Ever been to a jam session where you left feeling worse than you came in!? Here is my story of how I kept a jam running based on good vibes and a happy atmosphere for five years.
Back in 2010 I was writing a lot of music and frequently visiting a bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago called Lilly’s. It’s an old smelly dive with weird staircases and tons of couches. Needless to say, it has a lot of character. One particular Wednesday, I was one of three people in the bar, the other two obviously friends of the bartender. Given the opportunity, I asked to bring in my quintet assuring the bartender that we could probably bring more people than this (as I gestured to the three people in the bar). This gave life to the Lilly’s Jam. Since then, we’ve played nearly every Wednesday night, recorded three albums with the house band, and had countless amazing experiences.
The original idea was to play a set of my compositions and then let people come sit in on standards and hang out. The bar was right down the street from my alma mater, DePaul University, and I was able to convince most of the musicians from the school to come by. Another big reason for the success was having trumpeter Marquis Hill in the band. He had a large following of people from Northern Illinois University that came out as well. Once the word got around town, it became the hub on Wednesday night for young, fresh out of college jazz musicians to play.
We’ve tried a number of different things to make the experience better for everyone; the vibe always has to be the right vibe. I have one rule, “Don’t be an jerk.” It worked pretty well. I’d say it on the mic, people would chuckle, I’d call up a few people that I knew to play and we’d be off. I rarely play in the jam since there are lots of horn players and my goal each night is to give everyone a chance to play. My only formula was to get a great player up first like Alex “6 Chorus” Beltran (a regular at the Lilly’s Jam) and then feature a singer on the third song. We usually get through 5-6 songs in the jam.
At the end of the night, we’d play a blues that I refer to as “the two chorus tune.” Everyone gets to take two choruses and we end the session around 1:30 AM where the bartender screams “LAST CALL” and everyone slowly works their way out the door to find another place to go.
There are a few more rules that I hold myself to, being the leader of the Lilly’s Jam.
#1: MEET EVERYONE.
Most of the younger cats that I meet are really shy when they come in. I immediately introduce myself and the member of the band that plays their instrument. This act breaks the ice and makes everyone feel welcome.
#2: THERE ARE NO WRONG TUNES.
Every song in the jazz language is beautiful (Yes, even Blue Bossa). Great musicians make “easy” songs sound amazing.
#3: USE THE WORD “NO” AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.
Whether it’s answering someone who wants to play or sing, requests a certain tune, or even if I’d like a beverage, I answer “YES.” Much like improv comedy, saying “NO” kills energy.
#4: MAKE SURE EVERYONE PLAYS.
If they don’t get a chance, apologize to them.
#5: HAVE A GREAT TIME.
No matter what, remember that playing music with people in any context is a great experience. There is always something to learn.
Lilly’s is a larger jam session, but what about when you find yourself with a smaller group of people? When I find myself in loose/smaller jam sessions, I like to do a few things:
#1: JAM IN SOME KEY UNTIL SOMEONE STOPS.
Use it as a patience game. Whoever quits first, loses.
#2: PLAY EVERY INSTRUMENT.
As a saxophonist, some of my best jam experiences are playing piano or drums. Even if you think you are terrible. DO IT.
#3: LEARN A NEW SONG.
Learning a song with someone else is challenging and rewarding. No matter what the level of the two players, there will be common ground. FIND IT.
#4: WRITE A SONG.
Write a great song. Write a terrible song. Who cares?!
#5: RECORD EVERYTHING.
There could be some gems in there! Take pictures! Have a blast and reflect on it the next day. We’ve recorded every house set at Lilly’s since the very beginning and it has helped IMMENSELY.
Music brings people together. It has for centuries. I like to have friends over that aren’t musicians and get them to play drums or maybe even piano. Tell them to play the white keys. Then challenge them to play all of them. The smile on their face is a reminder of what music is. As someone that takes music very seriously, I absolutely love it when it isn’t.