The jam session is a profound social and aesthetic achievement. It could seem astonishing to a witness, who’s sufficiently unfamiliar with this sonic community, that any gathering of musicians (who themselves may never have met) would be able to instantly arrive at hours of richly coherent and inventive music with neither rehearsal, sheet music nor pre-recorded (or digitally pre-programmed) resources. The metacompositional frameworks that enable this apparently immediate fluidity have been developed, tested and altered by innumerable musicians as part of a long term, ongoing, community project.
Developed in black North America, the metacomposition that informs a jam session constructs an immensely adaptable platform for dialogical composing. But as event, the jam session is also much more than just this. It consolidates an occasion for modeling and developing character while transmitting and transforming values and attitudes. All at once, it functions as school, workshop, symposium, experimental laboratory, sketchbook, proving ground, sparring gym, networking opportunity, celebration and dream pool.
In contrast with the exacting standardization of individual musicianship that’s so pivotal to most monological organization, compositional and interpersonal heterogeneity is assumed in a jam session from the start. Contributors don’t have to all be “the same” in this way — and it’s actually a lot better if they aren’t. The metacomposition coheres out of a more unevenly distributed common engagement in a pool of compositional knowledge and practices, of commonalities that are actualized more out of patchworked family resemblances than from any strict adherence to norms.
Any decentralized social organization necessarily depends on participants’ self cultivation of autonomy and self reliance. Accordingly, jam session participants have to seize responsibility for their own musical knowledge, preparation and compositional initiative. An ability to hold one’s own contributes to a common consideration for the whole, whether that be toward the symptoms audible through the global sonic image or via the collaborative relationships being forged through close, reciprocal listening and instant adjustments to each other’s peculiarities, foibles and proclivities. This cooperative structure maintains the capacity to foster each individual’s potentially going beyond the ordinary into something personally unique, not only through an aesthetic of open, mutual support, but through an intra-ensemble creative competition that expands the thresholds of creative musicianship and conception throughout a sonic community.
Successful participants aspire to model performance ideals already learned through previous listening, observing, conversation and direct trial-and-error experience. And, in tandem with the wide inventive freedoms nurtured by this structure, the accompanying dispersive entropy of free-for-all can be mitigated through a range of compositional devices that regulate and direct sonic behavior, most explicitly where a mismatch of a participant’s preparation, skill, maturity or attitude with a situation disrupts or impedes access for other musicians to musical interactions at optimum intensities.
Epithets such as “You ain’t playin shit” or “No playin motherfucker” have often been applied with great effect in acute situations where more underplayed messages seem to have been passing unheard. Pendergast era Kansas City lore recounts Jo Jones having conveyed an airborne cymbal toward the vicinity of a very young Charles Christopher Parker during one of his earlier jam session forays. Pruning a session’s population may also be achieved somewhat less directly by adopting brutally fast tempos, very obscure tunes or especially unusual keys (skills for which the Yardbird himself later became notorious).
A player might step right across the path of another about to play. The session’s leader may suddenly reprise the theme and take the tune out. The drummer or the bassist (or both) might suddenly go to the bar for a drink. A set may end unexpectedly without explanation. A player may be politely requested to sit out and listen. Or, one could be blankly stared through as if no human body could possibly be occupying the space that unfolds before the viewer.
Some of these techniques might provoke an impression of hostility (well, sometimes people really are hostile); but these devices could also be understood as instructive – as well as protective – regarding the creative spirit of the session (and besides, hostility or displaced ego seem to insert themselves as unremarkable denizens of just about any humanscape). The role of a musician who responds to these resistances with adequate agility, or who perseveres long enough to return someday in more able form, transforms from potential interloper to contributor. This is to say nothing of what’s learned about oneself (and about the generating attitudes and structures of the music) through such experiences.
Depending on the situation, the tone of mutual support in a jam session can switch from challenge to nurture (which includes various blends along this spectrum). More experienced musicians may ease up on the intensity of their own invention in order to bolster the confidence of a developing musician. Common reference points, such as chords, the first beat of a chorus cycle, the “one” or the pulse itself may be stated much more obviously than usual to this end. The guiding ethic is not to exclusively exert one’s own way, but to achieve successful music as a group, whatever it takes.
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The most simple version of jam session metacomposition to discuss would be the most commonplace and clearly defined one; and that would easily be the old school, “classic” – what’s now called straight ahead – species of jam session. This format encapsulates a common lingua franca that could conceivably allow generationally disparate musicians such as Louis Armstrong and John Gilmore — or Anthony Braxton — to perform side by side without any one distracting from the strengths of the others.
