What Are Good Songs to Play at a Jazz Jam Session?

I have an idea for future blogs. At last week’s jam session several young jam participants asked me what tunes they should study to prepare for a jam session.  At first I just shared a link on facebook to this very well written article about “100 Must Know” Jazz Tunes.  The article is filled with great information, sources and tips for building a jazz repertoire. However I think the question of what tunes to play specifically at a jam session is a good one and worthy of exploring for both experienced and inexperienced players alike.

Why is it a great topic to explore? To begin with I cannot begin to count the Craig Ferguson style “awkward pauses” that happen at jams I’ve participated in and hosted where the flow comes to a complete stop and the dialogue turns to “What do you want to play?”……”I dunno what do you want to play?”…….(crickets)

So what are great tunes to call that are fun to improvise over, most people would know or have heard and that are fun and engaging to play. Why do so many singers who come to my jam sessions only call ballads? What are the correct changes? What recordings made these tunes our favorite to play? What was up with that other melody line played on Blue Bossa by Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson in the middle of the bass solo ? Then there’s the intro’s and outro’s to tunes like So What, Nica’s Dream, Joyspring, Bye Bye Blackbird, and on and on.

As I thought some more about this, I went to my file cabinet and pulled out an old yellowed folder I kept from the year I first started to study jazz in college (1986 at San Jacinto College with the great Shelly Berg) and I found this paper (shown below), which I am positive is the very first list I compiled when I asked myself what tunes to start to learn.
The tunes scribbled on the top I remember needing to learn because I was gigging with a dance band and also with a dixieland band. It’s so strange I kept this and can see the evidence of the first step I took on this path!

Also in the folder were these two sheets. I wish I could credit the author. I think it could have been Eddie Gomez, but I am not sure because I attended clinics by Lou Fischer and Rufus Reid around this time. The list is a recommendation of tunes to know for a working jazz bassist.

So I invite you to participate in the comment section below. What are your favorite tunes to play at jam sessions?

While you think about your list, here’s a link to Blue Bossa on YouTube. If you’re a student Joe Henderson’s Page One is an essential recording to study. Check out the moment at 5:44 when Joe and Kenny play another melodic line that kinda divides the bass solo in half.  I like it but always wondered why they did that.  Also bass players check out the bass line.  I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone play that line at jam sessions.  They should, its a good one :) While I’m at it here’s another great article to check out for good jam session etiquette, enjoy.

3 thoughts on “What Are Good Songs to Play at a Jazz Jam Session?

  1. Interesting blog topic, and there is definitely a set of most-called tunes that students should know. But I also encourage my students to organize songs by type and structure. For example , they should go to a jam prepared to play a blues, a bossa, a rhythm changes tune, a ballad.

  2. Great comment Paul. Thanks for joining the conversation, I’m hoping more folks will get involved in this discussion. I’m noticing that as I research other jam session sites and jazz blogs, there is a reference to a “top 20 classic jazz tunes list”. Don’t know if that’s a real thing or not but I’ll dig harder. It is my intent to open up this discussion and hopefully raise the quality and excitement level to the music that we play at jam sessions.

    I also wonder, is a ballad really an effective vehicle for a jam session. I view a jam session primarily as an opportunity to socially and musically network with fellow musicians in your community and audience members (those very important and essential folks who don’t play music but support and love a live music scene and support it by their attendance). It’s an opportunity to generate connections and energy and exicitement around a thriving art scene.

    So for instance in a three hour time slot with a room of musicians (read as drummers lol) eager to participate I feel a ballad can really limit the opportunity for participation and sometimes depending on skill level can really kill the momentum of a great jam session.

  3. Thanks for the article, Erin. I agree that ballads have little place at a jam unless someone really heavy plays it. Why do singers always want to call ballads? That’s the last thing I want to sing at a jam.

    You asked what we like to play at a jam, here’s a few: There Will Never Be Another You, Have You Met Ms. Jones, Alone Together, Autumn Leaved, There is No Greater Love, Solar, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Gentle Rain, Dindi, Bluesette. Hard to make such a list, I could go on for sure…

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