If there’s one thing that divides jazz musicians more often than not, it’s jam sessions. Jam sessions can be one of the most enjoyable events that you participate in as a jazz musician, or they can be nightmares from which you think will never end.
Often there’s a fine line between these two types of jazz jam session experiences, and that line is defined by the preparation and etiquette of those musicians in the audience that are called up to jam over the course of the night.
While you don’t have control over the other musicians in the audience, you can make sure that you provide a positive contribution to the evening’s festivities by coming prepared and interacting in a positive way with the other musicians.
If you’re new to jam sessions, or have had a negative experience and weren’t sure why, this article will provide you with 10 jazz jam session tips and etiquette pointers that will guide you towards a positive jam experience.
If you’ve got a funny jam session story, or you learned a hard lesson on the bandstand, share it in the comments section below so that other musicians can learn from your positive and negative jam session experiences.
Preparing for a Jam Session
Even before you get to a jam session, there are a number of ways that you can prepare at home to ensure that you’ll have a positive experience on stage. Often times the worst jam session experiences happen because a musician is unprepared for the tunes being called, forgets their gear, or otherwise not ready for that night’s jam.
Here are four jazz jam session tips that will make sure you’re well prepared to take the stage and be successful at your next local jam.
Prepare 5 Jazz Standards
If you’ve been to a jam session before, you’ll know that they can go on for hours at a time.
Although the jazz repertoire is expansive, there are core jazz standards that are often called at jam session more often than others.
The jam session house band, and the jammers themselves will avoid playing a tune more than once during a single jam session. So, if you only prepare one or two tunes, and they get called, you’ll be out of luck for that night’s session.
The 5 tunes you learn don’t have to be all complex bebop tunes. You could even learn 5 different blues tunes, but just make sure you know 5 different melodies before heading out to the jam. If you’re unsure of what the best tunes to learn are for your local jam session, head down to the jam this week and write down the tunes that are called when players go up to jam. Then, start by learning a handful of those tunes at home.
You could also ask the house band, who will usually be happy to give you advice on which tunes to prepare for that particular jam session. From there, you can begin learning those tunes as you prepare to go up and play at the next jam session.
Amps and Other Gear
Not having an amp at a jam is an issue that can be easily avoided.
If you’re familiar with the house band and know they have a guitar player in the group, you don’t need to worry as a much about bringing an amp.
When you’re unsure about the amp situation, the easiest solution is to simply bring an amp just in case. You can always leave it in your car, or at the side of the stage if it’s not needed.
Just be prepared for other guitarists to see your amp, and if they dig it, possibly ask you to use it when they go up to jam. You can say yes or no to this request. But, you’ll probably get asked, so maybe bring an amp you don’t mind sharing as it’s a good way to introduce yourself to the other guitar players in the room.
When it comes time to choose a guitar amp, bring an amp that’s easy to set up and has a solid clean channel.
Lastly, make sure it’s “goldilocks” amp, one that’s big enough to be heard over the drums, but not too big that it takes up a chunk of the stage. It’s just right.
You should also double check that you have a cable, tuner, picks, guitar strap, and other items you’ll need to perform. There’s nothing worse than getting up on stage, and then forgetting a cable, or worse a pick.
So do a quick check before leaving the house to make sure you’ve got everything you need…
Dealing With Nerves
It’s more than likely that you’ll be a bit nervous, especially if you’ve never been to a jam session, or it’s a new jam session and you’re going for the first time.
This is totally normal, and we’ve all been there.
One of the best ways to get over your nerves once you’re at the jam session is to just go up and play. Get it over with, like pulling off a Band-Aid all at once. Sure it might be a painful experience the first time, but you might be surprised how quickly the nerves fade away once you’re on stage.
And, if you’re still nervous during the actual performance, it’s OK. Just do your best, and with time and experience you’ll learn how to deal with your nerves, and even harness them and turn them into positive energy on stage.
Everyone deals with nerves to some degree or another, so just do your best, and know that you’re not alone if you feel nervous about getting up at a jam session.
Practicing with Backing Tracks
Even before you get to the gig, you can practice exercises at home to prepare yourself the best you can for jamming on stage.
One of the best ways to prepare yourself for a jam session is to jam on tunes you don’t know in your practice routine.
Put on a jazz backing-track for a tune you don’t know, and practice either playing by ear, or reading a lead sheet, over that tune. Play the chords and solo over the tune, as you’ll be required to do both at the jam, and don’t stop if you get lost. Instead, try and use your ears and listen for cues that can help you get back on track. If you get lost in a jam session, you won’t be able to stop the tune and start over.
So, practicing getting back on track if you get off the form at home is the best way to prepare yourself to deal with this situation on stage.
Jazz Jam Session Etiquette
As well as being prepared before you play, you’ll need to make sure you know how to act and interact with the other musicians when you hit the bandstand.
Often, how you interact with other musicians, and how you treat the jam session process, will dictate if you’re invited back, or even invited on stage for this jam session.
