Are ‘jazz jams’ about Community? and are they worthy?

New in town? Want to meet the jazz ma/fraternity? Think venues abuse jammers? Are jazz jammers only learners on ego trip? Help audience development? Nurture talents?

There’s a mystical, vibey world of sounds out there which grabs musicians and patrons alike, causing a migration of smiles in anticipation of ‘something different’. What do you do / where do you go… after an eventful weekend of festivities, lunches, brawly evening braais, or just reading a good book? And you just want to chill but don’t want the music to stop?

The Monday night jazz jam!

In Cape Town, the jam has remained popular and busy, bringing eager young and less young musicians and patrons together for informal interactions, networking, and general camaraderie. Travelling to large cities worldwide, and you’ll find a musician’s jam on some day of the week, without fail. But finding a suitable home at a cozy venue for CapeTown jazz jams has proved problematic, for whatever reasons, as venues keep changing, or closing down, or……..

A recent Facebook discussion among jazz enthusiasts and musicians has been addressing the ‘worthiness’ of the jazz jams, thanks to jazz photographer, Gregory Franz, who posed the key question on his FB page posted on 3 May, 2021:

We know that music jams are not for financial gains on the day but
what are your honest opinions/experiences about music jams???

A little history: In the 1990s, Cape Town’s jazz jam was at Val’s in Athlone (in daytime a coffee shop run by the entrepreneurial lady, Val); it closed and the jam moved not too far away to Swingers, a daytime gambling joint and nighttime restaurant and other music club + the slot machines. Here, for over a decade, many happy Monday night musical jams groomed the jazz students who eagerly took to the stage with the seasoned greats from both South African and international jazz communities. But Swingers decided it wanted something different, so the jam moved again, blessing several venues with shorter stints: at Lyra’s, a restaurant/bar on Rondebosch’s Main Rd close to the University of Cape Town and accessible for students; then at another restaurant/bar on Claremont’s Main Road, albeit short-lived. The popular Mowbray Sports Club brought hordes of students nearby. A few venues had popular night jams, like Long Street’s vibey Carnival Court, and Athlone’s Blue Chip. After a long lull, the V&A Waterfront’s Comedy Club generously reserved its Monday evenings just for live jazz. However, it was too far and expensive (transport) for students to travel. Then, Covid shut this down!

When the Covid pandemic’s strict lockdowns hit, patrons visited the YouTube programs from home, or just sat pouting, trying to adapt to the impersonal world of the digital sonic entertainment. After a year of that misery (or joy for many), musician Dan Shout and his supporters put an end to the silence, and found Fat Harry’s restaurant in Kenilworth pleasing and accommodating for Monday night jazz jams. It follows strict covid protocols for distancing, but is booked out each Monday several weeks in advance.

Now to the question above:::::::: Responses varied. Here are a few quotes.

Business Aspects

Mr. T: I think the state should subsidise them in a similar fashion that it does higher education. Venue owners currently have to deal with “small” things such as where musos will sit, what they will eat/drink that won’t compromise the experience of paying patrons. As much as I understand the frustrations of cultural workers who have given up on the state, I still do think we have a chance with the state.

Mr. G: Jam sessions are often poorly organised and chaotic. If there was more structure as I’ve seen done overseas and musicians make the effort to entertain their paying audience with a proper performance, then it can work. Jam sessions are hugely important to the development of a musician but now that it’s also used as a commercial vehicle, it’s often disingenuous and rarely serves the audience well.

Mr. G: To answer the question directly – it’s a good way for players of improvised music to get together to exchange ideas informally while playing together. This was after all how all music anywhere in the world started and evolved. It would be fair for the proprietor of the establishment to expect to make some money by selling food and drink but, to expect people to pay a gate fee when the jammers are playing for free isn’t so cool.

Jam sessions have their place in the music scene as long as the musicians are not exploited. Abdullah Ebrahim has repeatedly said that there is a need for our local musicians to take care of business. A pat on the back, the transitory approval of the crowd and the fact that you have a following isn’t good enough. The level of success obtained by jazz musicians wasn’t built on the fact that they attended jazz jams. We know that crowds are fickle.

Quality Filters

Mr. T: Jam sessions are where we grow, get better, where we are told we need to get better…they are Quality Filters. I always think of the story of Charlie Parker getting a cymbal thrown at him. Traumatic, but a learning experience. Having said that, I think the jam sessions in CPT are too neat and cordial. Perhaps it’s a generational issue. But some of us need to be told AT A JAM if we’re playing crap.

Mr. B: The jam scene in CT is pretty much useless. As is the music scene in general. Too much ego, too much competition. I’m referring to jams in general.. .I often find them a bit frustrating. I prefer strawberry jam.

Mr. M: Is there a place for impromptu type stuff in jam sessions? Where one musician starts something on the top of his head and other jammers follow? I enjoy this vibe but i never see it happening. A few years ago I attended a jam session where this happened, but it was ended abruptly to switch to jammers doing standards. I questioned the owner about why they stopped the impromptu vibe and the owner and her clique took major offence, even mocking me. But ya, according to our experience, can this unrehearsed impromptu jams work?

Nurturing Talent

Ms. M: Jam sessions are extremely important for the development of young artists. They allow us to find our voices and personalities within the music. They also push us to become better artists as we try to keep up with our peers. However, because they are so central to our growth, they can also become a toxic space for cultural identity. Things like elitism and patriarchy easily manifest in these spaces and set a tone for the jazz community in which they exist. So it’s really important that we fundamentally cultivate these spaces as learning grounds in all aspects, knowing they will influence the art much further than initially expected.

