JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"

RUNNING TIME, 4:42

Why was the jam session a relief for musicians during the 1940s and what was the musical significance of these small group band sessions?

The jam session was kind of a place of enlightenment not unlike the way I described New Orleans in the '60s when I went there as a kid. In the jam session atmosphere, first of all, it was completely integrated, nobody was looking over your shoulder, you got to play - if you were a young white musician you got to play with your idols, who were black. The black musicians got to respect the white musicians who had something to say. I mean the trick about jazz, and this is the main thing is, you have to learn how to express yourself. You may idolize Louis Armstrong or Roy Eldridge or Dizzy Gillespie but if you imitate them you don't count for anything. I mean, it's hard to do that.

It's very different from classical. Classical, there's a way that you play the violin and you become a master violinist by figuring out that instrument. In jazz, you don't become a master trumpet player by aping Dizzy Gillespie. You can learn from him but you have to figure out a way to make the trumpet express you. You have to have your own sound. You know, as a kid the most fascinating thing to me of all about jazz was that after listening to a few records I'd say, wow, that's Coleman Hawkins, I knew - or Lester Young or John Coltrane. Thirty or 40 tenor players I could tell after four bars. How many times can you do that with a classical violinist where after four bars you say, oh yeah, that's gotta be . . . - or a pianist. You know, Horowitz maybe. Not many others that you would know, right off the bat. So, I love that about it.

Now, in the jam session they really get to be themselves. The white guys get to show off what they can, the black guys . . . and they're playing together and they're learning together. But they're also impressing each other. There's a competition that goes on in a jam session. And that's one of the things that makes it really exciting. It's not like, "Oh, let's play a lovely version of 'Body & Soul,'" it's also like, "Did you hear what Roy Eldridge just played? How you gonna follow that? You better follow with everything that you've got." So, as they're impressing each other, as they're getting better and better, they're throwing in stuff. They're doing harmonic substitutions that aren't in the piece, that are way out. They're doing all kinds of things that everybody else is picking up on it because that's the level of musicianship that we're talking about. So one guy does something and does something, I don't know, in B natural, the devil's own key. And suddenly everybody's saying, "OK, I better learn how to play in B natural. You know, it's not all going to be about B flat and F." So they're playing in more sophisticated keys or more unusual keys. They're playing in a different range, they're competing, they're getting better, they're moving the music forward. And all of this eventually leads to that kind of excitement that ultimately generates the next great movement, the so-called modern jazz or bebop movement. Because a lot of the things that they came up with that sounded so bizarre they really figured out in the context of jam sessions. And eventually jam sessions became something that you could market. You took them out of the after-hours clubs and you could actually put them on stage.

Town Hall became famous for Eddie Condon directing jam sessions. And the jazz of the Philharmonic in the 1950s and '60s were essentially staged jam sessions where, you know, you brought out all these stars. Somebody was on - nothing was preplanned. You know, they'd look at each other and say "Sometimes I'm Happy"? Alright, "Sometimes I'm Happy." And then they'd play it, maybe for 10 or 15 minutes. And you, you don't know what's going to happen. Charlie Parker comes on stage, they're doing "Lady Be Good." Pianist plays the theme [Giddins demonstrates]. Old tune, everybody knows it. Lester Young is in this group, I mean some very good musicians. And then Charlie Parker comes up and the first thing he does is he turns "Lady Be Good" into a blues. He plays the first theme [Giddins demonstrates] but he goes [Giddins demonstrates] - Wow. I mean he's just taken it to a whole new place. Well that solo was recorded. And it was broadcast. And there were literally thousands of young musicians, all over the United States who heard that who imitated, who memorized that solo. Memorized it.

But all the licks in that solo - they weren't licks when Charlie Parker played them in 1946. They became licks. Everybody memorized them. Those licks became part of the language of modern jazz. And these kinds of things happened at jam sessions all the time. Fortunately, quite a number of them are films. You can actually see this kind of magical thing happening.