Jam Session Etiquette

Bassist at a jam session

Q: I have never been to a random, strangers-in-the-night jazz jam as a bass player and a lot of jams tend to have their set bass player (ahem – often the organizer of said jam – ahem). What’s the etiquette if you just want to walk a few tunes with everybody?

A: First of all, I love your, “random, strangers-in-the-night” description. It embodies the way a lot of folks feel about trying to sit in at jam sessions. It feels a bit dark, scary but also exciting (more dark and scary for many of us).

I was one who was terrified to go to the real jazz jam sessions when I was coming up. I felt like I played the wrong instrument (electric bass), didn’t know enough tunes (i.e.: walking in with a Real Book and having to pull a chart for some pretty “jazz 101” type tunes) and I was never sure if I was good enough. In, short, don’t be like the me of 15 years ago.

Jam sessions exist for two reasons in my mind. One is held as an ideal and one is more of a reality.

  1. So musicians can play together and in different combinations, especially those that might to play with each other often. There is an ideal image of all of the great players in town getting together not for money, but to make some real music together in a loose environment. A quality hang among peers. This still holds true in some scenes but not all.
  2. So the next generation can come an introduce themselves to each other and, more importantly, the “elders” of the scene in an attempt to network and maybe get a gig. This is also a place where developing musicians can challenge themselves and see how they hold up against whatever comes their way.
  3. Ok, a third reason and the reason that I encourage all of my students to go to these things. Because you learn more by doing than by reading about it or playing by yourself. Music is a team sport (unless you are a solo artist, of course) and we learn best by listening to and playing with each other.

It could go any number of ways. Getting your butt kicked on the bandstand is a great way to learn. Holding your own is a great way to develop the confidence in yourself necessary to be a functional, working musician. Either way, you win.

The key is going in with the right attitude and not psyching yourself out. Don’t feel like everybody is judging you and don’t worry about wether or not you will impress anybody. The night will be a whirlwind of music and musicians. It will have peaks and valleys. Don’t worry about being the best or the worst, just do your best.

There very well may be a sign-up sheet or you might just have to let it be known that you’re there and would love to play a tune or two with the band (it’s a jam session, it’s okay to ask!)

Assuming that they don’t know you, you might wind up waiting for a while (forever). Don’t get angry or frustrated, it’s a natural part of the process. They will likely get everybody up that they already know can play to keep it fun and the level high and then, as things slow down, they’ll start calling up the rest of us.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be ready when they call you up. Be tuned, have your stuff ready to jump up, plug in and go.
  • They’ll likely ask you what you want to play. They’ll often try and keep it in your comfort zone until they check you out. Think ahead and pick a tune you can call, if given the chance. Then, if things were cool, they might just starting to call tunes they want to play. If you don’t know any or many tunes, bring a Real Book or iPad with iReal Pro.
  • Play to the music. Don’t try and show them everything you know (especially that lick you were working on last night). Listen, keep your ears open and your eyes up. Keep your volume appropriate, watch the drummer and lock it in.
  • It’s going to happen… it’s a jam session: everybody solos. When your turn comes, just relax and make music. Don’t drone on forever (there are likely going to be a ton of people and everybody needs a chance). Nobody wants to play “Stella” for 45 minutes (if there are three horn players, a vocalist, pianist, guitarist, drummer and bassist – that’s eight potential soloists. If everybody takes 5 choruses, it’s going to get painful). If you take one full chorus and it’s really cooking and you are feeling it, take a second, but I wouldn’t go beyond that. One full chorus is usually appreciated by all. Say what you have to say and pass the baton.
  • You might get frustrated if you sit there all night and then get called up to back a bad vocalist and rock guitarist to play a scorchingly slow ballad. You never know what you’re going to get and who you’ll actually play with when it’s your turn. Just be cool and do your best. Consider it a personal challenge. Rise above and make it feel and sound great. People will notice.
  • If another musician gives you constructive criticism afterwards, don’t get offended. Listen to them, thank them for being honest and consider what they said. This is also a venue where people with less experience get to mingle and watch people with more experience. Learning moments abound if you’re open to them.
  • Every body knows that it takes courage to get up there and jump in with the sharks to see if you can swim. Don’t psych yourself out, you’ve already scored some points by being there – assuming that you were respectful, polite and prepared and had the determination to wait your turn and get up there in front of everybody.
  • Socialize and network, but don’t just talk over the band the whole time while everybody else is playing. The band notices when people are talking over the music and you will certainly not have scored points if you were shouting over the band all night, dropping your demo CDs on all the tables and then expecting respect and attention you “deserve” when it was your turn. If you’re loud and inappropriate while somebody else misdoing their thing, you may never actually get called up anyway.