Mr. G: I’d rather hear a set from a band playing their own thing or a rehearsed set of something original – covers I don’t mind, but played by the regular booked band. I do however 100% acknowledge how important jam nights are for the nurturing of talent.

Mr. S: Without jam sessions you don’t have a true jazz culture.
Mr. G: What do you regard as being the true jazz culture?
Mr. S: I am not sure I can put such a description as one particular thing. But I do believe that a place where musicians congregate off the clock to experiment and test themselves against their peers is an essential part of it.

Mr. D: As a classical musician who swapped over to jazz, Alvin Dyers’ jam sessions were a hugely important step in my musical development. That jam, along with the ones I’ve attended at Smalls and Smoke in NYC, influenced the way that I have run my jams at Lyra’s and now Fat Harry’s Reloaded on a Monday night. I prefer a very structured approach, which means jammers may only get to play one tune, however they have an enjoyable experience doing that. The rhythm section also isn’t punished by having every second sax player jump up to jam on a blues or Cantaloupe Island for 30 mins, which also gets boring for the audience. The fact that I’m seeing a greater number of high school kids attending my jam than ever before, I believe, shows how comfortable and safe they feel to take their first steps in front of a live audience without rehearsal or often even having met the players before. I find the pros and university students very patient and welcoming with no egos at all. There is also some incredible, young university talent coming through.

Mr. J: Jam sessions had and always will be a platform for up and coming, even seasoned, musicians. It’s about choices, and if musicians feel they want to move on, they had the stepping stone. Many of our jammers had moved on to greater heights musically; many of us know who they are. It’s been rewarding to see how those musicians had grown to be examples to others. Yes I do know some venues had abused these sessions, but in the main our objective was to give the musicians a chance and I will encourage this type of program if it is conducted in a structured way as Dan Shout has indicated.

Mr. D: You nailed it! If one doesn’t like the way a jam session is run, go to another one. If you feel you’re being exploited, then you can choose not to attend. I do find it ironic that often, those who complain about not having work don’t attend jam sessions. You have to play, to play!


Mr. J: Jam sessions are a great way to experience playing blues or jazz, learn new tunes etc and it’s fantastic to be able to jam with people who you don’t usually play with as well. I stopped going to them when I felt my playing was moving in another direction. I wanted to spend time working on a more electronic, psychedelic sound with electric guitar and to experiment with loops with acoustic guitar. But I encourage my students to go to the jams and to learn and absorb the experience of playing with more experienced musicians. The Sunday night meetings at Carnival Court were some of the best jams…There were some like-minded non purist elements there that made those ones special. You could really express yourself there.

Mr. G: Jam sessions don’t really help to build your career, but in a limited sense, it’s a good way if you are new in town to make yourself known to fellow musicians. Quite often jam sessions are used as a vehicle for abusing musicians by getting them to perform for free. The same goes for talent contests. Jam sessions do not pertain only to jazz. In my teens living in Silvertown, there were many aspiring guitarists, pianists, drummers, singers, saxophone players, etc who visited our house on a Friday night, some coming from Surrey Estate, Wetton, Wynberg, Guguletu, etc. Many who brought their instruments with them were invited to play. This was the spirit of the jam session. Most of these chaps were never heard from again after they entered their twenties. I formed a long-lasting musical relationship with some of them, although I was essentially a music hobbyist.

Mr. L: I’m on a quest for the endless jam.

Mr. K: Jam sessions are great. Amazing you can get a bunch of people and play without rehearsing …great music. Also gives the young ones a stage experience.

Social Interaction/Networking

Mr. R: It was great back a few years…it’s good for nurturing new talent or for music students to get heard… Now, most of the jammers are gigging musos who come after their paid gig to make a noise and show off, sometimes intimidating the youngsters who come on stage to sing a song. There is no real performance…seems they come coz they don’t wanna go home yet.

Mr. G: Mr. R, that is jamming! In our twenties after a gig the chaps used to look for parties where there would be jamming musicians. That’s when I met all the Schilder Brothers, the Moses Brothers, Aubrey Kinnes, Billie Dollie, Monty Weber, Ben Masinga, Winston Manunku, Danai Dhlovu, Victor Ntoni, Richard Tembo, Jimmy Adams and a host of other musicians. It was loads of fun but as we got older and got married we got into trouble and started cooling down.

Mr. D: But ABOVE ALL (and I’m truly amazed that no one has mentioned this yet in this thread), jam session are about a sense of COMMUNITY. When I started my jam again, I felt like I was back with my jazz family again and I realised how much I missed everyone during lockdown. Fat Harry’s has been fully booked days in advance for 2 months now, so there are definitely some people who still appreciate a well-run jazz jam!

Mr. D: I’m not sure if I speak for everyone, but have a strange tendency to book people I’ve heard play before, checked out their style, vibe and chops. In my case, this is from jam sessions.

Mr. G: Ben Sidran in his book “Black Talk”, if I remember correctly, makes the point that people from West Africa didn’t have a literary tradition. There wasn’t a written notation system for their music. It was therefore important that everyone be heard. There would of course be some who were better than others at expressing themselves. This tradition carried on among the slaves in America. People would get together and make music often on makeshift instruments socially. Anyone could join in the music making with those not being up to scratch falling out along the way. These sessions were the fledgling moments of jazz and jam sessions. Eventually this music migrated to a formal environment with orchestral instruments becoming available after the civil war. The banjo which has its roots in Africa was already in use. Jam sessions are part and parcel of the jazz scene but there has been a tendency by some to intellectualise about them.

Ms. M: yes! So true. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of jazz has taken away from its Africaness rooted in community and learning. I’m hoping as we reintegrate into a decolonized society, we can begin moving back to the true art form.

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