Jam Session Etiquette

The jam session is the laboratory for jazz improvisation. It provides the proper environment for spontaneous experimentation of the vast playlist of jazz repertoire, song forms, substitute chord progressions, altered chords, harmony, melody, traditional and advanced improvisational concepts. The jam session is also a test of your knowledge of the jazz language and should be treated like a test or quiz that would require the necessary preparation and study. To come unprepared to a jam session holds the same consequences as not studying for a mid-term or final examination. This course introduces the aspiring jazz improviser to the jam session.
I. PREPARATION FOR THE JAM SESSION – The Jam Session is not the Practice Room.
1. Practice in the practice room. Perform at the jam session
a. Work out all of your improvisational concepts in the practice room;
specific repertoire, scales, arpeggios, transcribed improvisational
figures, substitute chord progressions, altered chords, advanced
improvisational concepts (if applicable), back ground figures or riffs,
resolving notes, etc.
three choruses, depending on the form and the tempo of the tune,
1. Be courteous to your rhythm section. They are not your personal “Jamey Aebersolds,” they are there to accompany you and assist with the evolution of your solo.
a. On a 12-bar blues take 3 or 4 choruses
b. On song forms longer than the 12-bar form but shorter than the 32-bar
form (like Sugar, Blue Bossa, Song For My Father), take 2 choruses.
b. On 32-bar forms (like Rhythm Changes, Cherokee, What Is This Thing
Called Love or Just In Time) take 1 or 2 choruses
c. On song forms longer the 32-bar form (like Lover or Just One Of Those
Things) take 1 chorus
instrument, tell a story with your solo.
1. Jazz improvisation is a language that must be spoken in a way that your listener can understand you.
a. Start simple, end simple.
b. Compose strong beginning and ending statements to your solos. Items a. and b. incorporate melodic ideas that your listener will remember.
c. End your solo with an idea that the next soloist can pick up on (optional)
2. Speak in phrases.
a. Start an idea, bring that idea to an end, allow some space to enter, then start another idea.
3. Give your rhythm section something to play off of.
a. Repetitive figures like “riffs.”
b. quotes from other tunes
c. Rhythm figures
d. Big Band shout section figures
4. Configure your improvisational strategy (the example below is for a trumpet soloist taking 4 choruses on a 12-bar blues at a moderate tempo, swing feel) 1st Chorus – begin solo with melodic ideas in the low to middle range of your instrument using whole and half notes, incorporating a minimal usage of eighth notes for syncopation.
2nd Chorus – Add more linear movement using scaler/eighth note figures, bebop influenced lines and substitute ii V7 I chord progressions. The lines that are composed during this chorus should have a more varied contour, venturing slightly above the staff at the climatic points of your line.
3rd Chorus – Continue with more scaler/linear movement toward the upper register of the horn but not in the extreme upper register. In addition to the bebop influenced lines, incorporate usage of the blues scale which will serve to break up the monotony of the eighth note figures displayed during the previous chorus. During the last four bars of the chorus, make your idea more rhythmic and repetitive in order to build excitement, incorporate the rhythm section and set up a “send off” into the 4th chorus.
4th Chorus – This improvisational idea should resemble a big band shout section. One of the best compositional vehicles for this chorus is the “riff” and should be played in the upper register to extreme upper register of the horn. Doing this will incorporate the
rhythm section and bring your solo to a climax. During the last 4 bars of this chorus, compose an idea that will allow you to taper it’s movement into the middle to lower register of the horn, thereby bringing your solo to an end.
4. When you are able to truly “say something” on your instrument and inspire the rhythm section as well as your audience, then and only then are you allowed the option to venture into extended choruses.
IV. SPONTANEOUS COMPOSITION – Don’t repeat yourself.
1. Try to push yourself to spontaneously compose. The more familiarity you have with the jazz language, the easier this will become.
a. When you find that you are repeating yourself, this is a sure sign that your present chorus should be your final chorus.
V. LEARNING THE JAZZ REPERTOIRE – If you don’t know the tune, don’t play (refer to item I).
1. When (and not if) you experience this phenomenon, follow these steps explicitly.
a. Find out the name of the tunes that you are unfamiliar with.
b. Write the names and keys of the tunes on a piece of paper.
c. Find the music to the tunes and practice them in every key and tempo.
d. Find recordings of the tunes and extract any useful improvisational ideas.
e. Learn the words to the tunes (if any) so you know what the tunes is about.
f. Go back to the same jam session the following week and when you are asked the question, “What do you want to play, ?” request to play one of the tunes you practiced during the previous week.