VNPAC: Blogging Through the 2nd Jazz Education Network Conference—Playing Catch-Up

(January 7, 2011) This entry probably won’t be posted until after the conference is over. Come to think of it, it probably won’t be finished until then, either! The reason for this is that I have to play the jam session tonight. So, when everyone else is going out to eat the wonderful food at the wonderful restaurants that this wonderful city has to offer, I’ll be doing my best to accompany all of the “cats and kittens” who are inspired to “make some noise” after a long day of listening to concerts, panel discussions, and clinician presentations. It’s really cool to see the different echelons of players—students, professors, independent artists—producing chaconne-like inventions over the forms of various popular songs and jazz standards. A jam session was scheduled every night at 11:00 pm to take place in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Restaurant. While not as prestigious as the hotel’s Blue Room (once THE place to perform in New Orleans), it is attached to the spacious and well-stocked Sazerac Bar and little else needs to be said on that account. Monika Herzig of Indiana University at Bloomington was the house pianist and session coordinator.

There are many strategies for conducting jam sessions and it’s really up to the session host to set policy. Some sessions are “by invitation only,” some limit the amount of time each person plays, some limit the number of people playing at once, and some have no restrictions. I’ve been involved in a bit of session playing over the years and find that open/no restrictions sessions are the most interesting, yet challenging, format and this is how the JEN sessions were run. Some attendees felt that not enough “quality control” was practiced this way while others complained that about having to wait too long to play and some just didn’t like playing with less experienced players. Most of the players, though, were fine with Monika’s format, me being one of them. Maybe it’s because I literally learned to play jazz on the band stand, with jam sessions being a seminal part, that my philosophy about is that they are a “listen-to-learn” environment. It’s not a show in the sense that there’s going to be something for everybody, although the experienced listener can have a fantastically rewarding experience when attending jam sessions. I remember when a single tune might last for over an hour during a session. It could be tough, but certain skills relating to stamina and attention were emphasized. If “you had something to say,” then go ahead and say it, but you had to be willing to listen to what everyone else had to say, too (not to mention playing a piano or bass or drum solo after everyone else had THEIR say!). So, for me, the JEN session was a lot like revisiting the part of my formative years where the paradigm of jazz education was still largely communal instead of institutional. I think it’s important that the JEN attendees get the chance to be involved in a jam session, especially where players from all over the world might sit in. In fact, it was an honor to be asked to be house bassist, even if for only one night.

Unfortunately, a miscommunication between the administrative ranks of JEN and the Roosevelt made it impossible for the session to convene on the first night. I’ve gathered that the erring leaned more towards the side of the Roosevelt and its audio-visual contractor. The exact nature of the problem was that no equipment—stage, piano, drums, PA system, etc.—was delivered to the location at the agreed on time. This also happened the following morning at Bruce Gertz‘s bass clinic, although he did finally get a bass in time to conduct half of his presentation. Those of you who wondered why I opted to drive to New Orleans now know the answer. In the case of the jam session, though, the equipment arrived far too late for anything to happen. Naturally, I wonder why the horn players just didn’t start playing anyway. I’m sure that a few snare drummers could have joined in and a New Orleans jam session might have ensued. But that didn’t happen and neither did a jam session on JEN’s first night. I wasn’t there, though, because Gene Perla was scheduled to play. I was at the Gumbo Shop eating m’ Po’ Boy!

There was a session on the second night. Gene started it off on the bass with Steve Barnes on drums. I passed by several times and figured to sit in after I heard some of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp’s and Jeff Coffin’s sets. Between the two (LAJC and Cofflin) I stopped by and saw Perla watching the session from the Sazerac Bar area. I asked how everything was going and he enlisted me to play. It was my mistake to not run away then and there. I wound up playing the rest of the session and missed Jeff’s set (but made up for it the next morning by going to his clinic). The sign-sheet for the night looked like this:

Name, Instrument
Rick Sebastian, Drums
Sherry Luchette, Bass
Peggy Duquensel, Piano
Bob Ackerman, Alto Sax
Phillip Howe, Trumpet
Gurri, Drums
Fred Taylor, Drums
Kathleen Holeman, Vocal
Brian Madden, Tenor
Brad Keller, Piano
Goger Dowset, Conga
Melanie Jackson, Voice
Bob Keller, Trumpet
Mel Martin, Tenor Sax
Larry Panella, Tenor Sax
Austin Seybert, Trombone
Wes Crachford, Drums
James Dering, Piano
Christine Tavares, Voice
Edwina Hebert, Voice
Elliot Liles, Voice

