t at a paying gig. Ask if they mind waiting until
a singer shows up. This is important work you’re doing - cultivating
insecurities, planting seeds for eventual drama. If instigating
doesn’t come naturally to you, go have a drink or two. There.
Now try again. Good.
Eventually, things sort themselves out and the set begins. Interpersonal
dynamics grow more complex. As a newcomer approaches the bandstand,
the house musicians sit in judgment; the visitor is on trial.
At the same time, the house musicians are slyly observing one
another’s reactions, not fully trusting their own. Meanwhile,
each is also acutely conscious of his own reactions being judged
and is hesitant to react at all. Added to this is the backlash
factor: If the newcomer proves to be a great player, his own
judgments of the house band – especially if it was initially
unwelcoming – could be devastating.
So the house musicians take the safest route, hiding behind
impassive faces, affecting a veil of stoicism. This further
unnerves the newcomer. He may feel that he is being “vibed,”
or that he has somehow failed before he has even begun.
But there is no turning around – one of the few set rules in
the session Code of Conduct. The newcomer reluctantly calls
a tune, looks in vain for approval, then counts it off. His
job now is to sound relaxed and confident, and, of course, to
have fun. His success in doing so will lead either of two outcomes:
newcomer: “How about a ballad?”
saxophonist: “Are you crazy? Listen!”
(blender blends, TV blares, cash register rings, Yuppies
roar, room echoes cavernously)
newcomer: “Okay, how about something loud and fast?”
(pianist points at guitarist): “What, you want to
set Eddie Van Halen loose?”
Seeing no potential for consensus, the newcomer starts playing
a blues tune. It’s a smart move: everyone sounds good on the
blues, so no one complains. And since this is the first tune
of the set, there haven’t been ten other blues tunes yet, though
there will be. A good start, no doubt, but the jury is still
IH: There’s much more on these players’ minds
than just melody, harmony, and rhythm. Let’s see what they’re
really thinking, captured in mid-tune:
saxophonist: “S%!*! Another sad-ass, no-playing student:
Improv 101, licks-to-go, play-by-number, your name here.
Who needs ears? Who needs history? I need a drink.”
guitarist: “Holy s%!* - this cat’s got licks from
hell! Burning it up! (looks around; sees saxophonist
scowling) But I gotta be careful – these guys already think
I’m some kinda Van Halen chops freak, like I got no soul,
like I didn’t pay dues in Motown cover bands for eight years.
They won’t cut me any slack, the arrogant bastards. Now if
I hook up with this new cat, they’ll just laugh about it.
F#@* them! I should call ‘Dock of the Bay’ and see how they
do. I don’t know; maybe I’ll just go get a beer.” (leaves
drummer: “Man, this cat is swinging! Here,
baby, take this (plays a complicated rhythmic figure against
the newcomer’s lines, loud). Are we going somewhere? We might
be going somewhere. I FEEL LIKE WE’RE GOING SOMEWHERE! Yeah,
baby. This is for you! (catches newcomer’s rhythms with his
high-hat). We could be hooking up now. WE’RE HOOKING UP NOW!
bassist (digging in): “Grrrhh. Gnmnt. Glppnt.”
pianist: “I’m so sick of this crap. Yeah, I can play
the same twelve bars over and over while you jerk off ad
nauseum, you little s%!*. You and all your friends. Then
we get to my solo 25 minutes later and no one even notices
all the s%!* I’m playing. Put the tune out of its
misery already, for chrissake. But wait, what’s that? Whoa,
hang on! This cat’s playing some serious lines – maybe better
than my lines? My God, what if I’m not really that
great? But, s%!*, I mean I’ve heard Herbie IH:
Herbie Hancock, legendary jazz pianist play lines
worse than this, too. So maybe this cat’s great, and I still
could be really good. Or, maybe he’s really good, and I’m
just pretty good. Or maybe he’s barely decent and
I suck. Why won’t anyone just tell me? I hate this asshole.”
trombonist: “Oh, God, HELP! Two guys dig him. Two
guys don’t. The guitarist left. They’re all looking at me.
Think, man, think! The piano player was maybe gonna
use me on a gig next Sunday; can’t piss him off. But I was
working the insurance thing with the drummer – no, that was
the guitarist. Wait: who was about to buy an amp from me?