So, long story short, it’s what you’d expect. There might be some pros, there will definitely be some students and there will be a lot in between. It could be fantastic, it could be agonizing. That’s all a part of the adventure. As with life, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I was once dragged kicking and screaming (on the inside) to a jazz jam when I first moved to my current home town. I was terrified, honestly. This town has some world class talent and jazz was in no way my first language. After feeling completely awkward when I got called and walked up with my Real Book and 6-string electric bass, and then feeling like a complete dork while explaining that I could read well and we could play anything in the book but I didn’t actually know any tunes… It was fantastic!

I wound up playing trio with Dan Faehnle (Diana Krall, Pink Martini guitarist), Gary Hobbs (Stan Kenton’s drummer for years) and George Mitchell (Diana Ross’ keyboardist) and it was totally killing.

As I hoped, once they realized that I could play even though I wasn’t maybe a total “jazz guy”, we had a blast and played three or four tunes before turning it over to some other players. It also was the beginning of me fostering a good reputation with the working musicians in town. I was so glad that I forced myself to do it (as opposed to fast-walking back to my car before they could call my name, like I wanted to do).

As with all things in life, be cool, be patient, be respectful and do the best that you can. The worst case scenario is that you learned something!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Vicente

    Thanks Damian! Was really interesting and fun at the same time! Such a great educator!!

  2. “…as opposed to fast-walking back to my car before they could call my name, like I wanted to do.”

    I’ve done this before when I played trumpet. Haha. Eventually I stuck around and had a great time.

    I’ve played jam sessions at my home but nothing in public just yet. It is on my to-do for this year. As usual Damian you encourage me to actually follow through. Wish me luck.

  3. Joe

    I’ve been going to jam sessions since my first year in college, and I maintain that it may very well be the most important part of my jazz education. You can spend hours in the woodshed working out what modes of harmonic minor work over what Chord type, or shedding chorus after chorus of Giant Steps, but it doesnt mean shit if you get up on stage and can’t provide a comfortable foundation for the rest of the band.
    Going to jams in different parts of town has been instrumental for me to learn repertoire beyond what my first call guys know. I have a playlist on iReal of standards that cats call all the time that I’ve never learned,and I update it frequently. If someone calls a tune I don’t know, I keep cool and check out the changes on my phone. In jam sessions tunes often last at least 10 minutes and the bass almost always solos last so more often than not I’ve committed the changes to memory before I have to blow. And then the next day I go home and learn the head (and then forget it).
    Jam sessions are also a low pressure way to practice playing drunk. I’ve been on a lot of corporate and wedding gigs with an alcoholic trumpet player and an open bar and we’ve been pretty wrecked by the third set. Keeping time and form on a mid tempo cocktail How High The Moon has gotten a lot easier since I’ve played more jam sessions where hot head horn players want to play Cherokee or Donna Lee at 300. Food for thought, I guess

  4. I have a mixed feelings about sessions. On one hand, I learned really a lot there, in terms of chops, self confidence, being reactive and aware of what is going on around you etc. Plus, you can find jam session in whatever slightly larger city you may travel to for whatever reason. I travel a lot for work (I’m an academic) and I always check out venues wherever I go. Most of the time I also sit in, even though I always get blisters from playing on other people’s double basses (damn you, super low-action guys!!!). Here in Europe, that also usually gets you a free drink on top of that, which is quite nice.

    On the other hand, I experienced a lot of “stay away from my backyard” situations: house bands and opening bands that see the session as their own gig more than an open session, session leaders not really open to play with anyone outside their inner circle, fellow musicians with a very narrow understanding of the standard repertoire and how to play it (“Stella by starlight with bossa feel? No way!”) and so on.

    Long story short: sessions can be quite addictive, but it often takes quite a bit of patience to deal with the scores of arrogant a**holes out there. In the end, I end up going to sessions for a while, then getting fed up, then missing it, then going again, and back to square one. Call it the session-loop if you like.