Successful contributors to this particular species of jam session participate in specific metacompositional assumptions about the musical proceedings and organization that facilitate their composing together. These assumptions address the roles and behavior of different instruments, constructive principles and a common repertoire of interface structures.
The propensities of differing instrument families ground certain basic expectations around sonic comportment and behavior during this variety of jam session. The sounds of touch instruments (percussion, piano, plucked strings) generally decay fairly quickly after more abrupt and prominent attacks. The enfolding silences emphasized by these envelopes imbue a sonic transparency that allows these instruments to sound concurrently without any one obscuring the other. This, along with a relative ease in playing these instruments continuously, draws the tactile with the kinetic in forming the music’s rhythm section.
The more continuously sustained sounds of breath instruments (and bowed strings) superimpose more opaquely. The need to inhale and to give one’s lips a break yield more discontinuous blocks of sound; and the intervening silences accent the ongoing assertions of the rhythm section. These sonic and technical features generally displace wind and bow sounds away from rhythm section activity; and in the interest of sonic and narrative clarity (along with creative elbow room), improvised contributions from these instruments are customarily deployed sequentially, one at a time, as soloists.
Aligning instrumental roles around wind and touch generation parallels other important stereo articulations such as paired speech and gesture, storytelling with mime, or song and dance. But what might ably facilitate ensemble organization applies differently to the possible ranges of individual contribution. Each participant can draw from the entire spectrum of these modalities. Each may adopt solo, accompaniment or rhythm section articulation as needed, desired or preferred. Optimally, wind players must speak Percussion fluently, as touch instruments are clearly able to narrate as fluently in soloistic terms, while drums themselves sing, talk, tell, lead.
Common reference to an interface structure, such as a “tune” (12 bar blues, I-Got-Rhythms, Tin Pan Alley songs, or well known musician generated material) marks parameters for the application of instrumental roles. Percussion instruments, who deal in many untempered, “inexact” sonorities, emphasize the shapes and momenta of these patterns in their articulations and proportionings of time, rhythm, timbre, pitch and density. Instruments congenial to sounding multiple, tempered pitches simultaneously — such as those built with finger or mallet keyboards, or guitars — assume responsibility for sounding chord sequences within the group. The bass dwells between, emphatically a tuned drum with the pulse world while melodically grounding harmonic sequences for the tempered pitch world. Those players acting in a solo role assume responsibility for sounding melodic themes (the “head”) as well as constructing their individual narratives as soloists.
Constructive principles gather around a generally predictable pulse that fulcrums compositional convergence and divergence, along with a distinct quality of rhythmic attentiveness and interaction that’s recognized as swinging. Superimposed across this pulse community is a melodic theme (the “tune”) in conjunction with a supporting harmonic sequence that describes a specific number of beats. This reference pattern (one cycle of which is known as a chorus) is continually reiterated, around which the ensemble organizes itself and individual solos are generated and measured. It’s generally expected that players make aspects of these components audible in their inventions as a way of bolstering and reassuring ensemble focus and coherence.
This principle is complemented by a common understanding that each musician’s contribution should make other individuals (as well as the band as a whole) “sound good,” which is often achieved through including (however obliquely) some aspect of what each of the others are doing, as much through mirroring as by strategic omissions (silences) and divergences — both of which accent features that are already being sounded.
Extended variations on the generative principle of call-and-response further broaden this collaborative syntax. The custom of trading bars, where soloists alternate in groupings of 12, 8, 4, 2 (or even 1) measures demonstrates one very graphic example. Call-and-response is also deployed more subtly, as where one musician “completes” or punctuates another’s phrase. Back and forth interchanges also become so densely rapid that, for all practical purposes, they turn simultaneous and mutually intertwined.
Signaling (even signifying) among musicians also encompasses a larger, common sonic world beyond the immediate circumstance. Patterns in common with predecessors, ancestors, coevals and competitors — either as acknowledgement, play or parody — enrich the music’s composition with allusion. And a common convention such as the riff, for example, avails itself as a familiar component in constructing “instant arrangements” that urge soloists and cast relief to their individual improvisations.
None of these elements by themselves would seem to figure that importantly in musical construction; but taken all together, they describe a set of conditions for a metacompositional community that can then compose together dialogically. These common considerations foreground a degree of trust and confidence that allows each individual to stretch creatively without excessive and cumbersome concerns for the coherence of the entire musical organism. Working agreements are achieved around not only sonic parameters, but also regarding important modes of interaction that are clearly enough delineated that they needn’t unduly restrict specific action.
