What is a Jam Session?

Posted by: Dave Douglas on April 30, 2010 @ 3:23 pm
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts)

They announced I was leading it so I asked, and got blank stares in return.

It was clearly the wrong question, so I followed up: Is it Standards? Is it Free Improvisation? Is it a reading of original compositions? Is it preformed groups getting up to play?

It is musicians who don’t normally play together ad libbing music of some sort. ‘Jam’ connotes enjoyment. ‘Session’ points toward informality.

In the event, we began by reading some fun and simple originals. Felt good, nice excitement, a fair amount of mistakes, but everybody getting to play something they liked. Next step, open the session up. It immediately became standards, with 8 to 10 players on stage, each piece lasting about 15 minutes, solos in the standard order. Concentration waned and people started wandering off to the bar. Even the players didn’t look like they were enjoying it. With the start of each new tune I felt a small burst of panic, like the next 15 minutes of my life were completely predetermined.

I admit, this is just one session and doesn’t stand in for the whole idea of standards jam sessions. But at this one I had to ask why these young gifted musicians were playing these songs. Did they feel they had to? Or that it was the only thing they had in common? I didn’t really get a clear answer, and most likely there wasn’t one. I asked if anyone had anything they would like to play. Out came more originals, and the fun, the risk, the edge, and total involvement returned. Relief. Music.

Of course a few nights later I heard two masters playing standards and had to give up my whole thing. It was completely their own and masterfully creative and exciting. That is indeed the music that one must learn to play jazz, but to perform it there has to be a deeper, personal relationship.

I’ve since talked to a few musicians who’ve pointed out that lots of players will disagree with me, that the bulk of players like to hang out at standards jam sessions. My idea of replacing the sessions with shared originals would meet with outcry from musicians of all stripes. I cede to them.

But what if we put the onus on the tunes we write? In other words, original jam session tunes have to be simple and compelling enough to be read, and grokked, from the bandstand. An emerging new repertoire of jazz standards that we can call our own.

Has anyone had any experience with that? Am I way out of line? Is there another way to keep standards sessions interesting? Or do I just need to chill out? And what about from the audience / listener’s perspective?


  1. […] 1 votes vote What is a Jam Session? They announced I was leading it so I asked, and got blank stares in return. It was clearly the […]

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  2. Once in a while, there is a jam session (often not “jazz”-related) that is a lot of fun. It can happen on standards or originals…. but it’s when people make *eye contact* and try to make *music* together, not compete and show off. That’s when it’s the most fun for me!

    Comment by elizabeth! — April 30, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  3. I’ve been attending a weekly jam session in Atlanta for the past couple of years. In my experience, the same tune can sound great one night, and then lifeless the following week. That might even happen with the same exact lineup of musicians. So it would seem that the end result isn’t determined by song choice, but rather by how the musicians are feeling on the stage. When they’re energized and having a good time, the music always shines. They can make anything sound great. But when they’re tired, bored, or there’s a bad vibe on the stage, the music always suffers.

    As a listener, I’m mostly listening for the solos. The actual tune isn’t that important to me, but I will admit that I don’t look forward to hearing 32-bar heads played the same way over and over. However, I think the familiarity of standards is important in jam sessions both to players and listeners. Since there’s no rehearsal, the familiarity helps hold things together and (oddly) provides a greater sense of freedom. For example, you can stretch out and know that you won’t totally lose the band or the audience. Perhaps we could improve things by adding newer popular songs to the standard book.

    In your case with the young musicians at the jam session, it could be that the standards didn’t go well for a variety of reasons. Maybe the kids thought standards are lame and didn’t want to play them. Maybe they thought YOU would think they’re lame so they thought they’re lame! Maybe they weren’t that familiar with the changes and were embarrassed not to know the repertoire. Or maybe they just didn’t like the specific tunes that were called. If any of those were true, then the standards were probably doomed from the start.


    Comment by Rick — May 1, 2010 @ 8:48 am

  4. standards jam-sessions are good for young musicians for learning tunes, good for older musicians for practicing tunes, and awful for listeners!
    i prefer to have these sessions at a friends house pot-luck style. bring some food or drink and let’s play some music!
    and, yeah, it’s always a treat when people bring in (relatively) short-form original tunes for sure.
    my .02 cents.

    Comment by Dave Chisholm — May 1, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  5. I feel like bringing original tunes into a jam session is frowned upon a lot of times unless everyone on the bandstand is already familiar with your playing/writing. Otherwise you will most likely get “vibed” by the other musicians. A lot of players will give you the “who does this guy think he is?” attitude until they actually hear what you brought in. I think a lot of the players who want to play nothing but standards struggle from a lack of ability/creativity to write original music.

