By Al Stevens


This is a list of rules for jazz jam sessions:

I developed this list over many years working in house bands and from sitting in at sessions with other house bands. Any resemblance between the behavior depicted in these rules and any particular performer is purely an unlucky coincidence.


At my best, I roll with it, and have faith that stuff works out.

This week was full of that kind of "stuff", that worked. In fact there were so very many minute pieces of stuff that went well, I can't remember a fraction of them. Two stand out though. The first happened on Monday, last week, when I saw an email with the subject "Kenny Werner available for lessons this week in San Francisco." Now, I've been to San Francisco 4 or 5 times in my life. I imagine that Kenny has visited a few more times. That he was in the city at the same time as me went beyond good fortune. Kenny and I met on Saturday, and he taught me lots. I hung out in "Japan Town," and heard his set with Betty Buckley.

The second "piece of stuff" happened today. I got up in a leisurely, quiet manner, managed to stuff all my Macworld "swag' into my bag, and took an 1 1/2 hour stroll through the city. Then, I jumped on the BART, and headed to the airport, with much time to spare (which is quite unlike my usual modus operandi). I got off the BART, and onto the "wrong" tram, which took me out of the airport. At this point, I had an opportunity to get bent, and for a moment, I did get upset. But, then it occurred to me to just get off the tram, and get back on the inbound. I found myself on a remote platform with virtually no one around. I've often been in the airport, and wished for a place to pull out the horn and practice while I wait, and have wandered airports looking for some seclusion. On this platform, I found my perfect practice room. It was sunny, the perfect temperature, and secluded. I practiced, for about a half hour, a few of the things that Kenny and I had talked about, then got on the inbound tram, and made my gate with plenty of time to spare.

I was given a very blessed week.

I read this quote from "A Love Supreme/The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album", by Ashley Kahn, and was really moved by it:

"Cecilia Foster, cousin to Elvin, tells of the saxophonist's reaction to his listeners' praise:
    'Whenever I'd say to John - me trying to be hip - "Boy! John, you really burned on that last set!" he'd look at me for a long time and say, "What do you mean by that? What did you hear that was different? What was so impressive?" When I couldn't explain, he would say, "Don't be like so many people we know. If you can't explain what the difference was that you heard, what impressed you, just don't say anything." He was really quite a teacher as far as I was concerned. He taught me how to listen to jazz, what to listen for, how to be humble and not frontin' on the music.'

I've done the same thing as Cecilia, and never felt very comfortable doing so.  Lately, after I hear a great performance, when I get a chance to talk with one of the performers (e.g. Ronnie Mathews at the Glenwood Summer of Jazz), I say something like, "Thank-you.  You're performance really affected me."

From now on, when I play with other musicians, rather than say "You burned tonight!",  I'm resolved to find something specific to share about what I heard from them.  If I don't have anything specific to say, I won't say anything!

I also want to avoid seeking praise and approval, after my own performance.

Thanks, Mr. Coltrane.

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A curious and challenging thing "feedback" can be. We ask for feedback, but often cringe when it's given. I say "we" because I've done the same. I often wonder why that is. Certainly, in the case where no feedback was asked for, it likely wouldn't be well received. Perhaps when we ask for it, we're really hoping to hear "Doing great!", "Wow, you're incredible!", "I'm really impressed!", or "Keep up the great work!". But when we hear feedback like, "Um... you know... you should really work on your touch. You're banging on the keys" (Hal Galper, to me, at Aebersold clinic), "Man, that note is really sharp!", or "Don't give up your day gig!", it's a little harder to swallow. While that last one is just a joke, constructive and appropriate criticism is often as difficult to give as it is to take.

For the most part, unless we're in a "teaching/learning" scenario (like an Aebersold clinic), the most benefit will be gained by carefully and actively listening to each other. In particular, listen to the stronger members of the group. This type of communication gets better as we get better at listening and at articulating our musical intentions through our instruments. In fact, if I can't demonstrate something on my instrument, I avoid trying to talk too much about it. Even when I can demonstrate a concept on my instrument, I often come up short when tying to use words to describe the concept. One of the beautiful characteristics of music is that words often fail to capture it's essence.

All that said, it seems important that we carefully choose our words, and that we're very specific when offering feedback. In addition, feedback sought after should be received graciously, and "seasoned with a grain of salt".

Here it is:



When I drew this graphic, I was just doodling in some graphics program. Later, I noticed, in the picture, symmetry, balance, color, space, repetition, contrast, unity and diversity. I really grew to liking it. For me, it represents a lot of what I appreciate in a creative effort. Actually, the word "effort" doesn't exactly apply to that doodle, or need it apply much to the creative process. For more on that, see Kenny Werner's "Effortless Mastery"

I would love to play in a group where it's musical dimensions were shaped by creativity. Usually, however, groups I've played in had their musical shapes inhibited by one thing or another. Their musical dimensions often might be represented by this:


Some creative inhibitors, in my opinion, are (and, by the way, I have fallen prey, to one degree or another, to all of these):

  • Ego
  • Lack of vocabulary
  • Fear, or translated, "Trying to keep the gig"
  • "Paint by numbers" approach to each tune - an emphasis on playing within certain styles
  • Lack of focus on the music being played
  • Low energy and or poor health

There are probably many other such inhibitors to creativity. But, enough negative. Some of my most creative moments were characterized by:

  • Trusting my musical sense
  • Lack of self involvement and fear, translated - lack of ego
  • The feeling of "just doodling around"
  • Rules and styles, though present, don't dictate the music's direction
  • The music feels larger than the sum of it's parts - synergy
  • No fatigue - the feeling that I could play all night
  • Inevitably, people listening respond (hopefully in a positive way!)

As I grow older, I crave a more creative, effortless, approach toward playing music.