WWW.PhillyJazz.Org - One of America's websites
Jam Sessions are an old Jazz tradition, and serve several important functions in the Jazz community. They allow emerging players to test their skills in front of an audience. Jam sessions also provide an opportunity for "cutting contests" where musicians vie for dominance by comparing their imaginations and improvisational skills in a live face-to-face situation. Also, Jam sessions allow musicians new to the area to network, and show what they have to offer. Finally, club owners get cheap entertainment on an off-night, which is why these typically occur on Monday and Tuesday nights. Philadelphia has several long-standing jam sessions.
WARNING : Although some of these are "institutionalized", like 23rd St., Bob and Barbara's, others open end close at the whim of the owners. Call before loading that upright in the car .....
First off, let's make the important distinction between a jam session and "sitting in." If a venue advertises a policy of "sitting-in" that means that musicians are invited to play with the regular band, typically after they have played a few sets as a group. This is really not the same as an "open mike" or "open jam", but if you are a pro or semi-pro, you are certainly within your rights to ask to "sit in." Realize the expectations will be higher than an open jam session, so if you are unsure of your abilities, this is not the time to find out how good you are. These are the occasions when you'd better hope you can play Cherokee in B.
Upon occasion, a working group may ask another musician to "Sit In" on a regular gig. This is an honor, typically bestowed upon visiting professionals as a courtesy, and can often be fun for all. It is a SERIOUS breech for musicians of any level to ASK to sit in on a professional engagement. If the leader and group members want you on the bandstand with them, trust me, THEY will ask YOU !! Even if you are best friends with the leader or one of the sidemen, it puts them in a very awkward position to either acquiesce or refuse. It will do more harm to your reputation among musicians than good for your career if ask to "sit- in" where it is not the accepted practice.
Players who are new to the scene would do well to visit a few times without their axes, and check out the scene. Get a feel for the type of tunes played, and how other visiting musicians are treated. Especially make note as to whether or not reading on the stands is permitted. In general, at any session worth it's salt in Philly you will be expected to know the tunes by heart. Less formal sessions may be more lenient. Regardless, don't assume that because the regular bass player who has been there every Tuesday for five years is reading a chart that you will get the same courtesy. There is a sign on the bandstand at 23rd Street that says "If you don't KNOW the tune, don't PLAY the tune." - 'nuff said.
It doesn't hurt to buy the leader a drink, and make some small talk but watch how quickly a beer drinker can acquire a taste for Courvoisier when you do !! When you do get the nod, you should be aware of the "house rules". Most sessions exist because the owner of the venue is interested in selling drinks to customers. If you are short, there's not much you can do, but if you are a well-to-do retired professional then spend a few bucks. You don't need to get shit-faced, but unless SOMEBODY buys drinks (often the house band gets them free) the session will eventually be cancelled.
You may get to choose your tune, but be prepared to have it chosen for you, and not necessarily in the key you are used to. If you are a beginner, don't overstay your welcome. If you are invited back for a second tune, that's a good sign. If you are not, don't leave in a huff, but promise yourself to woodshed more starting the following day. A sign-up list is a great idea, but be prepared to be "bumped" if a local legend walks in, as they are typically rewarded the respect of not having to wait in line. If you are lucky, you may get to sit in with him/her, but unfortunately, people who run jams will probably call the "A-list" players up for him/her.
Pianists are usually happy for a break, especially after forty or fifty choruses of "Rhythm Changes." This is a the best time to ask to sit in on keyboards.
Horn players generally have it pretty easy, but if you are a newcomer, it's probably best to avoid bringing your combo stand and setting up your alto/tenor/flute/flugelhorn until you are a regular. This dates me, but I remember a time (pre-AIDS) when a horn player would hand me an axe, mouthpiece and all, and let me blow when I ended up in a strange town and was able to seek out some live Jazz. Now I usually carry a mouthpiece and reed with me, but it is pretty rare anymore to find players that will hand over a Mark VI to a total stranger.
Also, just because a horn is mobile does not mean an "open invitation" to wander back and forth at will. Play the tunes on which you are invited, but don't take advantage of the fact you can just walk up and start blowing. If the House Band declares the last tune of the night "House band Only", then respect the request and leave the bandstand. Don't be offended, but just come back next week.
Guitarists can generally use a house amp if one is available, but ask the guitarist first. If no such animal exists, you should inquire first of the session leader before setting one up, and at least wait for a break if you need to tear it down and leave.
I have recently heard from a new bassist in town who was declined when he asked to use a regular bassist's upright. You probably wouldn't think to haul your German flatback into a club where you might not even get to play a single tune. As I said earlier, it is best to check a session out as a listener first, and just ask flat-out what the policies are.
Also, house bassists have probably already been told not to solo every tune. If you are a sitting-in bassists, it might be appreciated to look for a nod. It is, granted, a jam session where you expect to blow. Bass solos are a controversial topic. Use your own judgment.
Almost inevitably the drummer will be left-handed. Statistics will probably bear out that left-handed drummers at jam sessions far outnumber left-handed drummers in the general population, so you can safely assume this occurs to discourage drummers from sitting in. Draw your own conclusions, but again, ask the drummer if it is alright to move his high-hat for a couple of tunes, but don't expect to rearrange his kit.
Harmonica players - let your conscience be your guide. Unless you are Toots Thielmans, don't get on the stand during "Giant Steps" and start wailing because you suddenly feel inspired. If you are not familiar with either Toots Thielmans nor "Giant Steps", remember that jam sessions need audiences as much as players. Here is a link to Blues Harp jam etiquette
Percussionists - It is probably best to seek out a Unitarian-Universalist church whose Wiccan committee hosts a drum circle on full-moons. You'll get free coffee too !!
In general, singers tend to get "no respect" as jam sessions unless they are well known. Don't take it personally, but if you do get selected, try to pick something unusual, but not TOO esoteric.. Unless it is a real strain, try to learn tunes in their common "Real Book" keys.
Tunes to avoid for singers:
Stormy Monday Blues
All of Me
Over the Rainbow
Lover Man (or just about any Billie Holliday tune, unless you REALLY REALLY do it well.)
My Funny Valentine (added by Mel Martin)
Summertime (multiple requests to avoid this one)
Don't get discouraged if you feel you've been mistreated. It's part of paying dues, and even Charlie Parker was laughed off the stand as a young man. Legend has it that was his inspiration to practice hard. Look how HE turned out !!! .... Uhhh, maybe that was a bad example ..... Anyway, LOTS of great players have been embarrassed at jams. It'll make you a better musician eventually.
Here is another etiquette list on SaxOnTheWeb .
Valery Kotelnikov (aka Dr. K) has compiled a lit of tunes frequently played at Philly area jams. With his permission, it is reproduced on this page:
Frequently-Encountered Tunes on the Philly Jam scene
Some of these sessions are long-running traditions. Some are new, and may or may not last. Any reports from intrepid jammers/ fans are quite welcome. Email me with any comments. Subject to change at any time !!
New !! Triumph Brewing Company Monday Nights
Bobby Simone's Restaurant
52 E. State St.
Bob and Barbara's - Wed. w/ Lucky Thompson
Dowling's Place - Sundays - Lucky Thompson and The Budesa Brothers
Chris' Jazz Cafe' Tuesday nights from 8:00 to midnight with Victor North.
Round Guys Brewing Company Wednesday nights.
Open mic Jazz every Wednesday in the Taproom. Starts at 7:30pm Bring your instrument (drums available) and jam with the band or sit back and listen!