For a lot of people, jazz means big band—and big band is an important part of jazz, but it’s not the whole field. Big band (or jazz orchestra) is a gateway between the classical world and the jazz world. It’s organized and balanced, and there’s always somebody there to usher you through the challenges that come up. It’s got a rhythm section, but the rhythm language is written out, and you have a section of guys who all shoot for the same objective. Here and there, a space is carved out for those who can improvise, but not everybody feels comfortable improvising.
To go beyond big band means playing with fewer and fewer musicians, and taking on more and more responsibility for the jazz lexicon. In a small ensemble, everybody is improvising all the time, and whoever is the leader can change direction in a split second. The band is only as good as everybody’s perception of who is leading at any one moment.
It’s a deep well to jump into, and the best way to stick your toe in that water is going to jam sessions. If your experience of jazz is mostly big band, you may want to start where there’s a lot of support. As you gain experience and confidence, you can handle more challenging jam session situations. You can get any level around town, from user friendly to deep water.
Live at Massey Hall is a great place to go first. It’s welcoming and supportive, and players range in age from junior high up to weekend warriors trying to get their chops back. Lots of Vincent Massey grads return to play with the ones coming up, and student musicians from all over the city meet and play together—it’s a really important community-builder. Live at Massey Hall is run by talented high school kids, and you can kick back with a soft drink while you wait for a song you’re ready to play on. They also have a great website (masseyjazz.ca) with dates, lists of tunes to prep, and a bunch of resources to deepen your understanding of the art form.
When you have a few tunes under your belt and want to up the challenge, you can check out the Monday Night Jam at the Vinyl Revival. Headed up by Max Osawa, Marc Tugby, Chenoa McKelvey, and friends, many from the Jazz Studies program at the U of M, the Monday Night Jam is a place where intermediate players take the lead. The place is retro, the vibe is fun, and there’s lots of support for players at every level. They post tunes in advance on their Facebook page, which is helpful if you’re still learning repertoire. The Vinyl Revival isn’t licenced, so there’s no age limit—rumours are the baristas are excellent.
The Cool Wednesday Night Hang is the oldest jam session in the city—we’re into our thirteenth year! This is definitely the deep water I spoke about earlier. There are lots of advanced players at The Hang, and sometimes really magical things happen on the bandstand. (Of course, there’s no guarantee of that!) At The Hang, you can see how things work when players have lots of tunes they’re ready to play on, and some finesse on their instruments. The Jazz Faculty takes the first set, and we always enjoy hanging out with upcoming players, offering encouragement or coaching as needed. If you want an experience with a high level player, you can get it at The Hang. If you want to wait until you’re ready, that’s fine too. Quincy Davis is the repertoire master—he generally posts a tune list on his Facebook ahead of time.
So how do jam sessions benefit big bands? Well, you learn more about rhythm, and the importance of having your own rhythmic sensibility to bring to the mix. You learn how song structures work, and how to keep them in your head so you can improvise. You learn about why improvising is so important. Ultimately, you bring more independence and experience back to your band, and that lifts your section up and really helps the conductor get their job done. After all, the goal is a band where every player feels responsible for their whole section. Unlike a classical conductor, the big band leader is more of a traffic cop, so you want to be a good driver. Jam sessions help you learn how to drive.
You can hear what I mean when the advanced students in the Jazz Studies program get together as the University of Manitoba Jazz Orchestra. Derrick Gardner is the traffic cop there—and he’s a really good one. But the players make it happen. They have been shedding on their instruments, and developing their individual musical sensibilities through the jam sessions.
You can hear what the UMJO has accomplished in the first term of this school year at their concert on December 9—you’ll be amazed. They perform at the Conklin Theatre in Taché Hall, the new music building on campus. It’s gonna knock your socks off!