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The Gypsy Jazz Jam Guide

By Michel Mercier

“Ready for 23 minutes of 'All of Me'? Who takes the first solo?”

“Ready for 23 minutes of ‘All of Me’? Who takes first solo?”

After years of jamming in various situations, with all kinds of players, a recent discussion on Denis Chang’s facebook page had me figuring it could be useful to write about Gypsy Jazz jams and etiquette. We all have already been saddened and annoyed by certain behavior… or frustrated by different things: our performance, the way the jam is managed… sometimes we felt something went wrong but couldn’t figure out why.

I’m certainly not writing the perfect jammer’s manual here but just trying to share with you a few things I’ve learned and experienced through 15 years of jam-sessions. I’m thinking especially about the people who don’t have the chance to frequent a jam on a regular basis. As the French proverb says, “Hell is paved with good intentions” and a session with heaps of nice and enthusiastic people can therefore quickly turn into a sonic disaster, a musical wreckage, regardless of the musicians’ skills.

Jazz has always carried an idea of freedom in both music history and theory but if you look closely, there’s always a structure to prevent music turning into chaos. Just thinking about a few details listed below can easily improve your jamming experience. They are a kind of basic, unspoken rules that will apply anytime, with some of them more specifically dedicated open jams in public venues.

The general idea is that playing music is about pleasure, sharing and a bit of self-accomplishment too.

1. Get your gear

As basic as it seems, a true guitarist should never walk out his place without his pick. You never know what can happen! You can even take a pair of them with you in case you need to help another player that’s not as smart as you. I remember going to the number 1 French jazz radio for an interview with Latchès (Steeve Laffont, Chriss Campion, Yorgui Loeffler). Yorgui didn’t have any pick with him. Oops.

Bring spare strings of course and some chord charts if you are a beginner. Usually, a repertoire of 20-30 songs is enough to be able to jam pretty anywhere. Still, it’s better to start by learning 5 songs by heart instead of roaming jams for years with a gig book that will make you lazy.

2. Say Hello!

People at Gypsy Jazz festivals, like the Samois Django Festival, are so excited to jam. That’s legitimate as that event is to Gypsy Jazz lovers what Disney World is for kids: all your favorite characters are here and you can almost touch them! Consequently many GJ fans forget their manners and act as if they were shopping in Wallmart, picking-up jams as if they were wandering the alleys, easing their urge for music. This is rude. Please make eye contact to introduce yourself. Just look at people and ask (even with body language only): “Can I join you?”. Most of the time you’ll be answered a “sure!”, or maybe you’ll just be asked to wait until the next tune. On my opinion, it breaks the balance to sneak into a song as the “band” is already presenting something with a particular line-up and mood. Would you sit with a random family in a park, have a bite in their sandwich and leave the place without a word? Of course not.

3. The more the merrier: ok but…no

Honestly, who takes pleasure playing Blues Mineur for 17 minutes with 4 guitar solos, 3 violin solos and some bad scat singing on top of it?… I don’t and I know I’m not alone. The thing is you can’t focus on everybody’s solo for 17 minutes: at the end people are just waiting for their turn, their moment to shine whereas most of the audience and musicians are not listening anymore. Making love with one person is great, some do it with 2, 3, 4… but with a dozen it gets complicated… I believe it also applies for music in an informal and improvisational context. Also, it’s not easy for everybody to keep a good pace for a long time. Interesting analogy, hey?

I live in Paris and there is a kind of natural set-up in open-jam-sessions here that reproduces what you’d find in a private jam, being at your own place or at a gypsy camp. 3 guitars maximum playing at a time seems to be the most pleasant way to jam. You can then add a bass, violin, clarinet, singer, whatever… that way, soloists have 2 or 3 guitars as a rhythm back-up and everyone gets attention. The audience can listen to a tight piece of music that will not exceed 8 or 10 mns… One or two guitar players can switch place after a few tunes so that the music evolves from song to song. Some Aussie friends visiting Paris made me realize that. That basic organization gives plenty of time for everybody to play in good condition during the session and avoids the mess. As a musician, it’s also good just to listen to the music sometimes!

