Remember what I said about updating this site more? Yeah. I really ought to do that. I mean I wrote this thing last month and I’m just now posting it. Sorry.
In any case, I thought I should at least write down my thoughts on participating in my first jazz jam this – well, when I drafted this it was this – week. I could go into great depth describing why I wanted to participate and all the prep involved – and did in my first draft of this post – but for the sake of “brevity” I’ll leave that for another time. Right now I just want to capture how I felt in the moment.
I brought my guitar case and Real Book to the same restaurant I had gone to last month to observe a jam, and this time I was intent on participating. I arrived early, as the house drummer and keyboard player were setting up. I said hello, and asked them if the house guitar player would be there that night. They looked at each other, both shrugged, and told me that they didn’t know if he was playing tonight or not.
Big problem. I was relying on him being there.
The only amp I own is a Yamaha THR10C. It’s a small 10W modeling amp, and not terribly loud, which makes it great for using at home in my apartment. However, it isn’t the best for using in a live environment, competing with a keys and horns and drums. When I came last month, the house guitarist had brought a Roland JC-40 – a 40W amp that is perfect for live gigging. I was banking on him showing up and asking to use his amplifier for when I came up to play.
The organizers were very understanding and tried their best to assist, but no one had an extra amplifier or input on their amps to let me use, so I had to sit out for quite a while. While I was sitting out, I did my best to follow along in my book to standards that were being played, trying to understand the changes and trying to determine how I would solo over them and comparing to how people were soloing over them.
Thankfully, about halfway into the night, another guitar player arrived. The organizers talked to him even before I did, and nodded at me, letting me know that I could use his amplifier as well that night. He played a few songs and I sat nervously until my name was called to come up.
I had barely plugged my guitar into the amp and set my real book down on the seat behind me when the saxophonist asked me what I’d like to play. I called for Blue Bossa, one of the two tunes I had spent all week learning and preparing. The band nodded and the saxophonist smiled. “Love it. I don’t think we’ve played that in a while, so this’ll be fun. Ready? And a-one. A-two. A-one, two, three –”
And away we went.
The band picked up instantly. The drummer started right on beat, and all the other rhythm instruments fell right in line, with my initial Cm7 coming in late. The saxophonist sweetly sang the somber melody of Blue Bossa while I fumbled with my volume knob to find the place between too loud and silence.
ii-V of Eb and then to Dm7b5, I thought to myself. Now comes the ii-V-I in Db. My hands were struggling to keep up with the piece I had asked for. To everyone else, it seemed second nature.
I caught this feeling that someone looking at me, and as I looked up from my music stand, the saxophonist and I connected eyes. I don’t know how, but I immediately understood his look. Wordlessly, he asked me, “You’re taking first solo?”
I nervously nodded, and he nodded in turn. As the band restarted the chord progression, he stopped playing, and I started.
I was hyperfocused on my playing. I could hear the band behind my playing, but my mind was only listening to me. Every mistake I would never catch in practice suddenly became sharp and apparent to my ears. I don’t know when the key had changed, all I knew was that it had changed, and I had missed it.
The key’s about to change again. Stay on this C, it’s in both keys. Run that harmonic minor lick you know. You hit an open string, do a better job of muting. Turnaround’s here, get ready to go to Eb. Play the chord tones. Where am I?
Eventually, my solo came to a stop, and the keyboard player began his. There was a small applause for me from the audience, sounding full of pity. For the rest of the song, I was lost in my own mind. My only purpose in life was to not mess up my comping. I wasn’t playing or connecting with anyone else in the band. I was only playing to keep my head above water.
The song ended, and the audience clapped. The band leader asked the band what they should play next. They called a song I didn’t know, and I looked at the guitar player, silently begging “Save me.” He nodded and came to reclaim his spot. I sat far in the back, my hands still shaking, heart racing, and breathing shallow. The next song started, and I couldn’t stop thinking to myself:
I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun.
The band played two more songs before the restaurant started closing up shop for the night. I didn’t know them and thus didn’t play.
The first person I approached was the guitar player, to thank him for letting me use his amp. He said it was no problem, and that I did great. I laughed, saying I know I wasn’t very good, especially in comparison to the rest of the band. He shook his head in disagreement.
“You did a great job following the changes. When you messed up, you didn’t dwell on it and you just kept going. You had a good sense of where you wanted to take your solo. For your first jam and your first time, I’d say you did pretty well.”
I don’t know how much of that he actually meant. I don’t know how much of what I did was accident or instinct. But it still made me very happy to hear that.
I spoke with the saxophonist, who complimented my song choice and my comping. I spoke with the drummer, who noted my dynamics and my ability to be present without being overwhelming. Everyone who I spoke to that night had the same advice for me:
Keep coming. Keep messing up. Keep improving.
And that’s exactly what I intend to do.