The bassist – hell, that don’t matter. But this new cat,
he sounds pretty damn good – maybe he’ll get some
gigs I can play on. The sax player’s never gonna use me for
anything, anyway. But everybody seems to respect the crusty
bastard. I don’t know. I guess this new guy sucks, kinda.”
(house musicians, exchanging glances, begin rolling their eyes.
Piano player starts hitting ugly chords. Drummer succumbs to
the group will and forces a yawn. Bass player is oblivious.)
(newcomer ends solo. No response. He is not invited to play
another tune. He leaves the stage dejected, head hanging. Life
can be so cruel...)
newcomer: “How about a ballad?”
saxophonist: “Are you crazy? Listen!”
(blender blends, TV blares, cash register rings, Yuppies
roar, room echoes cavernously)
newcomer (pointing at you): “But he told me
I could call whatever I want.”
all musicians (turning to you): “Who the hell are
you? Who died and put you in charge?”
IH: Shut your mouth. Now!
newcomer: “Aw, forget that asshole. Let’s just play
“Cherokee” begins. The musicians all bond in the face of a common
enemy – you. In their newfound brotherhood, they drop their
defenses and enjoy the music. They are pointing their horns
at you and playing with great emotion. It is the sound of jazz:
joy, sorrow, anger. You may take the anger personally. It’s
best to leave now, while it’s still safe.
But, no, there’s still so much to be learned. Take a chance:
Order a round of drinks for everyone. They’ll forgive you. Suddenly,
you’re a hero. They needed those drinks big-time, because now
approaching the bandstand is...
She’s wearing a tight-fitting dress. Her hair is a sculpture.
She glides to the bandstand like a model on a runway, ignoring
the drink stains and cigarette burns peppering the floor. Her
posture is perfect, her arms move just so. She picks up the
mike and balances it between three arched fingers. She turns
to the audience, a far-away look in her eyes. “Oh, Jesus, here
we go!” says the saxophonist, under his breath.
“How about a hand for these hard-working guys,” she says, just
like she is supposed to. There is no applause. She laughs a
stage laugh and tries again. “Where are you all from? Anyone
here from New York?” Silence. The crowd is captivated –not by
her, but by a racy rock video blasting over the television.
Still, she tries. “How many of you are in love?” she asks, giggling
a little girl giggle. She’s looking right at you, because you’re
the only one paying attention. The musicians are looking at
you, too. “You’re not from New York, and you’re not
in love,” their dark eyes say.
“Not a talkative bunch, are you?” she asks rhetorically, then
turns to the band. “Well, I guess we’d better give them something
to talk about.” She winks at the sax player, who sucks spit
out of his mouthpiece in return. “Do you fellas know ‘Summertime?’”
There is a collective shudder. “What key?” the pianist asks,
knowing she won’t know. Her veneer momentarily cracks; she’s
in trouble. She didn’t prepare for this by practicing, or learning
keys, she prepared by buying a new outfit and having her hair
But then she has an idea. With studied nonchalance, she says,
“You, know: the regular key.” There is a collective snort.
“Regular?” asks the pianist. “Not decaf?” The others join in.
“Not unleaded?” asks the saxophonist. “Not minty fresh?” asks
the drummer. “Not extra wide?” asks the trombonist. “Not the
special prescription-strength formula with possible side effects
including nausea, headaches, and dry-mouth?” asks the bassist.
All turn and stare at him in amazement. The trumpet player shouldn’t
have left so soon. This is so much fun.
She is near tears. All she can think to do is to start singing
and she lands halfway between two keys. “Lovely,” the pianist
mutters. “Quarter-tone explorations on ‘Summertime.’ B-and-a-half
minor. C minor-minus. John Cage meets Liza Minelli. Ravi Shankar
meets Barbara Streisand. Here, lady, I’ll help you – forgive
me, guys. Just because I’m brilliant doesn’t mean I’m heartless.
Let’s put it in C minor, and here’s your melody note. Now sing,
or act, or whatever it is that you do!”
