After Hours: A Brief Introduction to the Jazz Jam Session

Plus: Where to hang in NYC to catch a jam

A jam session at Manhattan's Fat Cat featuring saxophonist Asaf Uria, pianist Jack Glottman, bassist Ben Meigners and drummer Darrell Green
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An invitation-only jam session at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in NYC, featuring trumpeter Etienne Charles, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Brian Carter
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Pianist/vocalist Johnny O'Neal sitting in at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, 2012
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Jamming at Smalls, NYC, 2012
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It’s 1 a.m. on a quiet summer Monday in Morningside Heights, but inside Smoke, the night is still cooking. Trombonist Steve Turre sits at the bar watching the eclectic mix of young talent that has gathered for saxophonist John Farnsworth’s weekly jam session. The great Lou Donaldson walks over to greet Turre, followed by keyboardist Michael LeDonne and John’s brother, drummer Joe Farnsworth. With the exception of Donaldson, who just happened to stop by, the rest had played during the opening set, but stayed on to trade stories, catch up and soak in the “hang.” Not all gigs qualify as a hang, but this one has the precise alchemy that draws the city’s best players: a high level of musicianship, a relaxed atmosphere and a sympathetic intergenerational crowd. Ask any working jazz musician, and the hang is what it’s all about.

“It’s a language,” says Turre. “It’s different than when you’re at home practicing. It’s a whole different energy.”

Similar hangs take place every night across the city, bringing together a bustling but close-knit community of jazz artists who come for the camaraderie, the breast-beating and the spontaneity of it all. Smalls, Fat Cat, Zinc Bar and many other venues host jam sessions, sometimes several nights a week. New York jazz clubs have started their programming progressively earlier since the days of Charlie Parker, but while the clubs now target an older jazz-going demographic, the musicians themselves aren’t going to bed after they leave their gigs. The jam session scene is the heart of after-hours jazz.

Pianist Orrin Evans took over hosting duties at the Evolution Jam Session at Zinc Bar in April, commuting from Philadelphia. “I think over the years with social media, we’ve lost the connect of the street. ‘Word on the street is’-there’s no more of that,” Evans says. “Now, it’s ‘Word on Twitter is,’ or ‘Word on Facebook is,’ which is a great thing, too, but I don’t think it should be a replacement for getting out and meeting cats.”

Musicians don’t only come out to hobnob with friends and test their chops and new material, though. Jam sessions serve as the jazz equivalent of networking events. “I got all my gigs from going to jam sessions. To me, with a little guidance from the former generation and maybe the one before that, things happen,” says pianist Marc Cary, who cut his teeth with Betty Carter, once a perennial presence on the jam-session circuit. Cary made some of his most important musical connections at jam sessions, having met Roy Hargrove at a session early on in his career. “Starting back from when I first came to the city,” Cary remembers, “there was always the legend of the great jam sessions. When I got here, they said I missed it, but we had our own thing happening.”

Jam sessions are the key component to maintaining the jazz scene’s social fabric. “If you’re new in town, you come to the jam session,” says trumpeter Etienne Charles, who has performed at all kinds of jams, including those at Zinc Bar and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. “You get different combinations onstage that wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t a jam session.”

Saxophonist Chelsea Baratz found her voice by going to jam sessions in Pittsburgh in her late teens, but

quickly noticed a problem with musicians who neglect the audience for the sake of navel-gazing flights of fancy. “I think the important thing to do at a jam session is to come in there and not have anything planned to play,” says Baratz. “If it’s really successful and the music sounds really good, there’s no preconception of what’s going on.”

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The longstanding tradition of the after-hours jam has a serious pedigree. Equal parts breeding ground and proving ground, the jam is inextricably tied to the history of the cutting contest, a blowing battle of one-upmanship over multiple choruses where players try to literally bust each other’s chops. Historically, cutting contests are primarily identified as a phenomenon among stride pianists of the 1920s and ’30s; stride greats like Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson were legendarily competitive at New York clubs and rent parties. Cutting spread to other instruments, and by the 1940s, sheer gamesmanship was being supplemented with intellectual exchange. The Petri dish for bebop, Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, played host to countless legendary duels with dubious victors: Lester Young and Ben Webster battled there, as did Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. The house band included monumental innovators like Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian; it was at Minton’s that Monk took a young Bud Powell under his wing.