    Comment by Elliot Ross — May 1, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  6. I agree with Dave C.’s sentiment about standards for listeners. That said, after a set of original tunes, a well placed standard (or cover) can be really effective. Also agree with pot luck dinner jams being great.

    But I think — to get back to the question, What Is A Jam Session? — I’ll quote Michael J. Fox as my answer:

    “It’s a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes and try and keep up…”

    Comment by Jim Tuerk — May 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  7. Hi.
    Nice questions here…
    I graduated in classical music and now on I’m try to learn the jazz idiom about 3 years…and I rarely come out to jam sessions…the competition spirit and some “pressure” that I feel in the air make me want to avoid this meetings…of course sometimes i felt this is a gap in order to learn some tunes, and some “way” of play it…but I prefer every time to jam with friends…and with some different sets…(this is very difficult to set sometimes…but when it happen to find friends to play it’s great!) I don’t know if this is a very “artistic stress point” or if i just want to jump over some stages of learning but I really more focus on improvising in different ambients and try to write tunes.

    Do you think Standards are good basis to work on improvisation?or do you prefer other methods?
    Modern jazz run through others needs, but can these more “old” things helped you in “new” music??

    Give your 2 cents:)

    all best


    Comment by tcsax — May 1, 2010 @ 11:05 am

  8. I was looking in Webster’s and the definitions always include improvisation but leave genre open. Then I stumbled on this use from the Thesaurus: “we were just jamming and his amp blew.”

    Sounds like fun.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep them coming. Rick, point taken. Tiago, I’m going to think about that and check back in.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — May 1, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  9. […] What Is A Jam Session? (Greenleaf) […]

    Pingback by TuneBlog: By Dan DiPiero — May 2, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  10. I’ve noticed in general that jam sessions in Colorado are primarily standards based, and yet when people get together outside of a club setting and play at someone’s house, or a more informal setting that freer things are called, be it totally free improvisations, parameter based improvisations, or taking very open ended standards and taking them out. The more formal the setting, the more inside/straight ahead the jam session.

    Either way, when it comes to playing original compositions, I feel an impulse to have to pay the musicians to do it, even if it is just getting together to jam…maybe that’s my own hangup though!

    Comment by Matt Smiley — May 2, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

  11. I chuckled when I saw the title of your post. Since I’ve been in Europe, often working with student groups here, I have revisited what a jam session could or should be. When I was in New York in the ’80s, there was a clear repertoire that players used at the jam sessions in clubs — everyone was expected to know the basic jazz canon from the ’40s – ’60s. I have somewhat mixed, yet fond, memories (being a bassist) of playing Mr. P.C. or some such tune for an entire set with tenor players lined up and down the bar waiting for their chance to wear the rhythm section out. I was playing once with Jaki Byard at the Jazz Forum jam session when he cleared the stage by playing “Lush Life.” I was glad I knew the tune, and it was a welcome change of pace. The gaggles of horn players sat that one out, only to return on the next tune.

    Regarding your ideas about rethinking the jam session concept: I think it is great to go to a jam session prepared with a couple of original (or somebody’s original) tunes that are easy to grasp and good to improvise on. I find that students and players here in Germany do not know many standards, but they can read and deal with tunes if they are well written. It is a good alternative to playing “All the Things,” although the classic standards can always be mixed in as an option. One of the main differences that I see here is that the standard jazz canon is not taught as extensively as it is in the U.S., so maybe that plays a part in the available repertoire at jam sessions.

    Comment by John Goldsby — May 3, 2010 @ 2:18 am

  12. It’s a really vital question, and one I’ve asked before: “hey, wanna jam?” – “what do you mean?” – blank look.

    The absolute nadir of this is the ‘NAMM-jam’ – trade show exchanges of bop licks at insane speeds, without the slightest hat-tip to any of the usual qualities that engaging music might be assumed to possess.

    I ran for a year or so a ‘spontaneous composition’ night in London called the Recycle Collective – it was free improv, but without the burden that that term can carry, especially in London with our long history with a-idiomatic improv. For me the composition was just putting the right players together. The structure was 3 players, three sets, each set progressing ‘solo, duo, trio’ – so each person played solo, every duo combo was explored, and three trio sections were curated, one by each player… beyond that, there were no stylistic rules, and we ended up covering an enormous range of stylistic territory over the year, often by coupling players that hadn’t met, and on some occasions hadn’t heard of each other…

    But, what I noticed was that I would get emails from people asking to ‘come along to your jam-night and play’. Drawing the distinction between ‘forward-facing’ improvised music and the more indulgent notion of musicians wailing over a bunch of standards or ‘funk in E’ was often lost on musicians.

