Including vs. Excluding the Listener

Including vs. Excluding the Listener

Many people attending jam sessions look at them primarily as a place to perform, and not a place to listen and learn. It’s the latter attitude that is the key to appreciating, and making the most of, a jam session.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

This was a week of little work and lots of errands. Playing an archaic instrument, such as the contrabass, necessitates frequent visits to the village luthier who specializes in large-scale instruments, and this week I’ve been fixing up two of them. (Next week I’ll have to work on another.) While I was sitting in my car, waiting for the legislated time that I could leave it unattended and drop off my bass without acquiring a request for money from the Department of Finance (really), a cellist whom I play with in the group Lyric Fury was walking by. I got her attention and we spoke for a bit about “what’s up?” and “this-and-that” and she handed me a flyer for a concert she was performing in with her husband at Le Poisson Rouge.

They have a group, The Fireworks Ensemble, that I heard a recording of playing the string quintets of Frank Zappa, which I think are fantastic. Their concert was a collaboration with C4, a mixed chorus of composer/conductors. The main piece on the program, Requiem (composed by bassist/singer Brian Coughlin), would be preceded by The Hounds of Spring (Jonathan David), Impermanence (Karen Siegel), and Dia | Logoi (Martha Sullivan). All the works were world premiers and will be performed again tomorrow night (Saturday, 6/2) at The Theater at MMAC at 8 p.m. I was excited to finally hear the music of Coughlin as well as David, whom I’ve known for several years without getting to hear his compositions. I was equally thrilled to hear the music of Siegel and Sullivan. But I think I would have preferred to hear it at MMAC, because Le Poisson Rouge’s seating is extremely uncomfortable for listening to lengthy performances, not to mention there is an air conditioner that randomly blasts wind-tunnel gusts across the room. (Perfect for reading music on-the-fly.) I hope their second concert goes well.

I’m using this as a preface to improvised music, somehow. There was very little improvisation in the Fireworks/C4 concert, most of it done by the drummer and electric guitarist during Requiem. There was one instance of some group improvisation in one of the movements—“Confutatis,” of Coughlin’s opus—but the rest was all written out. I know that the cellist is studying improvisation with Joanne Brackeen, one of the best I can think of, but she was given no solo space. This made me think of my meeting with Monika Herzig, which I wrote about last week, and the issue of studying improvisation.

After I wrote last week’s post, I had another meeting with Herzig that was an interview about my experiences as a house bassist for the jam sessions at the now defunct Ladies Fort, Joyce’s House of Unity, and Barbara’s Jazz Club in the previous century. It was a stimulating interview, possibly because Herzig had just spent a day listening and reading transcripts of oral histories at the Institute of Jazz Studies and had an idea of what not to ask! After my interview, I figured that I’d turn the tables and interview her about why she and Dr. David Baker (Indiana University) are writing a book about jam sessions.

She explained that one of the biggest problems she has with her students is keeping them playing and working on improvisation outside of the classroom. When she asked her students why they weren’t taking advantage of the jam sessions taking place near campus, a frequent response was that they did not know what to do at a jam session. So a large part of the project is geared towards preparing a jazz student for playing at a session. Certain tunes and their chord progressions have to be memorized and should be practiced. One should know when to play and when to stop playing and know the difference between practicing, improvising, and playing on a tune. One should treat the elder improvisers with a degree of respect. I came to realize that many people attending jam sessions look at them primarily as a place to perform, and not a place to listen and learn. It’s the latter attitude that is the key to appreciating, and making the most of, a jam session.

The lone comment from last week’s post posed a very good question and I want to answer it here, because it goes to the previous paragraph. I was asked whether my description of the jam session as “more important than subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater [etc.]” was meant to be merely “eye-catching”? The answer is: No. The performance situations I listed are all geared to exclude the listener as a participant in the musical act beyond the role of paying for a ticket, a kind of “angel.” It’s a paradigm that Isaac Schankler touches upon in his post this week in his mention and discussion of Cage’s composer-performer-listener dilemma. We all know that these distinctions probably didn’t exist in music’s original incarnation; nearly everyone in the tribe participated in music making as long as it didn’t attract predators or enemies. I can imagine that one could participate if one felt like it or not and that the distinctions were fluid. This is the spirit that the jam session accesses. It comes from the ring shout, a kind of circle dance, which was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries by African Americans (mostly slaves) and probably Native Americans occupying the same space. The most well-known and documented ring shouts occurred regularly in New Orleans’s Place du Cirque, also known as Congo Square, and which Benjamin Latrobe chronicled in 1819. (This same location, according to Joy Harjo, is an ancient Creek Indian burial ground.) The spirit of the ring shout is that anyone can, at the right time, shift their role from accompanist to soloist, or take a break and observe.

One of the things that Herzig and I talked about was whether or not the culture of the jam session has been compromised by how academic jazz studies programs have replaced the sub-culture of apprenticeship/mentorship that was once the way that jazz was defined. My own feeling is that it did, for a while. I think that now, though, a new playing aesthetic is emerging and that it will have its hearing at jam sessions.