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One prescient, if inadvertent, insight into the audible presence of metacompositional coordinates in a lot of dialogical music can be credited to the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno. While not having earned all that much regard among vernacular musicians, Adorno remains an important seminal thinker for the scholarly field now known as cultural studies. He was an ardent lover of music and wrote about it extensively, studying composition with Alban Berg and becoming a vocal champion of Arnold Schoenberg’s music and the Second Viennese School. However, when unsympathetic, his writing can occasionally display an inclination toward zero-sum, winner-take-all, polemics.
While the eminent cultural theorist reserved a lot more invective for the composer Igor Stravinsky, Adorno did publish, beginning in 1936, a number of derisive essays regarding what he understood to be “jazz;” although it’s not really so clear exactly what he meant by this word. He may have initially been responding to Weimar era knockoffs of Paul Whiteman in Europe or might have meant any kind of commercially disseminated, “popular” music. Yet, in the 1950s, he manages to mention the word bebop as just another example of more-of-the-same; and even though he enjoyed a comfortable position at Columbia University during the early 40s, there’s apparently no indication that he ever took a quick (less than 10 minute) cab ride over to Minton’s or Monroe’s to talk with, or listen to, Kenny Clarke, or Monk, or Charlie Parker.
Adorno seems to have assessed what he thought of as “jazz” as a sort of degenerate offshoot of notated European monological practice (it might have slipped off his radar that black musicians could actually have been appropriating European generated musical materials in the service of very, very different aesthetic applications). He could thus absolve himself to freely interpret this “jazz” as no more than a species of “mannerist interpretation,” as “music which fuses the most rudimentary melodic, harmonic, metric and formal structure with the ostensibly disruptive principle of syncopation, yet without ever really disturbing the crude unity of the basic rhythm, the identically sustained meter, the quarter-note.” He thus summarily dismissed this sonic community’s “paltry stock of procedures and characteristics.”
From a musician’s perspective, it’s unbelievably tempting to speculate as to how such an otherwise astute thinker could turn, in this instance, so slipshod concerning just what it is he actually means by “jazz,” a term that would ordinarily connote the work of artists such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach or many members of the AACM (all of whom have, by the way, expressed, at the very least, a deep ambivalence concerning this “jazz” word themselves). But, assuming this is what the philosopher means, it seems odd that such a scholar of Marx would account so poorly for important variations in music’s “conditions of production.”
Adorno’s admirable concerns about a general dumbing down of listening (with a corresponding circumscription of critical consciousness) might persuade more convincingly if he were describing instead some overly stylized, tightly formatted, commercially dictated monological music. However, the specific music Adorno targets is a dialogical one; and dialogical listening encompasses, and has to address, significantly different compositional circumstances than does attention to monologically organized sound.
A great deal of compositional activity, and hence compositional meaning in a dialogical context emerges through the relations among distinct compositional actors. While each contributor’s inventions may separately achieve a degree of monological integrity, all of this is conditioned by, in relation with, and in reaction to, everything else developing within the ensemble. The global composition that a listener witnesses derives from the decisions of each contributing composer and their composite interrelations. Because of this interactive complexity (a variety of complexity that’s almost totally absent from monological constructs), novel and intricate musical messaging can evolve out of communications involving rudimentary, even mundane reference materials – and the transformations of these points of departure can be both subtle and profound. Yet, different as the elements and context are, from the point of view of each participant, dialogically composing from basic elements isn’t operationally all that different from monologically developing an elaborate fugue out of a simple series of 4 pitches.
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In terms of relational dynamics among participants, collective improvisation (dialogical composition) can be understood as a theatrical personification of polyrhythm.
Polyrhythm emerges through juxtaposing and linking contrasting rhythmic patterns. Unlike syncopation, which describes a single pattern’s displacement of a dominant pattern’s accents, individual components of a polyrhythm sound with equal emphasis and importance. Conflict and difference among them throw into relief the individual distinctiveness of each contributing element. Yet at the same time, their differences together configure a harmonic relationship that can’t be reduced either to their individual constituents or to any sum of these parts.
John Miller Chernoff’s eloquent discussion of interrelating African ethics and aesthetics in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, develops insights into African musical processes that parallel very strongly not just jam session interactions, but much (if not all) dialogically structured composition. His observations are so substantive that a good stretch of exerpts is quoted here.
