Over the last week I’ve been going to a lot of jam sessions. The reason for this has to do with three of my blog entries (May 25, June 1, and June 8, 2012). I’ve been talking to some of my colleagues about them and find that I’m no longer savvy about contemporary jam sessions; I only know of a few that seem to specialize in jazz. So I’ve given myself the task to learn as much as I can about as many regularly occurring jam sessions as I can. The jam sessions that I’m starting my research exercise with are Manhattan-based and occur “after-hours”; that is, beginning after, or very close to, midnight. So far, I’ve attended three from beginning to end and three in part. I plan to re-attend the ones that I only attended in part.
I’ve played at some, and not played at others. At first I thought that I would not play at any of them and take the role of “armchair anthropologist,” but that didn’t last long. Fortunately, the rule at the sessions I’ve attended so far is for bass players to play one tune and then let someone else play. I have stayed after the sessions are over, though, to talk with the other remaining musicians about why they come to play and what they think the experience means to them. The most striking thing I’ve noticed so far about this exercise is that the level of technical proficiency displayed by the instrumentalists, singers, and dancers (one of the sessions was a tap dance jam session) is much higher than when I was regularly playing at sessions some thirty years ago. Another is that there actually seems to be a fairly large amount of sessions going on, so this exercise might take quite a while; at least several weeks.
Another thing about these sessions is that they are primarily social events; rather noisy and with a high degree of interaction between audience and performers that continues after one stops playing. I found myself talking with complete strangers on a wide range of themes that the music seemed to inspire. Most of these people were musicians, but some were not. One gentleman from India started talking to me and a few other musicians who were mulling around in front of the session’s hosting establishment about whether or not the principle issue of music making was modern vs. traditional or supra- vs. sub-cultural modes of expression. The conversation quickly morphed into one about caste-based society and the myth of classlessness. It was refreshing to listen to a non-professional musician talk about the music of India in terms of the purpose of unifying a culture designed to be socio-economically stratified. His description of the music emphasized the ritualistic and religious elements of ragas and talas; things that are not generally regarded as essential to American music, although absolutely fundamental to European art music (as in the little bird whispering into Pope Gregory’s ear).
One thing our conversation did was remind me of how easy it is to think of music as existing separately from the society it’s performed in, as if it weren’t a cultural phenomenon. I understand that, since music has a way of “transporting” people into a state of consciousness that can bypass what some consider left-brain thinking—basically suspending, or deflecting, our attention on word-based mental activity (although I think it’s more a matter of integrating, or synchronizing the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy), we might find it distasteful to consider music as a part of a construct that torturously takes up our attention at other times. But it is, and always has been, just that: an activity human beings engage in to foster a sense of identity and unity within given cultural contexts. To understand another culture, one learns some of its language, eats some of its food, and listens to some of its music. And, like language and culinary preferences, we are conditioned to understand music within those contexts.
Last week this idea was introduced vis-à-vis the quest to “(re)build an audience” for various kinds of music that have waned in popularity to the point that it becomes difficult to sustain regular performance opportunities. Because I tend to be identified (and, thus, tend to reflexively identify) with jazz, the entry’s excellent, in-depth, and lone comment focused on that music (to be fair, my examples skewed the discussion in that direction). But, really, the idea of (re)building audiences isn’t just an issue with jazz. It is also one for the more Eurocentrically focused Western art music that tends to be labeled “classical” by Joe Bageant’s “people.”
The comment reminded me of the event that led to my decision to relocate to New York in 1977. I had been there for a week to lend moral support to my girlfriend, whose father had been diagnosed with a terminal condition. On the last day we were there, we had heard about a new restaurant that had opened on 7th Avenue that featured live music and decided to go to the Sunday (or maybe Saturday) brunch. As we were sitting at our sidewalk table, I heard some of the best music I had ever heard in my life emanating from the stage of the restaurant, which was located behind me. I turned to see a guitar trio featuring Joe La Barbera on drums, Michael Moore on bass, and led by Jim Hall on guitar. At that moment I realized that, if I wanted to experience that kind of situation again, I would have to live in New York. This wasn’t to say that San Francisco lacked for great musicians, just that they weren’t being featured as regularly. That paradigm is changing there as we speak, but this isn’t the case for most communities in the United States. As last week’s commentator pointed out about his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (a city that used to be one of the epicenters for jazz): he now counts himself “lucky to be able to experience jazz at all.”
The idea of “rebuilding” an audience for music is something I don’t really like to consider, at least not literally, because the term includes an inherent re-establishment of societal values that were the nest for the music and its audience that would be rebuilt. I would hate to see a return to the abysmal civil rights milieu that hosted jazz in its “golden age,” but I would also hate to see jazz become sustained solely through a “concerted effort by various cultural and academic institutions.” Given the corporate-ness of these institutions’ vision statements, I seriously doubt that they can ever get it right; at least not until they adopt a fundamentally community-based archetype to emulate. Because the underlying principle of jazz, like all American music, comes from a network of community-based musicians that have gently coerced their nationalistic supracultural elite to include the sub-cultural identities of African, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Native Americans, as well as those of Eurocentric Americans, in our modern American musical identity, an identity that is just starting to come into its own.