The history of the jam session is in many ways the history of jazz. The Village Gate hosted a long-running Latin session that fostered cross-pollination between the genres and sometimes included Ray Barretto, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri and Dexter Gordon. Before finding a home at the Village Vanguard, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra began as a series of jam sessions involving likeminded players. Thad’s brother, Elvin, famously hosted a weekly session in his home, similar to the raucous nights that “jazz baroness” Pannonica de Koenigswarter held in her swanky hotel suites. In the 1970s, Sam Rivers anchored a series of experimental jam sessions at his loft space, Studio RivBea, and in the 1980s, John Zorn performed some of his first game pieces at impromptu sessions held at Studio Henry, a West Village basement space that attracted the city’s thriving avant-garde scene.

Those are just a few of the deeply influential sessions in New York City history. Here’s a look at 10 of the best jam sessions currently happening in town, broken down by the day of the week.

ALL WEEK

CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE

Morningside Heights

2485 Broadway


Sunday, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Monday and Tuesday, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

Friday and Saturday, 12 a.m. to 3 a.m.

This breezy club and restaurant offers a solid introduction to the city’s jam session scene. Bassist Hide Tanaka, Eric Lewis and others come for an informal, non-threatening hang. Expect standard jam session repertoire. Vocalists are encouraged here, and the crowd, full of performers, is always supportive. The night is prone to long solos, but the rotating hosts tend to keep it moving.

FAT CAT
West Village

75 Christopher Street


Sunday to Wednesday, 12:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Thursday to Saturday, 1:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Around the corner from Smalls, Fat Cat boasts one of the city’s most well-attended jams by all levels of musician, making it a good starting point for those interested in joining the scene. The expansive backdrop of ping-pong and pool tables and the preponderance of plush couches create an informal, low-pressure setting. Hosts include saxophonist Ned Goold, trumpeters Greg Glassman and Josh Evans and trumpeter Carlos Abadie. On the weekend, the jam might not open up until after 2 a.m., so expect to get home after dawn.

SMALLS
West Village

183 West 10th Street


Round Midnight jam, Monday to

Thursday, midnight to 2:30 a.m.

Happy hour and open jam, Thursday and Friday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

After hours jam, Friday and Saturday,

1 a.m. to close

Sunday afternoon singer open mic,

4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Tap dance jam session, Wednesday,

5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

This venerable jam began in 1994, and in many ways epitomizes the basement session environment that spurs creative exploration and dynamic collaborations. (Many of the most important Gen-X postboppers earned their stripes at Smalls during the wee hours.) Up-and-comers there to learn the language mingle with older, more established players looking to stay connected to the murmurings from below and pass the torch. Its central location and inviting decor make Smalls the jazz scene’s unofficial living room, ensuring a critical mass of musicians who drop in after gigs to finish off their night. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Frank Lacy, Curtis Lundy and Theo Hill are a few of the names that have graced the subterranean bar, but at Smalls, anything could happen.

“The jam session concept saved Smalls,” says Mitch Borden, the club’s eccentric owner, who holds forth on any subject, from the hierarchy of deities in the jazz pantheon to the evolutionary development of cats (as in felines, not jazz players). “The jam made it a place where the public realized there was a scene happening, and the public is interested in rubbing shoulders with jazz musicians.”

