About a decade ago I jammed with a bunch of guys – yes, guys – on Manhattan’s upper West Side. None of us were or had been professional musicians, as that term is understood, though some of us had played paying gigs at one time or another. We met in the pianist’s apartment.These are some notes I made back then which speak to the social nature of the music-making itself, as opposed to the socializing that went on around the music-making.
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There were five of us regulars, and a floating cast of others. We had three in the rhythm section, piano, drums, and bass, and two horns in the front line, tenor saxophone and trumpet. The general purpose of the session was simply to jam on tunes and have fun, hence our procedures were relatively informal.
Small group jazz is basically a soloist's art (like, for example, classical Indian music). The format for a tune is relatively simple. The horns state the "head" (melody) in the first chorus and in the last chorus. In between you have a bunch of solos. There are various ways this format is spiced up just a bit, but they are relatively minor and aren't necessary to the form.
It is quite common to perform jazz in a piano trio, where you have just piano, drums, and bass. This format tends to be a pianist's gig, e.g. Oscar Peterson, though it can also be a pianist's & bassist's gig, e.g. Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro. By this I mean only that the pianist (or pianist & bassist) is the featured soloist.
Rhythm Section and Front Line
However, quartets and quintets are more common than piano trios (except, of course, in cocktail lounges). Here you add one or two horns to the front line. In this configuration the piano/bass/drums combo becomes known as the rhythm section and the horn or horns becomes the front line. Given that this is a soloist’s art, there is no point in even having such a configuration unless the horn(s) are featured soloists.
In this format the rhythm section is responsible for keeping the "groove" and maintaining the chord progression on which solos are based. The horn(s) play the head and then improvise solos. Musicians in the rhythm section may or may not take solos. The pianist may well, in effect, "retreat" into the rhythm section and leave the bulk of the soloing to the front line. Whether or not this happens is a function of the abilities and interests of the musicians. Finally, if there are two or more horns, they have to coordinate their lines on the head at the beginning and end of the tune.
One of the unwritten rules is that all horns must play on the head; you don't have a situation where one horn plays the head and then all of them solo. I cannot recall ever attending a performance where this rule was violated nor can I think of any recording where it was violated. It surely must happen, but it is rare.
Why not? Think of a performance as a self-contained social occasion. During the opening statement of the head we introduce everyone and say hello. During the final statement of the head we pay our compliments to the hostess and say goodbye. What this means, then, is that if a horn player takes a solo without having played on the head, we don't know who they are or what they're doing at our little soiree. Are they friend or foe? We simply don't know. [Note: There is evidence from brain imaging studies that social areas of the brain are active when people listen to music.]
There is however a different, and more informal, playing situation where the norms are different. That is the jam session.
Jam sessions have a long tradition in jazz, complete with accounts of legendary sessions. But jam sessions hardly exist anymore, certainly not in the competitive form often known as "cutting" contests. In such a jam session you have a rhythm section and a parade of horn soloists. Each successive soloist tries to outplay the other, though some of the legendary sessions came down to a battle between only two players. In this format it is not necessary for all the players to perform on the head. You might have half-a-dozen or more horn players. You probably couldn’t get them all on the stage at once – the clubs where these seesions happen have small to very small stages – and the playing probably would be raggedy.
But the private session I'm talking about is not this kind of competitive jam session, and so those norms are not appropriate. As I said, this session is just a bunch of guys who want to have fun playing small-group jazz. We don't want to spend a lot of time rehearsing and nailing down pesky details. This is a perfectly reasonable desire.
Before I joined the group, there was just one horn player, a tenor saz player (though there'd been two at a somewhat earlier point). Thus, he didn't have to coordinate his playing on the head with anyone else. Once I joined on trumpet, that changed. The two of us had to coordinate. When we both knew the tunes already that was relatively easy.
But most of the group's repertoire was new to me as a player, and, while I am a very good soloist, I'm not very good at reading music. That created problems, and we dealt with them with a variety of low-effort strategies, including simply having one or other of us play the head, thus violating the social dimension inherent in the music itself.
And I want to emphasize that I'm talking about what goes on when we played the music, not about our interactions with one another as we decided what tunes to play, talked about this or that that did or did not happen. I'm talking about what we did once we started playing a tune and continued until we stopped. As I said, one of the things we did was simply to eliminate the problem of two-horn coordination by having only one horn play the head on some tunes. Given the aim of this group – to have fun without a lot of rehearsal – that was a sensible thing to do. But it did violate my sense of the inherent aesthetics of the music.
So, that's how things went for about a year-and-a-half to two years. Then we added two more people to the group, a guitarist and an alto saxophone. Five became seven and internal tensions began to grow.
With another horn player in the line-up, the coordination problems got worse. And the rhythm section – never very steady to begin with – now had new problems. The piano, bass, and drums each have distinct roles to play in the rhythm section. As this music is routinely played, there is no fourth role available in the rhythm section. That means that the guitarist has to play one of the three roles already filled. The most obvious, and the standard, thing is for the guitarist to play the same role as the pianist. And that means that they've got to make room for one another.
That didn’t go very smoothly. It wasn’t the fault of either the pianist or the guitarist. Neither was doing anything wrong. They were just having trouble finding a way to coordinate so that both could always be right. Thus, a routine that allowed five musicians to function broke down when two more were added to the group. That made tensions worse.
We Got a Gig
Tensions rose when we got a paying gig at a public club, the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in Manhattan’s East Village. The decorum and procedures appropriate to a private and informal jam session are one thing. They can be freely negotiated among the musicians themselves, as we did. But public performance is a different matter. The standard of performance is higher, and the musicians aren't so free to negotiate the mode of performance as they have no way of controlling the expectations audience members bring to the performance.
But we had one or two sessions to get ready. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me that others in the group were entirely too casual about that. I was not happy.
Why was I unhappy? After all, we were only an informal group with no intentions or aspirations to becoming a working group with regular paid gigs. True.
However, we were playing music with a 70 or 80 year performance history and would be playing it in a name venue. Given that, I felt it was our obligation to obey the conventions of that history, even if it was inconvenient for us to do so.
If you will, it was only by accepting those conventions in the first place that I was able to become the kind of player that got me invited to play in this private jam session – I’d originally met the drummer and sax player at one of the sessions held a Off Wall Street Jam. I was thus in acute distress, massive cognitive dissonance messing up my neural nets. It seemed to me that I was being asked to violate the very cultural norms that gave the music its meaning, that allowed me to fulfill my chosen role – soloist – so well.
Getting Loose, and Tight, Too
I forget just how I voiced my displeasure – not the sort of thing I like doing, nor can do gracefully – but the upshot was that there were a bunch of emails and phone calls and things got patched up.
But here more or less, is the point of this story: we had a rehearsal – the first of two before the gig – and that rehearsal was a much more relaxed session than we've had in a long time. To be sure, it was much more chaotic – even down to the physical placement of the musicians in the room, as we had another keyboard to fit into the space and the tenor sax player had to put his music on the piano to read.
But people were talking about the music, often with two or even three conversations going on at once (remember, there are 7 of us), and there was more smiling, more laughter. During one number, a Latin number, the guitarist started doing dance-steps in place, something he'd never done before. At long last we were getting relaxed.
I wasn’t the only one who’d been uptight about the upcoming gig.
The gig went well. Everyone was happy with our performance. But they weren’t happy with me and I was asked to leave the jam session.
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I'm on a countdown to 2500 posts. Two more to go. #2500 will be a guide to the blog.