The band joins in, and she works her way through the song’s
two choruses. Her voice is pleasant, but barely discernable
beneath a haphazard dung heap of inflections that are her “jazz
bag.” She approaches the end of the melody. The musicans silently
implore, “Please don’t scat! Please!” She scats. She
shooby-doos. There are piercing wails, throaty moans, writhing
and grimacing, photo-ops. She smiles at the band, inviting them
to feel the spirit. They stare back, blankly. Finally the saxophonist
can take no more. He begins soloing loudly, pointing his horn
right at her. The band launches into 20 minutes of improvisation,
and it is good. They have, once again, found a common enemy.
Again, there is great joy and sorrow and anger. And this time,
the anger’s not at you.
The tune ends. Before anyone can make a move, the vocalist launches
into “Route 66,” a pre-emptive strike on her part, a brilliant
tactical maneuver. The band has no choice but to play along
– it’s too late to call up the next performer. Even their emergency
bail-out plan – leaving the stage for a premature break – has
been disabled. Six musicians crushed by one singer in a single,
clean surgical strike. Having won the upper hand, she assumes
the role of benevolent dictator. She does not scat. She demands
that the audience applaud for each soloist. IH:
Go ahead. The musicians take short polite solos in turn.
A new world order has been established.
But the regime will prove short-lived. Like any leader buoyed
by newfound power, she has to test her limits. She dips deep
into her “Star Search” bag, pulling out the secret weapon she’s
been saving for just such a moment. Ammo that will blast the
blender, TV, cash register, and roaring Yuppies into stunned
silence. All will stand in awe. She will, at last, be discovered.
“Get your kicks,” she belts, “on Route... Sixty...” She throws
her arms laterally, telling the band with great passion that
she, alone, will take it from here. It is going to be the word
“Six,” and it is going to take a very long time.
(The histrionics commence. She drops to one knee. She plumbs
the bottom of her range, then her voice begins a slow ascent.
Her eyes are shut, chin tucked against chest. She is bent forward,
cleavage heaving mightily.)
(Her voice is in mid-register, still climbing, now wrapped in
a wide, swooping vibrato. She rises from her knee to an upright
(She approaches her upper register and begins her collection
of blues clichés. Her fingers wiggle on the microphone as if
she is playing an instrument – first trumpet, then trombone,
then saxophone. She has not taken a breath yet.)
(As she nears the top of her range, her free hand begins to
rise. She is preparing to land on a note that will startle all
with its power and beauty. At the exact moment she hits it,
her finger will...)
“F#@k this!” says the sax player. “Let’s take a break.” The
musicians quickly scramble off-stage with order (as they know
it) restored. The singer is still peaking, now in piercing soprano
range, pointing dramatically off-stage, eyes closed. Sensing
that change is afoot, she sneaks a glance. Quickly at first,
eyes barely open. Then longer, eyes agog. The truth sets in,
the sheer horror of it. An outright coup d’etat, and
she’s been rendered powerless, impotent, ludicrous. She cuts
off in mid-note, suddenly slumping. Quietly, resignedly, she
But it’s okay – no one except you was listening anyway. And
you’d best not clap, if you want to be a part of...
The house musicians are seated at the crowded bar. Actually,
two are sitting, and three are standing behind, blocking the
flow of traffic. They are flanked by drunk Yuppies on every
side. Other drunk Yuppies periodically bump them from behind.
Despite their nominal victory, the battle with the vocalist
has left them in poor spirits. They have felt the wrath of the
jazz universe. Their capacity for suffering has been tested
and found wanting. They wonder why. Life itself seems without
reason. A solution cannot be found in words, only in drink.
You try to help. You explain that evil must exist in the jazz
world so they might better appreciate the good. Blessings should
be counted. For example, tonight there have been no violinists
or accordian players. No harmonica player has sat in and called
“Stormy Monday.” No beer has been spilled on the keyboard. And
there is still much music to be played.
“Wait a minute,” says the saxophonist. “Aren’t you that asshole
that tried to run the session?” You see anger gathering in his
face. He moves toward you threateningly when a passing Yuppie
taps him on the shoulder. “Excuse me. You’re the sax player,
right?” The saxophonist’s face lightens. He has been recognized.
He nods his head. “Do you play here often?” the Yuppie asks.
The saxophonist shrugs with newfound humility. The Yuppie continues:
“Good. Perfect. Can you tell me where the bathroom is?”