    It wasn’t lost on the audience. They came along expecting quality, expecting the specific sound-world that my contribution brought to things (that was probably the most constraining factor, and certainly gave context for both audience and fellow musicians) but beyond that were open to whatever we had. The only complaint I ever had was from an orchestral conductor who came looking to pick a fight with some improvisors. Ah well.

    So, I think more people need to ask the question you’re asking. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with playing standards, clearly, but it would seem like a total waste of energy, time and motivation to always assume that’s what’s meant, just because we can’t be bothered to actually carve out some creative space where Good Things can be more important than The Right Notes.

    Comment by Steve Lawson — May 3, 2010 @ 2:36 am

  13. Good comments thus far. Sessions can be competitive or inclusive. I prefer the latter, though at the last one I was at I took bets on if people would blow the form on Wayne Shorters “yes and no”. With regard to originals, I wouldn’t put my work in front of anyone I didn’t know. A house jam? Yes. people who know me also know I’ll bring something. A club/public type jam? Not unless I knew the leader well. I also get dissiluusioned when the participants drop off when anything other than a blues in one of four keys is called. There still exists a need to learn the standards.

    Comment by Matt Erion — May 3, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  14. Love this idea. I completely mirror your sentiments, Dave. In fact, I recently participated in the exact scenario you described (1st hour = originals, then “jam” starts and the bar suddenly seems more attractive).

    I like your idea of composing some tunes that are easy enough to be read at a session but unique enough to reflect your own tastes as an artist. I guess I’ve always thought of it as black and white: either we’re playing my originals (or another band member’s) — which require solid rehearsal — or, we’re in Standard Land.

    Comment by Bob Reynolds — May 4, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  15. Tiago – Of course it is good to learn as much music as one can, hopefully through sheer love of music. If you ask me, that’s what I would say. Specific to your question, I believe that learning standards has a lot to inform us about learning to improvise or indeed about playing any kind of music. They are an indispensable part of the legacy, the tradition of music as it has been given to us. Learning them is, in my opinion, really important. Performing them is a whole other mountain to climb…


    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. I guess what I’d like to see is music sessions that simply include everyone. Why make the assumption that a jam session has to be standards, or free improv for that matter? It leaves so many people out. My wish is to see music made based on our ability to make it together, rather than assuming it has to fit into certain parameters. Yes, I’m dreaming, I know.

    Standards sessions will always exist and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t. They’re great fun and they serve an incredible function for many, many musicians. I’m just looking for a 21st century open forum where music can be played communally in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone or make assumptions as to content. Why couldn’t a jam session be all those things? Standards, free, in between, originals, folk songs, etc.

    Matt S. – Good point about feeling a need to pay people to play your original music. I agree there’s a challenge there. And also there will be ups and downs, sometimes it would work, sometimes not. Certainly safer to call a standard. However, as others pointed out, sometimes that clicks, sometimes not.

    But I think the idea of bringing a new tune to a jam session puts a good challenge on composers to make good, clear charts and good, clear music. Something that you can put on the stand and instantly sends the band in a direction, in a way that players can grab on to. Something that even a mid-level sightreader could get to without too much fuss.

    Then you can get to the music in the moment, which seems to me to be the goal of great music making. Listeners want to hear who musicians are (yes, including chops and virtuosity), but also how they function in a group and what particular story they have to tell. That’s what sets a performance on fire. I just feel like we shouldn’t be cutting off that spark when we go to a jam session.

    Comments remain welcome here and above.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — May 4, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  16. As a musician, I’m usually turned off by “jazz” jam sessions because I just don’t like the music that’s being played. It’s not that I’m that opposed to listening to standards, but I always get the feeling when I’m at a public jam session, the only one who is feeling it is whoever is soloing. So, maybe it’s better to have these types of jam sessions privately. However, I think that if those public jams are turned into private ones you’d see a more collaborative musical effort, whether its standards or original tunes or free improvisation. Playing original tunes with unfamiliar musicians is likely in a private setting, but I’ve never seen it in a public setting. Wish I had! I would be immediately interested in listening to and participating in a jam session where instead of assuming standards, everyone assumed original compositions. That would be truly inspiring! If that were to happen, I think more people would go to jam sessions as a way to listen to and/or participate in something more musically, artistically satisfying. Assuming originals could bring that deeper, personal relationship to the dynamic of the session and may allow standards (if they are called) to have that spark…maybe.

    Then again, I’m almost always more drawn to original compositions…

    Great post!


    Comment by Brian Lewis Smith — May 4, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  17. Interesting topic for discussion…

    Theres a session here in Seattle thats dealing with that exact issue. The Racer Sessions are held weekly and musicians from all walks of life come down, though they are mostly jazz musicians. All are dedicated to making original music. Each week, the first set is curated by a performer or group. They’re required to write a blog post about the music they will present along with ideas/thoughts about how the jam session will go. Sometimes its duos only, other times its exploring a particular feeling, another you’re a character in a book, etc, etc. It all gets recorded and posted on the blog for all to hear, the idea being that we learn from making music and sharing ideas together.