I took over from Sherry Luchette, who was sounding great, but had been up too long and wanted to stop. This was at the point that Fred Taylor, Kathleen Holeman, Brian Madden, and Brad Keller were on the stage. We played an interesting version of “My Funny Valentine” in 3/4 that suffered from a not very clear sound system. Several horn players joined in, including Mel Martin and a few musicians who weren’t on the list: Don Braden, drummer Jose Gurria-Cardenas (actually listed as “Gurri” on the sign-in sheet), one of the most extraordinary singers I’ve ever heard, Germaine Bazzle, and an impromptu appearance by percussionist Bobby Sanabria, who was still pumped up from playing with the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp All-Stars and brought down the house!

I was house bassist the third night. We started a half-hour late because bassist John Clayton, drummer Matt Wilson, and trumpeter Terell Stafford inserted a stunning half-hour set into the schedule. Monika started the session with Fred Taylor on drums. The sign-in sheet looked like this:

Name, Instrument
Next please [Rick Sebastian] (played w Jaco Pastorius, John Scoffield, Dianne Reeves, Dr. John)
Carol Chaikin, sax
Bob Ackerman, Alto Sax
Andrew Wangemann, Drums
Dunbur Spsright, Alto Sax
Tomoko Funaki, Bass
Warren Dewey, Drums
Mel Martin, Soprano Sax
Christine Tavares, Vocals
Greg Hartman, Drums
Shane Simpson, Piano
Collin Wade, Alto
Ras Chemash, Vocals
Belinda Moody, Bass
Germaine Bazzle, Vocal
Ricky Sebastian, Drums
Fred Taylor, Drums
Phillip Howe, Trumpet
Sam Williams, Alto Sax
Ben Pierre Louis, Trumpet
Cliff, Tenor Sax

(It’s interesting how some singers changed their designation from “voice” to “vocals” and how one drummer felt it necessary to include a resume. Session sign-in sheets could become a psychology research project in and of themselves!)

Monika played a deceptively simple version of “Georgia On My Mind” before opening up the session. Tomoko Funaki, an excellent bassist who runs sessions in San Francisco, sat in for the next two tunes, which lasted for about an hour. I came back to close out the evening with a version of “Mood Indigo” that featured the vocalists Germaine Bazzle and Christine Tavares. I’m not exactly sure why, but they became the dynamic duo of the conference and their creation on the Ellington classic was superb.

I left for the long drive back to New York on Saturday, but Ms. Herzig gave me a brief description of the last session from her office at IU Bloomington. The sign-in sheet read:

Name, Instrument
Will Jacobs, Vocal/Guitar
Bob Ackerman, Flute
Peter Gabrielibles, Guitar
Greg Hartman, Drums
Germaine Bazzle, Vocalist
Brian M., Tenor
Kathleen, Voice
Michael M., Drums
Grayson Schweers, Bass
Andrew Wangemann, Drums
Bob Keller, Trumpet
Betsy Bhaud, Flute
Kathleen Holeman, Voice
Betsy Bhaud, Flute
Ras Chemash, Vocals
Noah Lande, Bass
Anton Zhdondz, el. violin (guitar amp)
Taylor Barnett, trumpet
John Lloyd, trombone
Andrew, Bass
Reagan Schweers, Drums

Grayson Schweers of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (Dallas, Texas) graciously allowed his bass (it seems that the JEN’s bass rental was only good through Friday) to be used by Gene Perla, who graciously stayed late on Saturday to be available as house bassist. Fred Taylor was the house drummer again as well. A word about the “house” musician designation: these are usually rhythm-section musicians (piano, bass, and drums) who are there to start the session off and play when nobody else is sitting in on those instruments. They’re usually paid a nominal fee (although the house players at JEN volunteered their time) and, if the hosting establishment is a restaurant, a meal; but, more often than not, they’re not playing during the session because someone else is sitting in. Still, they have to be on-call for the moments when nobody else wants to play that instrument. It can be challenging because of the amount of material the house musician has to be familiar with and because you have to be ready to play, even after hours of inactivity. So, kudos to Gene Perla, a veteran of the jazz world since the 1960s, for being available to hold down the fort for anyone and everyone playing at the JEN sessions. You remain one of my inspirations and I hope that all of the session attendees appreciated the wealth of experience, knowledge and tradition you brought.

Monika told me that the session on the last night was a good mix of students and the pros. She also said that a few people who weren’t on the list made appearances also, notably: bassist Lou Fischer and pianists Shelley Berg and Michael Wolff. Now that’s a session I wish I had heard!

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