MONDAY

SMOKE

Morningside Heights

2751 Broadway


11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

Trombonist and saxophonist John Farnsworth has led a straight-ahead Monday night jam at this posh, dimly lit spot on the south edge of Harlem for the past 13 years. The jam begins with an opening set, played by a shifting house band of Farnsworth’s illustrious cohorts, and runs until about 2:30 a.m., depending on the crowd. The session regularly attracts top talent, many of them Farnsworth’s peers, including Jacky Terrasson, Dwayne Burno, George Coleman, Russell Malone and Eddie Henderson. Farnsworth is an affable host, but makes sure to curtail green players who can’t help but try and take more choruses than they deserve.

“Back in the old days, it got uncomfortable for musicians to sit in. There’s definitely a cutting-contest [attitude that still exists today],” says Farnsworth, citing trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Freddie Hendrix as modern-day inheritors of the mantle of Gillespie and Eldridge. “But I make it work for everybody.”

THE KITANO
Midtown East

66 Park Avenue


8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

German native bassist Iris Ornig leads an all-inclusive, laidback Monday night session at this upscale Japanese hotel that boasts one of the nicest Steinway baby grand pianos in the city. Ornig’s house band includes a rotating set of collaborators, among them drummer Chris Benham, drummer Brian Woodruff, pianist Oscar Perez and saxophonist Brandon Wright. There’s definitely an emphasis on singers and standards, so be prepared to help an aspiring Ella explore the Great American Songbook. Artistic Director Gino Moratti insists that the audience keep conversation to a minimum and respect the musicians, which makes this a supportive session for students and young up-and-comers to expand their repertoire.

TUESDAY

ZINC BAR

West Village

82 West 3rd Street


Evolution Jam Session,

11 p.m. to close

Part of Revive Da Live, impresario Meghan Stabile’s groundbreaking series that traces hip-hop’s jazz lineage, this session, founded by trumpeter Igmar Thomas and currently hosted by pianist Orrin Evans, sticks primarily to players’ standards. It’s one of the hippest sessions in the city, attracting a mix of musicians, jazz industry folks and savvy fans, and it gets packed. On any given night, expect to see Zaccai and Luques Curtis, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Nicholas Payton, Obed Calvaire, Etienne Charles, Chelsea Baratz, Sharel Cassity, Ambrose Akinmusire or Stacy Dillard, a veritable who’s who of young trailblazers playing alongside lesser-known musicians. Pianist Eric Lewis, a familiar face on the session scene, often stops in when he’s in New York.

The series began in 2009 at Creole in Harlem, moving to Zinc Bar in fall 2011. “There was no sense of a real jazz scene in Harlem,” says Stabile, who has done invaluable work to strengthen that neighborhood’s jazz offerings. At Zinc, they take a bit of Harlem to the Village. “It’s an evolution of what’s right now, of what we’ve known and what we’ll honor, but everybody there understands what’s going on now. This night felt like our generation.”

Thomas left his hosting duties this past spring to go on tour with Spalding, but he laid the groundwork over the session’s first two years. Ironically, he found that he only saw his New York friends while touring abroad at festivals, and the jam provided an obvious solution. “Even though we live in the same city, everybody’s traveling, everybody’s gigging. On Tuesday night we can create that festival atmosphere.”

THE FIFTH ESTATE
Park Slope

506 5th Avenue (Brooklyn)


11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

This hip Park Slope watering hole plays host to one of the longest-running jazz jams in Brooklyn, led by journeyman drummer Diego Voglino. The repertoire is straight-ahead, but the atmosphere is more alternative, cultivated by the many Brooklyn-based players who have been in Voglino’s house band, among them Ben Monder, Seamus Blake, Tony Malaby, Lage Lund, Gary Wang and Orlando le Fleming. After an opening set, Voglino opens it up.

“There’s no vibing here. In [Manhattan], there’s more of a tendency for guys to look at you cockeyed. In Brooklyn, it’s a little bit more anything goes,” says Voglino. “We’re a super small minority in the grand scheme of things, and I think people know that.”