Being friendly, asking advice when needed, and being courteous to other musicians and the house band can go a long way in establishing a positive rapport with everyone involved in the jam.
If you’re a nice person, you try hard to play the best you can, and you encourage others, chances are you’ll be invited back to the next jam night.
If you don’t behave in a positive way, well, this might be your last jam session with these musicians.
Ask to Play
Rather than jumping up on stage between tunes, it’s always best to talk to the host band, either before the jam or between sets, to ask when you can get up and play.
Often there’ll be a queue for jammers, or some previously made arrangements of when people get up and play, so be sure to check in before setting up your gear.
Another popular way to run a jam session is to have a sign-up sheet, where you just put your name and instrument and a tune you want to play, or actually sign up to a jazz standard that’s been pre chosen for the set.
Checking in is a common courtesy that’ll go a long way in building a solid rapport with the house band.
Call the Tune
Once it’s your turn to get up on stage, go for it! Don’t be shy, everyone is at the jam session to play jazz and have fun.
When you get called up, tell the house band the tune you want to play right away, unless it’s already been chosen for you, to give them time to prepare any lead sheets or ask any questions before you start.
Avoid asking the band what they want to play; the band is there to support what you’ve been learning and what you’re working on.
And, asking the band can lead to a comedy routine where they name a tune, you say you don’t know it, you name a tune, they don’t know it, and round and round you go.
Best to just name the tune, give them a chance to grab a lead sheet if needed, and start playing.
The Count In
Now that you’ve called the tune and everyone is on the same page, you may need to count in the tune if the bandleader doesn’t do it for you.
You’ll know if you’re supposed to count the tune in if nobody does it for you, the band all look at you, or they ask you to count it in.
When counting in the tune, make sure you’re facing the rest of the band so they aren’t caught off guard, and that you’re speaking audibly.
Many a train-wreck can be easily avoided by counting a tune in audibly and confidently.
The tune is now in full swing. The melody’s been played, there’s been one or two other soloists, and not it’s your turn to bring your jazz improvisation skills to the jam session.
When soloing at a jam session, the most important thing to keep in mind is the length of your solo. There’s nothing worse than having someone come up and take a 5-minute solo, especially when the rest of the band took one or two choruses at most.
As a best practice, keep your solos to within 2 or 3 choruses per tune. Short solos keep everyone interested and engaged, and prevents tunes from dragging on. If it’s a busy night, the host band will be especially thankful for your time consideration.
The other time consideration you need to be aware of is the amount of time you spend on stage jamming tunes. After playing through a couple of standards with the host band, check to see if there’s anyone else waiting to play. If there’s a large line of jammers, it’s likely that you’ll have to wrap things up after a few tunes, or even one if it’s busy.
After you’ve played, stick around and listen to the other players. Jams are perfect avenues for getting to know musicians and learning about the local jazz scene. As well, it’s just common courtesy to listen to the players that sat in your audience when you jammed on your tunes.
If you do have to excuse yourself, for work or to put the kids to bed, tell the other musicians. Take a few minutes to say thanks and make your excuses. This way you’ll be able to leave early if needed, but you won’t put off the other jammers if they think you just came to play and take off right afterwards.
Wrapping it Up
Now comes the big finale. The solos have been played, the head has been played out, and it’s time to end the tune.
There are a number of ways to end a jazz tune, but more often than not you’ll be ending with a tag. A tag is a restatement of the melody in the last few bars of the tune, usually the last 3 to 4, but this can vary depending on the tune.
You can even bring up how you’d like to end the tune with the band before you start the song, which will avoid any awkward moments where each of you goes into a different ending and the whole tune falls apart.
Just to be safe, it’s always best to have a few classic Jazz endings for guitar under your fingers so you can be light on your feet and go with what the band does in the moment.
Thanks and Follow Up Woodshedding
After the jam, be sure to thank the house band and let them know you appreciated the session. Often the host band is composed of professional musicians who make their living from playing gigs such as hosting jam sessions. If there’s a tip jar present, contribute what you can to show your thanks for the evening and jam session experience.
After a night of jamming, the only thing left to do is start preparing for the next jam.
The best way to prepare for your second jam session is to work out any holes in your playing that you found cropped up in that week’s jam. So, if you found your comping at faster tempos wasn’t cutting it, work on that this week. If you’re minor ii V I lines weren’t happening, focus on those lines in the woodshed.
And, most importantly, if there was a tune called that you couldn’t play because you didn’t know it, learn it. This way you’ll have one more tune at your fingertips that you can jam on next time.
If you’ve been to a few jam sessions already, share your tips below.
For those newcomers, post any questions you have about jam session etiquette.
Written By: Terence Wright and Matt Warnock
About the Author
Terence Wright is a Jazz guitarist and music educator based in Canada. He is a regular performer at festivals and Jazz venues, and teaches Jazz guitar students both locally and through Skype. He maintains and operates Terence Wright Guitar, a website for free Jazz guitar resources.