“Aaaiiiiiiieeeeee!” screams the saxophonist, reeling
from the sucker punch. Then he thrusts his middle finger Yuppieward,
yelling, “It’s right here, Yuppie s%!*head!” The Yuppie
stares at the finger in stunned silence. Quickly, the trombonist
leaps in, hands wringing. “Restrooms are over there, sir,” he
says, politely. “I hope you don’t mind the smell of vomit. And
sir, permit me one personal question: Are your loved ones provided
for in the event that something should happen to you, God forbid?”
Other Yuppies see the dialogue, but miss the finger and the
insurance pitch. They decide it is acceptable to talk to musicians,
despite the obvious class differences. Several more approach
the group. “Dudes, you know any Skynyrd?” asks a pony-tailed
businessman. The guitarist looks away, lest his eyes betray
him. “How about some Kenny G?” asks a well-dressed young woman.
The pianist and drummer quickly grab the saxophonist, restraining
him from further violence. There are also requests for “Pennsylvania
Polka,” “Something we can dance to,” and “Could you just leave
the CD player on?”
Across the bar, you see the newcomer and the vocalist talking
intently. You walk over to introduce yourself, but they don’t
even notice. They are forming a band. They’re going to figure
out the vocalist’s keys and record accompaniment parts on a
sequencer. Fake drums, fake bass, fake orchestra, state-of-the-art
digital deception. Then they’re going to look for gigs as a
duo. They’ll start in this very room, seeking out the club owner,
offering to play for half of what tonight’s band is making.
They are no longer traumatized by their bandstand humiliation;
they are vengeful. Justice must be served.
There’s no place for you in this conversation, so you head back
to the house musicians. Coincidentally, the club owner is talking
with them, or more precisely, yelling at them. He has
each arm over the shoulder of a rebuilt Yuppie bimbo, with a
drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. He’s screaming,
“that last set was only 30 minutes long and had just two tunes
in it!” and “vocalists are good for business and look great
on stage.” and “you cannot, under any circumstances, scream
and thrust your middle finger Yuppieward!” and “if you screw
up one more time I’m gonna find a sequenced duo and save my
money!” Then he and his silicone Valley Girls disappear into
his office. He needs to go over some figures. Closely.
Suddenly, this wretched gig becomes very important to the six
musicians. They stare at their drinks dejectedly. They can already
picture the glaring, aching white space on their calendars every
Tuesday. They can hear the painful silence of phones no longer
ringing; they’re not wanted, not needed. Rejection hurts; even
rejection from Yuppie hell. And now, their world turned upside
down, they finally see the good in one another: A saxophonist
who so desperately loves the music; a pianist with a brilliant
grasp of harmony; a drummer who throws himself headlong into
the musical moment; a bassist who selflessly lays down the pulse;
a trombonist striving to overcome the handicap of his useless
instrument. Surely this magical unit can’t be so easily undone.
There is an uncomfortable silence among them, the noises of
the bar echoing about like a bad dream. You dare not speak.
What could you possibly say?
A few minutes later, the club owner emerges from his office.
He is alone now, drink still in hand, cigar left behind. He
has more demands: an earlier start time, a dress code, a maximum
of two drinks per musician. The musicians continue to stare
silently at their glasses; those seated slump closer to the
bar. Meanwhile, the vocalist and the newcomer have spotted the
club owner. They circle around the bar to approach him from
behind. They tap his shoulder to get his attention, then quietly
talk to him just out of earshot. The musicians don’t need to
hear; they know exactly what’s going on.
Now the club owner draws the singer and newcomer into the group.
It’s time for a discussion. “Look,” he says to the band. “Can
you give me one good reason I shouldn’t book this duo for next
Tuesday?” The band is silent. “Okay, fine.” He turns to the
duo triumphantly. “Give me a reason or two why I might want
to try something different.” Now he’s having fun, pitting musicians
one against another, Chapter One in the club owner playbook.
He’s tapping the club owners’ collective subconscious, the seamy
underbelly of the jazz universe. He’s drawing strength from
the awesome, evil karma of club owners throughout time and around
the world. Disdain for musicians seeps from his every pore.
