The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
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    This journal describes a jam session in Japan, in which I participated during a recent afternoon for roughly 3-4 hours on a weekend. With a few exceptions in Dallas and New Orleans (observing only) and Tokyo, (participating) my jam session experiences have been limited to a regional scene in Japan with several venues. Mainly I’m curious to hear from others with jam session experiences in locales in their parts of the world.

    The venue for this session is one of several Mom and Pop shops that hold open jam sessions and which are also jazz cafes or “music houses.” I’ve been going to this place once a month since last summer. Pop is a gigging musician and also teaches. He and his band, consisting of piano, bass and drums, are the house band in these sessions. They are pay-to-play for 2000JPY (about 15USD) including snacks, tea and coffee. Other venues charge 500-1000JPY to play, with a one drink minimum. There is a set of books commonly used in these jam sessions, the “Jazz Standard Bible” (two volumes, with C, Eb and Bb editions, and a vocal edition including lyrics). These are similar to the Real Books, but the tune selections and arrangements seem to differ somewhat.

    In addition to the house band, in attendance this week were another bassist, a drummer and pianist, myself on guitar, a tenor sax and a trumpet player, and several vocalists. In previous months, there were other pianists, bassists or drummers, and a few other horn players, though I’m usually the only guitarist. One of the regular pianists is a woman, as are all of the vocalists. Generally, participants in these sessions are people in their 50s through 70s. Other than the house band, as far as I can tell participants are amateur jazz musicians like myself. The house band does not start by playing a set, and in general these jam sessions are managed with a very light touch, with the house band members sitting out and alternating with participants. It has a friendly and casual vibe.

    Pop teaches vocalists, so there were two sets of tunes featuring GAS standards with English vocals. In the past I’ve played with the vocalists, but at this month’s session I sat out on the vocal tunes. The vocal tunes this month included “Blue Moon” (which worked really well as a bossa), “All of Me,” “Quiet Nights,” “You’d Be So Nice,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” “My Funny Valentine” (as a bossa), “Sentimental Journey,” and “Smile” (as a bossa). Some of these are in the Jazz Standard Bible vocal edition; for other tunes, the vocalists or Pop provided handwritten charts in their preferred key.

    There were three sets of instrumental jam tunes. I called three tunes, one in each set: “Freddie the Freeloader,” “You and the Night and the Music,” and “Days of Wine and Roses” (known in Japan as “Sake to Bara”). These tunes are all in the JSB books. While I usually play the tunes that I call without using charts, other participants will often use the JSB charts. Some might alternately use the iReal Pro charts. I played the head and cued the solos, fours, etc. and I also played on most other tunes in each set.

    My notes for the following instrumental tunes are not complete, nor are they in strict chronological order. Of the dozen or so tunes played, I sat out on two, “Take the A-Train” for a tea break and Sonny Clark’s “Blue Minor” because no chart was handy.

    There were several bossa tunes, including “Song for My Father,” “Shadow of Your Smile,” and “Black Orpheus.” We also played “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Alone Together” and a few others. I’ve noticed in jam sessions in Japan, from my limited experience, there seems to be a preference for bossa and hard bop. I knew some of these tunes well enough to not need a chart, while on others I had to read. There’s no stigma at these sessions for using charts, and the atmosphere is non-competitive and quite relaxed. More than anything else, to me the sessions are about enjoying a shared love of jazz.

    Everyone, for the most part, takes a solo on each tune, and most tunes also have trading fours. Solo lengths vary depending on the tune and player and are normally two choruses but there’s no set format. Usually, the person who calls the tune takes the first solo. On tunes I don’t know well, I take one chorus; on shorter tunes I may take more than two choruses. Intros are usually provided by a pianist, often based on the last eight bars; on the tunes that I call I might provide a four bar vamp type intro.

    The last set of the session consisted of “Moanin’,” “Confirmation,” and “A Night in Tunisia,” and the final tune was “Blue Bossa” (which I’ve noticed is often the last tune). “Moanin’” was easy and fun for me, and “Night in Tunisia” I could get through without a chart. The most difficult tune for me was “Confirmation,” which I have rarely played. The changes are common enough, though at the tempo called by the horn players it was at the edge of my skill level. I played shell voicings in a more or less straight four beat feel, with a mostly acoustic sound. I also managed to eke out a passable solo without getting lost, which for me is an improvement. When I first started joining jam sessions some 5 or 6 years ago, I’d often get lost on the faster tunes. I guess one’s ear improves with repetition and as repertoire familiarity grows.

    For this session, I spent the past month learning “You and the Night and the Music,” so it was my first time playing with others at a session. I very much enjoyed that, having only played with iReal. I also practiced “Sugar,” which I’ve played at a few sessions, but didn’t get a chance to call it. “Days of Wine and Roses” I’ve played dozens of times, but I still enjoy exploring new pathways through the more familiar tunes.