4. You are not alone

– Listen. It can only help you to serve the music better. Interplay is the key: you can fill gaps with chord substitutions or rhythmic accents if you feel that the soloist lacks inspiration, do some stop-chorus, breaks… or keep steady and simple the rest of the time to allow the soloists the freedom to play nuances and vary the harmonic colours, etc…  Try to stay aware as much as you can.

How many times did I see people missing their turn in a 4/4 chase because they were so focused on… themselves. I think you’ll learn more listening to someone else, even people that are less advanced than you, rather that thinking about your phrasing schemes or your shopping list during other people’s solos. Furthermore, it shows when you do that.

With an audience, listen to what’s played and try to avoid performing two songs in the same key and/or same tempo in a row. This would give a feel of monotony both for audience and musicians. State-of-the art is too go up in the keys at each new song.

If you hear someone in the band playing out of pace, try to kindly make him understand he has to get back into the tempo, with words or body language. If you can’t, or if it doesn’t work, just ignore that person. It may not be easy, especially if the person is playing loud but you have to stick to the right tempo. Hopefully this groove killer will be back on track after a moment but if you try to adapt, then it will be a sum of hesitations between him, you, and the person next to you that doesn’t know who to follow anymore. The tempo problem can soon become contagious. These people lack listening and awareness. You must be able to hear when you’re sloppy otherwise you will never improve yourself. That’s why listening is important: if you feel that the tempo is giving you a hard time, or that you are rushing on ballads, just stop for a few seconds and synchronize yourself with the others.

– Make yourself heard… but remain civilized. Django’s music was born with roots in ballroom dancing, busking, playing totally acoustic or with a single microphone in front of the band. The soloist must be heard and able to produce a powerful sound. You’re not playing in your bedroom here. Playing constantly loud is aggressive and tiring to the ear but the opposite is just as painstaking and annoying for the mind: spending an entire dinner with someone yelling at your side is no fun… but a whole evening in a noisy bar with someone whispering just make you want to leave the place or yell : “Speak up!!!” As an acoustic guitar soloist, don’t be afraid to produce some generous sound. As an accompanist, if you don’t hear the soloist, then there is a problem. The whole rhythm section should lower the general volume to find balance and support the soloist. If that soloist is particularly weak in his sound, just tell him nicely to play louder. Gypsy Jazz is about energy. When you jam with top players they are not tearing you ears with continuous fortissimo phrases but you can feel they are involved and are giving you some energy. I often jam with people who don’t sound very loud. Well, it gets worse when they are at home. You hear the pick plucking as loud as the notes… this is ok around 3 pm to preserve the peace with you neighbors in a small building or if you have your girlfriend sleeping in the next room but otherwise it’s just annoying and frustrating. Maybe it’s a form of shyness? Once again, it is a matter of balance but you gotta make that guitar sound, I mean for real! It’s acoustic, not electric…

By the way I think that jams are the best place to evaluate an acoustic guitar’s potential in terms of power and tone. It has to be played the right way of course, with that famous gypsy right-hand technique but if a guitar is played correctly and strongly enough in that context you’ll immediately hear if it cuts through or not.

Sound is the basis of music, it is the first information listeners receive. You can be an awesome actor but if nobody hears you on the theater’s stage, what’s the point?

Clarinet player Florin Gugulica (who played with Moreno, in Gatlif’s “Latcho Drom” along with Bireli, Stochelo, Didier Lockwood etc…) told me one thing he noticed when performing with those great musician: “if you play with a loud and nice sound, in tune, in time… even if you play very simple phrases… you’ve won, the audience will appreciate.” So true.

– Look. I like to make short eye contact from time to time with people I’m jamming with. After all we are producing something together right now, right? Jamming with some soloist that pops up, plays, and leaves the bandstand without even looking at you is no pleasure at all. It says a lot. Man, if you blow your horn or play your violin for 10 minutes, the least you can do is to thank the rhythm section. I remember Samois a few years ago:  we just sat in the camping with two friends in a close circle, out of the driveway because we didn’t want to show off. We just wanted to enjoy jamming together as we met only once a year or so. After 5 minutes a bass and a guitar came along, sat and started playing loud and out of pace, without even looking us in the eye or saying hello. Okay. Then another two guitars joined in. Hummm okay… Then a violin player just came and started soloing over whosever solo it was. That guy finished his solo, and just walked out to the next jam before the end of the song. He didn’t even look at us. Another day, in the middle of a song I suddenly heard a huge pompe behind me, and then the guy just started a solo over mine… What kind of manners is that?