MONA’S
East Village

224 Avenue B


11 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

This boisterous trad-jazz jam is less musician-centric and more of a cozy Irish dive bar where $5 pints meet the end of a long workday-minus those hipsters who are too cool for work. Musicians who’ve spent time with their Satchmo and Bix records come out to play lesser-known tunes like “High Society” and “Once in a While.” The house band generally includes pianist Gordon Webster, bassist Jared Engel, guitarist and banjo player Nick Russo and clarinetist Dennis Lichtman. But even without the music Mona’s has allure: It’s a no-frills, unpretentious spot, the type poet Frank O’Hara might have frequented for inspiration.

WEDNESDAY

TEA LOUNGE

Park Slope

837 Union Street (Brooklyn)


Tea and Jam, 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

The mercurial trumpeter John McNeil and trombonist Mike Fahie cohost this lively jam. McNeil espouses a supportive environment, but not at the risk of alienating the audience. “I’m the policeman,” he says, referring to his self-appointed duties as quality-control manager. “If they had that spirit of acceptance when Charlie Parker started to play, he probably wouldn’t have learned how to play.” This editorial function keeps the night flowing and the quality-level high, and though McNeil might have a short attention span for those who show up unprepared, he is a magnanimous and voluble emcee. Saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Matt Maneri and Diego Voglino have all appeared here, and not necessarily in the house band.

THURSDAY

DIZZY’S CLUB COCA-COLA

Jazz at Lincoln Center

10 Columbus Circle, Fifth Floor


Thursday, 11:30 p.m. to close

Vocalist Michael Mwenso hosts this invitation-only jam, which tends to feature more established artists. Dizzy’s Hot Fives Special offers a welcome $5 cover charge, $5 drinks and a $5 bar menu, and the breathtaking view of Columbus Circle makes this one of the eminent spots to see live jazz in the city. Drummer Lawrence Leathers, Etienne Charles, bassist Ryan Berg and drummer Ulysses Owens have all been featured, among countless others.

“There would be a lot of musicians here and nothing happening. We wanted to create a more communal vibe,” says Mwenso, who was recruited by Wynton Marsalis at London venue Ronnie Scott’s, where he hosted a similar jam. “You can’t have a jazz club without a jam session.”

BONUS

In a Jam: Guidelines for the Aspiring Jammer

Though ostensibly anything can happen, there are unwritten rules that govern jam sessions. Violators probably won’t get booed off the bandstand, but they’ll surely catch a few dirty looks from fellow players, or even a firm tap on the shoulder from the host. Here are five simple rules to avoid being the skunk at the garden party.

1. Look Presentable

There’s a sign on the door to American Legion Post 398, a Harlem jam-session institution, that reads: “Pull up your pants or stay out!” Be mindful of the audience and wear something appropriate. This doesn’t mean show up in a pinstripe bespoke suit, but tank tops and low-hung basketball shorts probably aren’t the best options if you’re looking to get hired.

2. Know Your Standards

Even if you’re wearing the right pants, that doesn’t mean you won’t get caught with your pants down. Jam sessions have a fairly universal repertoire, tunes that tend to get called because everyone in the band knows them-think “Stella by Starlight,” “Alone Together,” “Autumn Leaves” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” Instrumentalists should also familiarize themselves with Great American Songbook vocal fare. To put it simply, internalize your Real Book and then leave it at home.

3. Wait Your Turn

Nobody likes the person who waltzes onstage in the middle of a tune. If you weren’t on the bandstand for the head, sit back and listen until the host calls you up. Unfortunately, this means you might not get to play. But if you show up early enough to nab a good spot on the list, you’ll more than likely get your choruses on “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

4. Don’t Play Backgrounds

Unless the host or another member of the house band initiates it, don’t play backgrounds over other people’s solos. Even if you think it sounds good, it’s presumptuous and won’t go over well with the tenorman who is trying to find his inner-Trane.

5. Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

Unless you’re Terence Blanchard making everyone’s night by sitting in, brevity is the soul of any successful jam appearance. If you can’t say what you have to say in under three or four choruses, don’t say anything at all. Be extra careful not to overstay your welcome on “Invitation,” a tune with a long form that “invites’ even longer solos.