    This particular session repeats each month, with some variation in the participants and repertoire. There are 3-4 other venues that also hold open jam sessions, and so in any given week I can participate in at least two sessions, sometimes three. I try to go to at least one jam per week, and try to prepare some new tunes to call, and also brush up on those tunes called by others. While the main goal of going to these session for me is having fun playing music with like-minded jazz lovers, my playing has also gradually improved over the years, and I have occasionally been invited to sit in on some gigs.

    As I suggested above, and given my very limited experiences with jam sessions, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this session and especially thoughts about your own experiences with jam sessions in your own locale. Thank you very much for reading.


    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
  3. #2

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    Sounds like a great session.

    Around here, the better sessions are usually pretty crowded and you get your two tunes and that tends to be it. Atmosphere doesn't usually strike me as relaxed, partly because people are shuffling in and out, trying to set up and tune in a hurry.

  4. #3
    I'm going to jam session today. I haven't been to one in years. I never found them to be particularly useful, and quite possibly even bad for your playing. However, sometimes they are the only opportunity to play, and you do meet other musicians and sometimes get offered gigs. The best ones are where you have more or less the same small group of competent players turning up each jam.

  5. #4

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    Took my kids to the regional jazz jam yesterday morning. The house bands set was

    1. Have you met miss jones
    2. I've got the world on a string
    3. Because of you
    4. Summertime
    5. Wave
    6. Mood Indigo
    7. You are my sunshine

    Every table was full, my 5 year old completely lost it when the singer started you are my sunshine "Daddy I know this! This is my favorite song!!" It was really a great time. I did not play.

    In the afternoon I went to the local blues jam without my kids but with my gear and played Kansas City, Louise(Howlin Wolf), Little Red Rooster as a box blues, and Sittin on top of the world. Bass and guitar from the house band sat in with me a drummer and trumpet player. Everyone had a good time, I'm friend with the trumpet player, he's very good plays lead in community bands, he told me I'm getting better. Which is always good to hear since I feel like I'm practicing a lot, but never sure if I'm working too hard on the wrong thing.

  6. #5

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    Thanks for the replies and to those who sent a PM.

    The clubs and cafes to play at in my region are rather small, maybe a couple dozen people in seating and perhaps half a dozen on stage max. Participants in the monthly daytime session I described above are usually around a dozen plus a few spectators. The session is around 3 hours, so everyone gets to play several a few times and a couple of tunes each time. I would imagine the number of participants and how often one can play are perhaps functions of location. I’ve been to jam sessions in Tokyo, and they are more crowded and hectic, with two tunes for the sessions and mostly very accomplished players. In the smaller regional cities, the quality of players varies. There are some pros on occasion but it’s mostly what I would call accomplished amateurs, plus a few beginners.

    @Victor Saumarez
    I can understand why a session might be bad for one’s playing. A pro musician friend stopped coming to the small jam sessions that I play because he wanted to be challenged by playing with peers. But the sessions I’m describing are not that kind. They are mostly for people who are fairly accomplished on an instrument and who love to play jazz with others. But even so, there are some pros who stop by for a tune and a drink on their off nights. The five or so places that I go to have open jams ranging from once a week to once or twice a month. The rest of the time they’re open mainly for bar or cafe patrons, and a few nights a week have performances by regional touring groups. However, some places, like the one I described in my initial post, are mostly for jam sessions. I haven’t been to a gig there, although the house band does gig often around the region. And I agree, the ones where there is a regular core of competent people each week are better. Each place has its core of regulars. I’m one of the regulars at two of the regional places, and an occasional participant in others. There are also some people who turn up at all the places, and some who come infrequently. There seems to be patience when new comers or beginners join, and it seems the overall vibe is a social gathering in which people play music.

    That’s wonderful you bring your kids to sessions and they know some of the tunes! There are rarely kids at the evening sessions I go to, but at the daytime ones (like the one I described above) some players might bring their kids. At other venues, sometimes there are some high school or college students who show up at the evening sessions. And thanks for sharing the set list. Of those tunes, only Summertime and Wave have been called at the sessions I have been going to. I’ve been wanting to call Have You Met Miss Jones, so might do so at the next session. Mood Indigo is very nice, too. With full tables, it sounds like a lot more people than I’m used to in the regional sessions where I live, though on occasion around holidays there is a crowd. The blues session sounded very lively. There is one club here that has mostly blues and some oldies. They were closed during corona but have re-opened, so I’m thinking of going there soon. Last time I went was several years ago. If I recall correctly the tunes included Crossroads and Shake Your Moneymaker, among others. The blues club here has small shows with regional acts and jam sessions twice a week. Sounds like you had a great time and the scene sounds interesting, too. And it’s very nice to get compliments on one’s playing and improving.

    Thanks again for the replies. I’d love to hear from others about jam sessions in their locales, and am particularly interested to know about tunes that are called.