Concerts, recordings, and jam sessions are all important parts of the jazz culture, but to me the jam session is the truest representation of jazz. The pure spontaneity of the music is really brought to life at a jam session, where players will walk onto the bandstand without knowing what song they’ll be playing, who they’ll be playing with, or what tempo, style, or key they’ll be playing in. If you don’t know the tune, you need to figure it out on the spot or you’re going to have a rough time.
That kind of trial-by-fire is an essential part of the learning experience for players, and it can be really thrilling for a listener to observe musicians navigating unfamiliar songs in real time. The pursuit of the unknown is an integral part of jazz ideology, and for developing musicians, what is intimidating eventually becomes exciting and liberating.
The environment of a jam session is completely different from a concert. As clichéd as it may sound, there is a certain vibe of authenticity when listening to a jazz band in a small club rather than under stage lights in a seated venue. The musicians have a greater level of freedom, and nothing comes across as contrived. People can let out shouts of encouragement when they like what a soloist is doing, and that creates an energy for the players to feed off of. In a concert setting, everybody is a little more bashful. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that a band in concert will typically have a specific set of rehearsed music, but the energy and the genuineness of jazz isn’t there in the same way.
In every jam session I’ve been to, anybody can come up and play. The regulars tend to be very welcoming to newcomers. If you’re in the room, you’re a part of the community. If you walk on stage, you’re in the band. This spirit of inclusion is only natural considering that jazz was born through an amalgamation of musical cultures from around the world.
In a lot of sessions you will see seasoned professionals playing on the same stage as eager-to-learn students. How cool is that?! To have your heroes show an interest in you can be profoundly inspiring and encouraging. Mentorship has always been an important part of jazz. People helped you when you were coming up, so you feel a responsibility to pass on the favour, and so on. It’s one of my favourite parts of the culture.
There is no shortage of jam session options here in Winnipeg. The Cool Wednesday Night Hang has been around for over a dozen years, and opens up every week with a set from the U of M’s jazz faculty, so you know you’re in for a treat! Live At Massey Hall, now a couple of years old, is a great place to be one Friday evening a month. It’s hosted by Vincent Massey Collegiate, and welcomes players at all levels—it’s also minor-friendly (no alcohol).
Both of these jam sessions stop running during the summer, so some friends and I have just begun a new session occurring every Monday evening at Vinyl Revival, a cool little spot on McGillivray just off Pembina Highway. It’s not licensed, so everybody can get in. Our house band is a trio consisting of Marc Tugby on bass, Chenoa McKelvey on guitar, and yours truly on drums—we’re all students in the Jazz Studies program at the U of M. We play a short set at 7:00pm, and sometimes additional musicians will sit in for one or two tunes of our set. (If you’re interested, contact us in advance, and we’ll do our best to make it happen.) The jam session follows that opening set—everybody is welcome!
Musicians and audiences are equally important parts of the jam session equation—musicians hone their chops by working together under pressure, testing themselves to think and respond musically in real time, in front of people who will listen and encourage. There’s room for everyone—it doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran player or if you’ve never heard a note of jazz in your life, come say hi and enjoy the music with us!