I was a member of a jazz group called “The New Breed Quintet” for about four years. “New Breed” was the house band for a jam session that happened every Wednesday night for over a decade. There was a time when the group needed to find a new venue and the jam ended for a while. (The New Breed is back and running on Tuesdays at the Cardinal now, though.) Anyway, during that hiatus back around 2010, some jam followers/volunteers/advocates, led by Bob Kerwin, decided to create a non-profit organization and re-create the Madison Jazz Jam Session scene. The hope and goal for the Madison Jazz Jam is that the participants have the opportunity and outlet to get better at improvising jazz. This particular session has the educational feature of real-time critique by a hired player(s). Meaning, after you play your tune, someone talks to you about your performance – in front of the audience. I have had the opportunity to be that guest educator and I would like to share some thoughts on the matter.
Studying any art form is a life-long pursuit and a very individual pursuit, at that. When we listen to a musician perform, we are hearing a musical snapshot of that moment in that persons life. One of the things I love about John Coltrane recordings is that you can hear such tremendous evolution in his playing. However, if you were to listen to his recordings chronologically and stop in the middle, say around the “Kind of Blue” album, who could possibly predict that “Giant Steps” would be coming next or “Ascension” or “A Love Supreme”? I can’t say first-hand, but it sounds to me that Mr. Coltrane had some life events happen that influenced the direction of his music in order to move it in these rather different directions.
Speaking personally, I am drawn to the sincerity, immediacy and presence of a musician, whatever style. I also believe that that combination conveys an essence of the personality of the player through their art form. I was recently at a lecture of master musician, Anthony Plog, where he said that deepening who you are as a person is as important in becoming a meaningful artist as almost anything else you do. Thus, reading a great work of literature will impact your musicianship! Going to a museum or art gallery will deepen your aesthetic awareness. Viewing live theatre will enhance your sense of timing and human interaction. There is so much information and technique that we need to know to be a successful musician that we often pursue our musical goals with blinders on; thinking that blinders will help us stay focused and not distracted us by what needs to get done to become a better player.
Back to the Jam. I have both taught and studied improvisation in classroom settings, one to one, jam sessions and live performance. There are advantages to all four. However, the Madison Jazz Jam is the only situation I have ever heard of that incorporates ALL FOUR scenarios at the same time! Those studying jazz in college would probably have private instruction that would culminate in a jury setting. The jury is a performance but usually not in a club in front of an audience. If there is a band, they are peers that you (have hopefully) had ample opportunity for rehearsal. The comments from the faculty are most likely going to be written or at least delivered in a private setting. Classroom critique or evaluation would most likely be in the form of a written exam. Again, something the student would have time for preparation. College level jam sessions most often happen among friends or band mates in the rehearsal room at school or perhaps someone’s house. There are a few towns that will have a club that will host jam sessions for non-pros, but they are few and far between.
Here are some “intimidation factors” that just seemed to occur to me during yesterday’s Madison Jazz Jam. (But first, I have to say that I am so in awe of the players that came to play yesterday (and every session) and put themselves in this setting. I don’t know that I would have had the courage coming up learning this music.) We have participants of various levels of ability come to the stage in a jazz club (The Fountain, on State St.) and play with a hired rhythm section of top-notch pro players, who have played “Blue Bossa” 7,000 times and will play it again if you, the jammer were to request it. There are audience members present to be entertained by live music, have a meal, or a beer and conversation. There are also audience members who are jazz players either waiting their turn to play, or listening with studied ears. Then, there is the hired educator (or adjudicator) taking notes on what you play and then verbally analyze and discuss your musical creation with the entire audience as soon as your song ends. All of this is handled in a very organized and positive environment, but what other pursuit puts its’ learners through such rigor, stress or intimidation? Well, at least we know that the eventual payoff is that all jazz musicians are guarantied a lucrative and financially stable lifestyle. That must be what drives us…
Again, I want to reiterate how impressed with the level of commitment these musicians are taking toward the Jazz art form. Those of us involved or passionate about Jazz music sometimes wonder about the health of our medium. There seem to be fewer and fewer live jazz venues, the local radio stations have cut back jazz programming, and it is a constant struggle to get support for jazz in the education (high school or college level) field. Hopefully the commitment shown by the musicians in this community will eventually entice the general public to get curious about this music again.