    The response has been great. The place is packed (on a sunday night!) and theres some pretty cool music being made. Its also all ages and the place is full of kids (since i’m almost 40 kids = anyone under 30!) high schoolers even, presenting their own original music. Its a great way to exchange ideas, meet new musicians and collaborate. We’re actually communicating about/with music, which is what its all about, right? The energy is palpable.

    I dont like standards jam sessions, though I like playing standards. I think the main reason is that for most people playing at a standards session, standards aren’t their music. Jazz is about finding your own music. Some people find it in standards, many dont. You can hear that, which is why i like to head to the bar. People making and finding their own music? Thats engaging.


    Comment by Greg Sinibaldi — May 5, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  18. That sounds really great, Greg. Care to share the url? Sounds like a project that should be duplicated across the country…. Maybe at Banff next month… hmmm.

    This is a pretty self-selecting bunch here, lots of good creative ideas. But I have to (maybe I don’t have to, but I am going to) step to the defense of standards sessions. There’s definitely an art to playing jazz jam sessions well, and for a certain kind of player they are absolutely essential. So again, the idea isn’t to get rid of them, but to have an awareness that they are not for everyone, and to find a way to have sessions where all kinds of players can contribute.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — May 5, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  19. Very excellent discussion. I’m almost 60 now and played a lot of standards/blues-based sessions when I was younger. It was a way to test and measure yourself against a very specific set of-if you’ll excuse the pun-“standards.” Emotionally, this could be either tough or toughening. If you saw your chops weren’t up to speed, you shedded and if that didn’t work and you wanted to stay involved in jazz, maybe you moved into composition, arranging, recording, etc.

    If the flexibility had existed to bring in original material as has been suggested by Dave, Greg and others, I believe that other improvisational avenues would have been pursued by those who heard and wanted to use changes, but did not naturally think in bop terms (and did not necessarily think “free”). I think of someone like Booker Little as an example of that kind of player. I imagine the same would hold true today for younger players going through the same kind of self-evaluation.

    Comment by Steve Provizer — May 7, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  20. I’m not just saying this because I’m a bassist, but the success or failure of a standards jam session depends hugely on the rhythm section. If the bass, drums and piano are content with just doing an Aebersold-style spang-spang-a-lang accompaniment to the production line of horn players then you’re in for a very dull evening, and one which can almost make you question the value of jazz as an art form, reinforcing as it does the stereotype of the music as being self-indulgent and all about empty display. On the other hand if the rhythm section is interested enough to vary the accompaniment behind the soloists and really orchestrate each tune, then the music goes to a whole other level – especially if the horn players are prepared to respond and not just trot out licks No. 1-50. For me I love to play jam sessions if I know the drummer and know that we can get something going on even the most hackneyed of material. In that scenario a standards jam session can really be something. For me – and I think Miles’ ‘Plugged Nickel’ recordings are the proof of this – it’s not about the material, it’s about the attitude you bring to it.

    Comment by Ronan Guilfoyle — May 8, 2010 @ 2:13 am

  21. I kind of think similar to Ronan. And i believe that if the people involved in the session are relaxed enough and open enough to respond to what they really hear…and their primary intention was doing music, (this is maybe the whole point, whatever music means to you) then something good could happen to listners and musicians. (obviously this state of mind sometimes it’s very hard…if you’re not secure about something…not know the tune well and your level could be important to this point too because some periods of everybody development are more relaxed then the other, and with more lack of confidence, don’t you think?)

    again, if people are very interested in “show off”…there’s no vibe and it became no organic and the room offer sometimes onother atractions and i go away as a listener…if music shines you play it and you shine with it in a very human way of sharing and comunicate.

    all best

    Comment by Tiago Cordeiro — May 8, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  22. I forgot to say…so far i believe doesn’t matter if it was standards or not if people involved don’t try to make music together.

    Comment by Tiago Cordeiro — May 8, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  23. I read a quote once to the effect that there’s only been one mob throughout history, just with different participants, and we’ve all been to jam sessions that feel the same way. (And not in a good way.) I do like the freedom and comfort that comes out of playing standards at sessions, especially if the players know each other well, have their listening chops engaged, and aren’t looking to cut anyone–but I definitely wish there was less of a knee-jerk resistance to the type of session-friendly originals mentioned above. Now I should put my composing where my mouth is and come up with some…

    Comment by Ian Carey — May 8, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  24. The link referenced above for those interested…



    Comment by Greg Sinibaldi — May 10, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

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