Not to say, but some soloists have to learn to stay with the band during a whole song. I’ve witnessed that so many times: the guy plays melody, solo, then walks out for a cigarette or try to pick up a girl and comes back 5 minutes later for final melody and applause. I’m talking about violinists, singers, saxophones, clarinets, you name it. And guitarists should learn not to talk, tune or drink during bass solos as well… Come on don’t tell me you never did it.

When you’re playing in public, look at the audience. This will give you the feel, the general mood, and people are always happy to share a smile with the musicians. It just takes a second. If you are playing indoors, close to a wall or in a corner, and if you have enough room think about opening the circle so that the audience won’t feel excluded. It’s nicer to see faces and hands rather that people turning their back on you. If you play acoustic it remains the best way to be heard correctly. This is even more true considering the directive sound projection of a petite bouche. Jazz manouche is a style that can be easily appreciated by newcomers because it’s also fun to watch. I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine making a comment after I had took her to her first gypsy jazz jam at “Le bouquet du Nord” : “Your friends look like a bunch of grumpy, big-bellied, hairy guys playing for themselves”. I can’t really say she was wrong that night!

“2nd year here? All right come and play but remember dude: 2 guitars at a time!”

“2nd year here? All right come and play but remember dude: 2 guitars at a time!”

Another thing is to define each player’s turn for solos. Some just wait the end of a chorus to start theirs without asking permission. Most of the time people look at each other, make themselves understood or pass their turn clockwise for instance. Otherwise, it’s just an ego battle with often one musician being deprived of his solo because the final theme is being played and nobody cared about him. Cruel world! Each musician must be aware of that and that’s also the MC’s responsibility in case of an open jam. The MC must also keep an eye to all the musicians coming in the venue so that he can have everybody playing during the session. As far as I’m concerned, I like to let things happen naturally and just interfere to invite some shy people or ask the guy that’s been playing for an hour to pass his seat to someone else.  Back in the old days at La Chope des puces, guitar players had to show up for months,  before being invited to play. That’s a bit too much. Also, I think it’s better to let the less advanced players play at the beginning. It avoids tension and interest going down during the session if you have limited time and beginners will feel more secure that way rather that coming after a killer version of Cherokee by a Stochelo disciple in front of an engaged audience.

Talking about audience, whenever people are applauding at the end of a tune don’t forget to look at them and eventually say “Thank you”… Remember that these people are giving their time, attention, energy and probably money listening to you! It’s quite unpleasant to see musicians not even looking at the audience when they are being applauded. It is not about standing, bowing and thinking you’re at Carnegie Hall for an encore but just looking up at the audience and smiling. Seems fair, doesn’t it? Moreover it really helps the audience feeling involved and connected with the musicians. Cant’ be bad if you’re busking or asking for tips, right?

5. Acoustic? Electric? Make a choice

When having both kinds of instruments the amplified ones always tend to get louder and louder. I’ve recently been in a jam with acoustic guitars, an accordion (not what you’d call a weak sounding instrument) and an electric bass. It was awful: we had to play rough on our guitars but still, all you could hear was that fender bass. It’s the same with a 2 guitars “Stimer vs acoustic set-up” combination. Not so many people are aware and educated enough to have a good balance when playing. We are talking here about jam or small gigs because that problem is much rarer with a skilled sound engineer. Anyway they are so much medium frequencies in a Stimer or an electric pick-up that it tends to take over the acoustic guitar.