At an African musical event, we are concerned with sound and movement, space and time, the deepest modalities of perception. Foremost is the dynamic tension of the multiple rhythms and the cohesive power of their relationship. Founded on a sense of time and presence, the art of improvisation involves the subtle perfection of this rhythmic form through precision of performance, complexity of organization and control of gestural timing. The act of creation is above all purposeful, never random, and the goal is balance and a fulfilling interdependence. As they display style and involvement, people make their music socially effective, transforming the dynamic power of the rhythms into a focus for character and community. We are even quite close to a metaphysics of rhythm if we remember that sensing the whole in a system of multiple rhythms depends on comprehending, or “hearing,” as Africans say, the beat that is never sounded. …
African affinity for polymetric musical forms indicates that, in the most fundamental sense, the African sensibility is profoundly pluralistic. One of the most patronizing Western biases regarding people in societies we call “traditional” is the notion that the events of their lives are nestled in and determined by the ready-made patterns of a culture they uncritically accept.
To maintain that poise in their social encounters, Africans bring the same flexibility which characterizes their participation in musical contexts: they expect dialogue, they anticipate movement, and most significantly, they stay very much open to influence. The many ways one can change a rhythm by cutting it with different rhythms is parallel to many ways one can approach or interpret a situation or a conversation. And there is always an in-between, always a place to add another beat. A musical occasion, like any other social occasion is therefore beyond any one perspective a person can bring to it, and people in Africa are usually realistic enough not to try to impose a single point of view on the larger context in which they are playing a part.
…The power and dynamic potential of the music is in the silence, the gaps between the notes, and it is into this openness that a creative participant will place his contribution, trying even to open up the music further. … It is not only that one rhythm cannot monopolize all the notes; one rhythm means nothing without another. In a musical context, separation of parts heightens rhythmic dialogue, and in a musical ensemble, singlemindedness of purpose would be equivalent to poverty of expression. …
In a musical context, the diverse rhythms help people distinguish themselves from each other while they remain profoundly involved. … From an African perspective, once you have brought a structure to bear on your involvements, and made your peace with it, the distinctive gestures and deviant idiosyncracies of personality can stand out with clarity.
A continuity of African aesthetic values, as described here by Chernoff, with interactive ethics realized in a black North American evolution of the jam session shouldn’t really be very surprising anyway. And some of what so ably informs jam session participation has been, and continues to be, influential and active well beyond the peripheries of any particular bandstand. Commonalities might be recognized in the ring shout, in freestyle exchanges among rappers, on basketball courts, in rapports between dancers or minister and congregation in the black church (and maybe even in the guerilla tactics of Northeastern woodland natives against Anglo armies) in conversations – all this as well as in dialogues between master drummer and dancer in West Africa or between guimbri/sintir and trancer among the Gnawa,
What’s far more striking, however, is how remarkably different the jam session can be in accommodating what Robert Farris Thompson has adeptly identified as “apart playing.” African polymetric organization is very clearly and carefully calibrated, and the exact details of each configuration are usually local to a very particular language community, region or even village. In contrast, jam session conventions evolved very quickly among a much larger and far more diverse population that’s been in rapid movement across an entire continent. Adaptation to these circumstances had to yield a far wider, and even more pliable, span of variables for establishing this reciprocally defining “apartness.”
The cultivation of a uniquely identifiable, instantly recognizable at first earshot, sonic persona (whether that be Bern Nix, Lester Young or so many others) has been held in high esteem for good reason. It’s from the vantage and “way” of the distinct compositional actor (therefore both personified and, in terms of compositional choice, both interactively and dramatically theatrical), the unique sounds and telltale patterns of imagination, the characteristic (or unexpectedly uncharacteristic) compositional decision streams in interaction with all of the others (while, in Chernoff’s words, “sensing the whole in a system of multiple trajectories”) that establishes the diversity and tensions that “help people distinguish themselves from each other while remaining profoundly involved.”
Some instances of dialogically generated music might not even sound “African” at all or, when extended, even explicitly “African American.” Yet, the focus of listening, the attitudes toward collective composition, the animating intelligence and activities, of which the sound is a symptom, will still reveal deep kinship with what Chernoff describes regarding African attitudes and practices.
African or Indigenous American relationships with pulse as nuanced message seem to be absented from Adorno’s more abstracted, notation framed notion of beats as no more than quantitative, mindless (if not mechanical) measurement devices. His critical framework excludes them as components of a music’s “formal language.” For Adorno, internal repetition within a musical event (versus the verbatim, wholesale repetition of a fixed, monological work) breeds a predictability leading to a stereotyped banality that, in true domino theory sequence, retards not only listening, but any ability to independently draw distinctions about the world one lives in.
