Russ Spiegel

If you have ever wondered why jazz musicians flock to a jam session, why they may wait sometimes an hour or more just to play on one or two songs, here’s the skinny: the Jam Session is one of the most important means of learning, developing one’s skills, and making contacts in the jazz world. It’s a place where musicians of all backgrounds and abilities meet and try out their chops in the quest to move up the ranks of established players, a chance to play with different musicians and to hang out with the cats.

It is almost always difficult coming to a session where you don’t know anybody and you yourself are unknown. Jazz musicians are a colorful but skeptical bunch with seemingly contradictory attributes  – extroverted/introverted, ambitious, sensitive, competitive and creative. Especially if no one knows you, you are under pressure to deliver the goods if you want to make an impact and establish connections. The general jam session attitude is: “Impress me. Show me you know what this is all about. Let me see you are familiar with the vocabulary and can express it.” A certain level of technical mastery of the instrument helps, but you’ve got to know the form and you better play in time.

Being that the jam session is such an open podium for all comers, not everyone is up to the task, however. Those who can’t cut it are the bane of any musical get-together: the musician new to jazz, who doesn’t know the music; the amateur who doesn’t have the chops; and the poseur, who acts as if he is God’s gift to music but can’t play a lick. Here’s one story….

The Setting

I arrived at the club early one summer evening. The first set had just begun. Smoke hung in the air, this being before the “Bloomberg Law” that banned smoking in all public places. It was my first trek deep into Harlem. “I never go to Harlem,” some of my friends were telling me. “It’s dangerous there,” said others. Hell, this is New York! Anyway, simple curiosity to see what was going on and the need to play jazz had driven away these irrational anxieties. You want to play the music – go to its source.

There was a long bar along the right hand side in the interior of the club. Behind the rows of bottles was a wall covered by mirrors. It was almost cliché, the reflective glass reminding me of its double function creating the illusion of the room being larger than it is and of serving as a foil to the barfly – a place where one can preen oneself in the expectation, rational or otherwise, of meeting another lonely soul. I thought for a moment about the many distraught forms who come to a bar for human companionship and the mirror serving as the reassurance of one’s reality, especially after a couple of forlorn drinks.

The session was running. The band was loud. The songs went on long as the horn players lined up, forming a column from the bandstand all the way to the rear exit, each instrumentalist awaiting his or her turn to solo. As the band played on, I was impressed by the rhythm section’s ability to keep chugging away, especially the bassist. Watching, I was especially reminded of the physical demands of this particular instrument.

Musings on Upright

As a guitarist, I have dabbled with both acoustic and electric bass and have a grasp as to the lay of the notes upon the fingerboard. Nevertheless, I learned my lesson a few years back when, after a performance at a jazz festival in Poland, our band was invited to an after-concert party nearby. An ensemble at the gathering was playing jazz standards and various members of the groups who had performed at the festival sat in on the action (see “The Gig” from my column from July 13, 2010). Our group, which was an organ trio, was in the meantime feted with glass after glass of vodka. At some point the band took a break and the drummer in my band wanted to play. As the bass player decided he was going to relax for a while, I offered to give it a go. This is a public service announcement: don’t drink and play bass.

I remember little of the rest of the evening except that I jammed on some tunes and at some point my hands and arms began to feel tired. The next day as I groggily came to I discovered painful blood blisters on the first and second fingers of my right hand and a general feeling that my arms could fall off any minute.

Since then those of the bass-strumming ilk who play even a song at a jam session have my deepest respect. The upright bass is for those strong of heart and hands: as the average tune can last for a good 10 minutes it can be likened to a long-distance event requiring extensive preparation where one must endure or fail, as there is no break or replacement in the middle of a tune, only sometimes the temporary relief of a drum solo.

Back at the Club

The musicians in the club by and large were in their early to mid-twenties, many appearing to be enrolled in one of the numerous music schools around town. They were of all hues – African-Americans from the neighborhood, whites, Europeans, a couple of Japanese. It added to the impression that all were welcome and indeed it seemed all were given a chance.

As luck would have it that evening I was the only guitarist in the house and I was called up rather quickly. As I got on the stage I introduced myself to the other players. I find the building of sympathies helpful, as it makes me feel a little more comfortable and self-assured on the bandstand. It’s also a common courtesy, though not everyone for various reasons seems aware of it. In any case, I played and did my thing and it felt like I blended in well as I was allowed to continue on for the rest of the evening.

Leopard Man

There was one musician at the club who especially caught my attention. He was an African gentleman who appeared to be in his mid–forties waiting his turn on the bandstand. What made him stand out was the fact that he was immaculately dressed in a flashy leopard–skin suit complete with matching hat and topped off with some stylish dark glasses. He looked amazing.

Leopard Man held a trumpet in his hands. He turned to me and with an aristocratic voice tinged of Mother Africa confided, “Most of these people just don’t know how to play this music correctly,” and went on about many musicians’ approach to jazz. I was further impressed.

As I mentioned before, it is certainly true that not everyone who comes for his or her turn on the bandstand has a solid enough grasp of the materials. Jazz makes many disparate demands on its practitioners: the bringing together of harmony, melody and rhythm with the ability to hear and interact with the other players and to develop logical, tasteful and inspired lines and add something to the music is no small challenge – and to make this appear effortless is the mark of genius.

After a number of players had their time onstage it was Leopard Man’s turn to take a solo. I was curious to hear how he approached the music, to see what someone who was so apparently confident about himself had to say musically, and hopefully to learn something and be inspired.

The Moment of Truth

Slowly and deliberately Leopard Man raised the trumpet to his mouth. A moment passed as the band played furiously behind him. He took a deep breath. It was an impressively dramatic moment. Another second or two passed, the trumpet mouthpiece sitting against his compressed lips, the lights of the club reflecting off the metal of his instrument.

Finally, he began to play. I’d never seen anything like it. Leopard Man began rolling the instrument across his mouth whilst blowing. He moved his fingers frantically. No actual notes came out of his horn, no recognizable rhythms, only a sound somewhat akin to someone trying to blow up a balloon unsuccessfully, as if the very air he was trying to insert into his instrument refused to follow directions and came out the same way it came in.

I would like to believe everybody’s jaw dropped, but I was too transfixed on the event happening right in front of me. The effect may have been comic, but the man appeared deadly serious. He continued his “solo” for a couple of minutes. The rolling of the trumpet, the whirring fingers, the defective balloon sound all continued until he suddenly ceased, taking the trumpet from his lips and ceding the bandstand to the next soloist.

Leopard Man played on every song that set, each solo a repeat of the previous one. The audience quickly grew tired of him and the band members would collectively groan whenever it came his turn to solo. But I have to admit he looked sharp in that leopard-skin suit.

© Russ Spiegel, 2010
www.russguitar.com
[email protected]

Russ Spiegel was born in Los Angeles, and raised in Santa Monica, California. He studied Composition, Arranging and Guitar Performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship, and went on to get his Masters degree in Jazz Performance at the City College of New York. Russ is a commissioned composer who has released several CDs, written music for film, TV, and musicals, toured Europe and Asia, and much more.

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