Jazz jam sessions: an ego-driven “cutting contest”, a platform for forging creative relationships, or a bit of both?

The below is an article I wrote for the 2017 Writtle and Chelmsford Jazz and Blues Festival:

In many respects, the history of jazz jam sessions is the history of jazz. The creative—and often competitive—environment fostered in jam sessions from the 1920s onwards is inextricably linked to the development of the music. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the jam session at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem which, in the early 1940s played host to the forefathers of bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Powell, and many more). Without this platform for experimentation, it’s arguable that jazz, as we know it today, wouldn’t exist.

So, what’s the benefit for the average participant? It would be very easy to see the term “cutting contest” (a competitive element of jazz jams pitting improvisers against each other in a battle of skill and inventiveness) and be entirely discouraged from attending—although of course there’s no harm in some degree of friendly competition. However it’s been my experience, particularly at the many jam sessions in Essex, that a more inclusive and encouraging approach is often adopted. Jammers are provided with an opportunity to play alongside highly experienced musicians with extremely positive outcomes, such as: experiencing and engaging with the music from the inside; a platform to air new ideas and material, particularly with the support and encouragement of more experienced musicians; gaining an understanding of the music through performance rather than practice; and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to meet with fellow jazz musicians and jazz enthusiasts (I suppose the word for this is ‘networking’, but it feels a little too corporate for my taste).

I would argue that there is no better place to experience jazz than at the most venerable of the community’s institutions, the jam session. Here in Essex, we have monthly jam sessions at The Rose & Crown, Writtle; The Bull, Colchester; at The Spread Eagle in Brentwood; and many more. Check them out!

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