6. The gentle art of jamming with a singer

A singer will always impose a key because “it’s my key” or “it’s not in my key”. The tempo will most of the time be… unexpected. They just figure you can transpose “All the things you are” from Bb to C# in the blink of an eye… I won’t make comments on that! Oh yes: if you manage to transpose the chords but don’t feel comfortable for solo, just skip your turn. The world will survive without a messy solo of yours and it will shorten the pain… I’m ironic here but even if transposing is fully part of the accompanist’s job, I think is not appropriate to ask that in a jam. First, you can put people in a difficult situation: I personally feel insecure to have to transpose a song on the spot, except a super-easy one. I think one should go to a jam to play, propose what he can do and not be asked to sit on a school bench. In that case it becomes a negotiation and we’re not here for that. You’re not rehearsing for a paid gig here. So singer friends, if you like jamming, I suggest that you review the most played standards and pick-up the ones that match your vocal key instead of learning dozens of songs that 90 % of musicians but you play in the same key…

In a general way, if you are the jam-session MC, try to match singer with experienced players and rather at the end or the second half of the session. Actually, singers but also violin and trumpet players, tend to get all the audience attention, however good or bad they play. It’s hard to get that same energy by getting back to a two or three guitars set-up. Life is unfair.

7. The gentle art of jamming with… what is THAT? (a.k.a. the Jam Killer)

Depending on the city, the neighborhood, the time of the day the jam-session occurs, the probability of having a total weirdo entering the jam varies. Just expect the unexpected… That 6 feet body-builder guy singing with a cranky falsetto voice, that djembe player playing so loud, the Hippie woman playing a flute made out of a carrot, that tap dancer that blows out your ears and keeps tapping over everybody’s solo, that blonde that’s so hot but so drunk and out of tune, that young man singing his own dark “chanson rĂ©aliste” texts over All of Me, as if the whole society was tearing his skin apart… Well, as a polite person I’ll let them play a couple of songs but if it gets too painful, just ask them nicely to leave the bandstand because someone else is coming, because people drove a long way to play Gypsy Jazz or simply take advantage of this incredibly artistic performance to propose a general break… Nevertheless, remember not to judge a book by its cover. Always wait to hear the performance, you never know. I remember a jam in Paris with an African singer from Senegal entering the venue randomly and joining the crew on Danse NorvĂ©gienne. It was unexpected, strange but beautiful! Now with true jam killers it’s better to talk and explain them nicely why their behavior is killing the groove. A group of persons will be more efficient for that than a single one to fulfill this task.

8. Connecting people

Music should always be a moment of sharing and fun. Don’t be shy. Talk to that terrific player you’ve heard, ask her or his name, talk about the people you like or know, ask questions even if they seem stupid to you. Ask about that chord sequence, that phrase on the E7, that song they played, etc… It may seem elementary to many of you but I saw so many people come, play and just vanish. If you are new, don’t be shy. If you are a regular and see a new face come in, welcome him to make him feel at ease.  Starting a conversation is also interesting to have some feedback about your playing. Sometimes you feel satisfied with your performance but nobody seems to care… On the other hand, I’ve often noticed that if you happen to feel disappointed and ashamed about your playing, you can be pretty sure to receive some unexpected compliments on specific points that you wouldn’t usually think about. It’s always difficult to judge yourself.

Remember also that, as far as regular open jams in big cities are concerned, they are the musician’s market place! Many times did I hear players complain about their lack of work, bitching on other musicians, etc… but how do you expect people to know you and call you for gigs if they never see your face? It’s good sometime just to remind them that you’re still around.

9. Playing jazz is always a new experience

Even with the same people, the same songs… the result will always be different. Jamming is a very important and unavoidable aspect of learning jazz. However hard you worked, what you’re playing now and then (be it with a bit of stress, or with that sloppy rhythm player, that awful guitar or amp…) is your true average level. Jamming gets you out of your comfort zone. Out of the routine you can have at home or with your friends. It forces to you to interact and pushes you forward. When non-musicians fill the audience, you’ll notice that it is not always the best ranked player among musicians that will get all the applause. Playing with feeling is the key and for that I’ll let you pick all the good advice from the excellent article Denis Chang wrote on the Djangobooks blog. Remember that music is made to give people emotions. It’s not an exception to see amateurs doing better solos than full-time musicians during a jam. That’s the magic of music. But if you hear the same guys playing in a dozen jams, the average level of the pros will always be higher, more regular. It feels solid. As pilots have to acquire flight time, I think music can be considered the same way. Take advantage of jams to work your time, sound, interplay and get chops from the other musicians.

As a conclusion, I will quote what Serge Krief often says to his students: “Playing at a concert or a jam is worth a whole month of home practice”.

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