Jam ain't just for toast

The guy hadn’t played his ax outside of his basement in years and felt like a fool swinging the case as he came into the club on a rainy night. He plopped the case on a table at the back, ordered a drink and nursed it, and then ordered another. Meanwhile, the band played on — “Song for My Father,” “Cherokee,” “Caravan,” tunes from the jazz lingua franca — and a succession of players, singers and saxophonists, trumpeters and guitarists joined them and electrified the room. Between sets, the bandleader, the jocular organist Rudy Robinson, came back and asked the guy with the case whether he had one of those newfangled instruments that’d play itself or whether he was ever going to get up and make some noise.

“I was just wondering,” Robinson said with an encouraging chuckle, and walked away, knowing he’d goaded the guy to get up his nerve and join the next set’s musical action.

Robinson passed away four years ago. And the club, BoMacs, on Gratiot Avenue, east of Broadway, is now a hole in the ground that’s to be a new parking structure. But the all-aboard spirit of the jam session that Robinson exemplified seems to be burning stronger than ever hereabouts. Sunday through Thursday, there’s always someplace (or some places) a jazz musician can arrive without a special invite and try to navigate the standards in demanding but supportive musical company.

Audiences around town know that a good jam is a let-your-hair-down friendly space where the line between audience and performer is a little blurred. It’s where musicians passing through town, the local stars and the journeymen share stage space with the dedicated hobbyists and music students and a woman known as Dr. Jazz who sports an artificial gardenia in her hair and regularly summons up the frayed vulnerability of Billie Holiday’s final recordings.

Old-timers can tell you about Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins crossing horns at the West End Hotel. But today’s regulars have their own stories, any number of which involve James Carter. Like the night at Cliff Bells not long ago when drummer (and hubcap player) Greg Vibration Williams was starting in on what seemed like a bracing tempo for a jam session staple — maybe “Cherokee” — and a dissatisfied Carter waved things to a halt. They exchanged glances and nods, Williams smiled, Carter patted his thigh, and they raced off, everyone on stage in tow, with the tempo notched up from bracing to maddening.

Bill Meyer thinks he and his colleagues in the SBH Trio at Bert’s Marketplace have been a factor in spreading jam sessions throughout the city. Five years ago, singer Dee Dee McNeil recruited the trio to back her for Thursday night jams that were open to singers, poets and instrumentalists alike. McNeil left town, but Meyer, along with drummer Spider Webb and bassist Hubie Crawford, continued the loose format with rotating hosts, usually singers. The Thursdays became so successful that the trio began a Wednesday night jam, which, in turn, is becoming so successful that they’re thinking of adding hosts on Wednesdays to help manage the stage traffic.

“We’ve had Arabic oud players and a belly dancer jamming, and the cat from Cameroon knocks them out with his style of guitar playing and singing,” Meyer says. “I know the owners of many other clubs came in to see us when the place was packed, and I think the dollar signs lit up in their eyes and they saw the opportunity and the need the community has for music events like this.”

Drummer Milton Hale, who runs a Monday night jam in Greektown that’s now in its third year — technically, it’s at the Exodus Lounge above the Golden Fleece on Monroe, but all the cats call it the Jazz Loft — sees some other factors. For one thing, the resurgence of jazz in the 1980s, with the Marsalis brothers as media-star leaders, brought a surge of young players into the music, Milton and his piano-playing brother Phil among them. Those players and others who’ve followed in their wake need a place to blow, says Hale, as he recounts some of the great loft nights, including the one where pianist Carlos McKinney, in town to play Baker’s, “just blew everybody away.”

Different jams have different predilections. Drummer RJ Spangler, holding fort Tuesdays at the Buzz Bar and Sundays at YPL, leans to bluesy material. Drummer Williams, who seems to be between clubs just now, colors everything by the way he shoves and shifts a group from the drum seat. Percussionist Larry Fratangelo, who’s spent time with the George Clinton entourage, reminds everyone of that by calling his Thursday sets “One Nation Under a Buzz.” Mike Gabriel on Tuesdays at Cliff Bells, Tad Weed on Wednesdays at Baker’s, the Dynamics on Tuesdays at They Say — and this is by no means a definitive list — all put a different swing to an evening.

“The only way you can develop in this type of music is that you’ve got to have jams,” says Hale, giving props to jam session leaders like Robinson who gave him a chance to drum back “when my playing was awful.”

Likewise, the spread of the jam session is awfully good news for the future of jazz and your prospects for an interesting night on the town.

W. Kim “Have Bongos Will Travel” Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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