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Jam Session Etiquette

November 20, 2012

A USER’S GUIDE TO JAZZ JAM SESSIONS

The concept of a jam session is simple: Musicians who may or may not have played together before get together to play songs they know. It is an unrehearsed situation, and every player has to be alert. Here are some tips to make your next jam session experience better for you and everyone else.

First, know the tunes. There are many fake books and lead sheets with basic standard songs, and it’s best to learn as many of these as possible, and in several keys. If you sit in on any session and don’t know the tune, you will most likely flub your turn in the sun and possibly incur the wrath of the other musicians. Know the melody, chord changes, and form. If you don’t know a tune they call out, and you can’t ask for a tune you do know, then DON’T PLAY.

Be able to play in the tempo they count off.

Don’t overplay, show off, or take too many choruses. Other people have to play too.

If you are in the rhythm section, your main job is to accompany the soloist. You are supposed to make that person sound better. It’s not the time to drown out the soloist, no matter how great you think you are playing.

If you are a horn player, don’t go off to the corner and noodle while other people are playing.

Elementary school taught us not to talk too much in class. Don’t play over someone else’s solo, or noodle in between tunes.

Be ready to go when it is your turn to play. Being wishy-washy about any approach will lead to musical mediocrity.

Don’t get visibly mad at other players, even if they sound like a pack of egrets in heat. Smile, don’t frown. Or at least keep a straight face.

If you plan to trade fours with the drummer, most seasoned players will know what is going on. You can also hold out four fingers and motion to the drummer. Hand motions work better than yelling over a tenor solo.

IF YOU ARE CALLING A TUNE

Call a song that everybody knows. If you have a chart, that is fine, but it’s best to call fairly well-known standard songs. Just because you know a tune doesn’t mean everyone else does.

Pay attention to what types of tunes were played before you. You don’t want to play a tune just like the previous one, much less a tune that has already been played.

Stay away from long ballads. Time is of the essence. Slow songs last longer, and if you have several horn players, they will want to play, and then you have a twenty-minute ballad that drags on. Ballads are fine if there are only one or two soloists.

Know your keys. This is especially important for a singer. Nothing frustrates musicians more that a lackadaisical singer with no idea what key he or she sings in.

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