However, founding an indictment of a music upon its predictability maneuvers a pretty slippery slope. First of all, prediction (whether accurate or not) is a consistent companion of attending to any event, music included. Concurrently, each event settles toward a distinct frequency of predictability. A musical event that aspires to total discontinuity encourages an expectation that it will continue to behave that way, thus predictably so. A more realistic notion of predictability would instead assess the dynamic tension invited between apparent predictability and divergent surprise as two interdependent components. Furthermore, Adorno seems to assume that predictability really is predictable, that the dangers of error, lapses in attention, dissolution or deliberate shifts in musical activity during performance are safely distant probabilities. Had he ever been on a bandstand?
Repetition without consideration may well doze off into some species of “banality.” But, deeply considered repetition in tandem with carefully applied divergence reveals many of the fine distinctions to be discovered among apparently “predictable” beats (if one’s listening with sensitivity and intelligence) that enrich and complicate, rather than enervate, a musical message. Chernoff, in noting that “a drummer uses repetition to reveal the depth of the musical structure,” footnotes his observation by citing the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “He who wills repetition is matured in seriousness.”
Jacqueline Pettiford, wife of bassist, Oscar Pettiford, reminded Downbeat Magazine in 2009 that as
the son of a full-blooded Native American mother and half-blooded Native American father, Pettiford was exposed at an early age to Indian ceremonial music and dance, and he contended that the importance of the American Indian to jazz has been underestimated if not completely overlooked. He maintained that the 4/4 tempo, which after all is the basic beat of jazz, came directly from the American Indian; that, though it existed in European music, it was not used in the same way.
The Virginia born, New York City drummer, Newman Taylor Baker, once related that, in playing a quarter note as ride (conceived as of swinging or “straight ahead” pulse), he simultaneously hears an unsounded, concurrent triplet quarter note pattern, actively hearing a beat that may be never sounded – a procedure solidly consonant with African practices. The impact of heard but unsounded musical components can’t be discounted in terms of their influence on important microdetails of invention or on the direction of related inventions.
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But still, one does have to finally concede that Adorno really is right. A straight ahead jam session really does rely on “a paltry stock of procedures and characteristics.” It’s supposed to be exactly like that, and it’s integrated this way intentionally and by deliberate design. Coordinating references such as “tunes,” common pulses and chord progressions have to be no more than schematic so that they can adequately inform each participating composer’s background awareness without ever overburdening attention necessary for the actual compositional choices at hand. This is a very practical accommodation of human cognitive capacities. If too rich, too detailed, too complicated, too unpredictable, metacompositional information would so distract an improviser that the composing process would simply seize and freeze up.
Saxophonist Marvin Blackman (who worked extensively with both Rachid Ali as well as with Art Blakey) has reaffirmed that these metacompositional supports are only additional coordinates superimposed over multipersonic, polyphonic and polyrhythmic activity that’s already in motion. These less easily mappable attitudes, activities, procedures and interactions more substantively enact the music than these more mundane add-ons.
Adorno’s complaint that “the schema shines through at every moment” manages to state what’s often glibly obvious about coordinating dialogical music a lot of the time. Audible reference interfaces facilitate synchronization and communication among participating composers without leaning on notation (into which such supports can otherwise be offloaded and audibly disguised, if not hidden) or on conductors.
A “tune” in a jam session is neither “the music” nor is it the “composition” (both of which are discovered as performance). A “tune” functions much more like a time line, as a centripetal reference signal like the continual bell patterns sounded in much West African percussion music or the clave patterns that undergird so much Afro-Latin music. In the jam session, even melodic cycles and harmonic progressions become appropriated as rhythmic coordinates (which was not at all the purpose for which they were originally developed during Europe’s common practice era). The application of these components in black music can often differ substantially from their customary functions in earlier European music.
As for Mr. Adorno, his conception of how a music’s formal language constructs a meaning seems to have limited itself to habitual monological concerns with only the notation friendly dimensions of a sonic artifact. Fixating on music’s sonic design to the exclusion of its role within a composition’s social structure reifies music by arbitrarily sundering the interdependent relations of musical sound and musical activity. In listening to an aurally coordinated, dialogical music through literately oriented, monological ears, Adorno directed considerable philosophical acumen against a straw dog of his own creation, one very, very different from what its musicians have come to know through direct, practical experience.
A jam session’s fun (and why not?) — along with its nearly self-depreciating, decentralized informality — just might mislead a casual witness about the true profundity of its supporting metacompositional structures. However, these continue, over and over again, to prove themselves in practice as embodying highly sophisticated aesthetic resources.
The jam session paradigm encapsulates a way, a mode of collectively generating music, that informs not only “non-idiomatic free improvisation” but the substrate assumptions upon which the great art of composing for improvisers (as so ably demonstrated by Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or Henry Threadgill) is able to locate itself.