But he has underestimated the sacred tie that binds all jazz
artists, even those momentarily blinded by vengeance. The singer
and newcomer purse their lips and refuse to speak. Now the club
owner is getting irritated. “C’mon, you two,” he says. “Just
say the same s%!t you said in my ear two minutes ago. What’s
the difference?” Still they are silent and the club owner becomes
He suddenly turns to you.
“You!” he says. “You decide! You, the impartial observer. You,
Mr. Serious, holding that stupid ‘Jazz Jam Session Primer.’
Who do you think I should book next week?”
You frantically thumb through the primer, only to realize that
this section is still being written. It’s time to take the lead
now, reach deep inside and learn to improvise yourself! You
look at the house musicians staring silently at their drinks.
No question, they screwed up. They were blatantly rude to the
newcomer and the singer. Five minutes ago, the saxophonist almost
slugged you. No audience will ever like them. But they really
do love music; that much you know for sure. And they need the
You turn to the singer and the newcomer. They came to the club
wanting simply to make music. They gave it their best effort
and in return received only ridicule and scorn. But now they’re
trying to undercut the band and steal its gig. They want to
pollute the already acrid air with carcinogenic Muzak.
You need guidance. What would Dr. Laura say? Or Rush? What would
Jesus do? What would Journey do? Help, sadly, is not forthcoming;
not from radio personalities, nor from spiritual models. IH:
Don’t look at me - you’re on your own now, pal. You run
it over and over in your mind, wheels spinning. You look from
the club owner to the six musicians to the duo. The club owner
is furious, returning your glance with a burning glare. All
eight musicians avoid your eyes, stare at their drinks, or their
shoes, or the sticky, stinking floor.
And then you realize that this is not musician versus
musician. This is musician versus club owner. Artist versus
cynical businessman. Art versus commerce. And it goes deeper
still, a playing out of the grandest archetypal battle. Repressed
employee versus miserly employer. Bob Cratchett versus Scrooge.
Proletariat versus bourgeoisie. There is only one side you can
take: Limbaugh be damned!
You look the club owner in the eye. “You, sir, suck,”
you say dramatically. You quickly make your way to the bandstand,
grabbing the microphone that still bears traces of the singer’s
designer lipstick and yell, “I said, you suck!” over
the house system. A hush falls over the Yuppies. The bartender
turns off the blender. Someone kills the CD player. You point
at the club owner and repeat, more gently, “He sucks.”
The Yuppies snicker. There is applause, first a polite smattering,
then a substantial ovation. This must be “Performance Art,”
they decide. We understand that and it is good. Confidently,
you stride back to the musicians, slap a couple of twenties
on the bar, and say, “Drinks for everyone. Except him!”
pointing an accusing finger at the club owner. Then you head
for the exit.
You feel good. You’ve learned a lot about jazz jam sessions
tonight. You’ve also single-handedly defused an explosive situation
and done it with flair. As it turns out, you won’t soon be forgotten,
either. Looking back over your shoulder, you see Yuppies flocking
to the stage to be part of this new cutting edge art form. A
middle-aged businessman has the mike, and is pointing to one
of his associates near the back of the room. “Eat s%!t,” he
bellows artistically, to great laughter and applause. He passes
the mike to a slender young woman, who points at a beefy young
man near the bar. “Kiss my ass!” she warbles. The room
goes ballistic. The line behind the microphone grows, filled
out by Yuppies in search of self-expression. Meanwhile, the
house band has snuck back into the picture. It is both accompanying
and commenting upon the surreal proceedings with freely improvised
blips, bleeps, squeaks, and farts.
Your final image, as the door swings shut behind you, is of
a critic seated near the stage. He is furiously taking notes,
euphoric to be present at the birth of next “New Thing.” He
will praise the “collective spontaneity” of the Yuppies, noting
their “almost Ellingtonian integration of individual voices
into a collective fabric.” He will draw parallels between your
creation and avant-garde work of the 1960s, describing it as
“Ornette Coleman meets Laurie Anderson in a revisionist framework
for the new millennium.” He will note “a new dynamic redefining
audience as performer and performer as audience.” He will praise
“the direct and powerful text elements.” He will refer to you
as a “drive-by genius,” an “unassuming sculptor of human interactive
Your place in music history is assured.
IH: Need a manager? Try the Musicians Union directory,