Jam on

These days you can find a jam session around Detroit every night of the week. From Monday nights at the Jazz Loft in Greektown to Sunday night at the Cadieux Café, there's always someplace you can bring your ax or your ears. It may not be quite a return to the glory days when Sonny Rollins and Yusef Lateef might duke it out in a club, or when everyone in the know flocked to the homes of musicians like Joe Brazil. But with seasoned pros and college-student instrumentalists, serious amateurs and cats just trying to keep their chops up or their presence known in a town with few regular gigs, the scene is busy. 

Dating back at least to the '30s and '40s, jam sessions have long had a big role in Detroit's jazz community. Sessions in the homes of Detroit saxophonists Joe Norris and Joe Brazil, for instance, were legendary, lasting to the wee hours of the morning; reputations were burnished and overblown egos bruised. Pianist Charles Boles says he experienced both. He started playing at jam sessions at age 12. He recalls how vital the sessions were for any starry-eyed novice wanting to learn how to play.

"In the '40s, there was some place to jam every single night. I would leave school and go over to Barry Harris' house. There was always something going on over there," Boles recalls, citing the pianist who would mentor many a Detroiter before moving to New York in the 1960s to work with Cannonball Adderly (and later became known as a leader in his own right). "Back then, jam sessions were mostly learning experience, especially at Barry's house. Musically, you were going to get your ass kicked and humbled at the same time." Boles jammed with the likes of trumpeter Donald Byrd, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Tommy Flanagan before they became stars. 

Jazz historian Jim Gallert says when jazz musicians migrated to Detroit from other cities looking for employment, they sought out the hottest jam sessions to get a feeling for the caliber of talent around. According to jam session lore, one day Detroiter Joe Norris outplayed tenor saxophonist Yusef Lateef, still a local cat. Months later at another jam session, Norris called out Lester Young who was passing through town. Young toyed around with the cocksure youngster — and put him back in his place. Another famous visitor to Detroit jams was John Coltrane, who was noted for house calls to hang with Joe Brazil and his circle. (Coltrane later used Brazil — by then transplanted to Seattle and playing flute — on his Om recording session in 1965.) 

"There has always been a symbiotic relationship between jam sessions and music education," Gallert says. "This is a tradition, which continues today. Ask any contemporary Detroit jazz musician, like James Carter or Rodney Whitaker, about sessions and they'll have stories to tell."

The oldest of the current open jam sessions seems to be the Thursday night gathering at Bert's Marketplace, where the house band, the SBH Trio, has now held forth for nine years welcoming all musicians, poets and lots of singers. Guest hosts — such as Al Chisholm on Aug. 5, 12 and 19 — keep the sessions moving along, ushering the guests on and off the stage, chatting up the fans. Meanwhile, SBH seems ready to play just about anything the jammers request, from "Midnight Train to Georgia" to Wayne Shorter's "Footsteps." (Led by walking tune-encyclopedia Bill Meyer on piano, the group includes Funk Brother Spider Webb on drums and bassist Ralphe Armstrong, whose résumé includes stints with Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin.)

In contrast, the Friday Night Jazz Jam at the St. Regis is one of the babies of the bunch. Photographer and lifelong jazz geek Karen E. Fox hosts the session, which attracts mostly smooth jazz and R&B hipsters. But as at any of the jams you can never be sure who you'll see or what they'll play. For instance, there was a night when saxophonist Skeeter Shelton popped in. Best known for collaborating with avant-garde outfits such as the Northwoods Improvisers, he stole the show on a Stevie Wonder classic. The same night, alto sax great Bobby Watson — who happened to be staying in the hotel — dropped in before his performance at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. 

Any jazz purist will feel at home at the Monday session at the Jazz Loft in Greektown (there's no sign on the street; you have to know to take the stairs up over the Golden Fleece restaurant). Drummer Milton Hale, who has worked with such greats as vocalist Bettye Lavette and the late saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, runs the session. 

Hale's sessions are comparable to the ones the late pianist Teddy Harris Jr. led at Baker's Keyboard Lounge for years. Harris was known to stop midway through a tune to chastise a musician for jumping on the stage uninvited to solo. Hale runs his session with an iron hand as well. Musicians normally are lined up along the wall waiting to play.

A Jazz Loft session feels like a concert, attracting nonmusicians looking to hear quality swing from some the Detroit's best jazz talent. You never know who you'll see there — either in the audience or on the stage. Last year, late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon stopped by and bought a round of drinks for the musicians. At times there's so much talent around that Hale turns musicians away. 

"I have a high percentage of non-musicians that come here, so I have to make it entertaining for them," Hale says while sitting at the bar at the loft an hour before musicians arrive on a recent Monday. "So I have to monitor the length of solos, and I have to try to keep it high-end. I can't promise every musician will play. I have to keep it open. Dwight Adams, James Carter and Karriem Riggins may walk in at any time. They are top jazz cats. I'm not going to have them waiting." The Jazz Loft's only drawback is it doesn't start jumping until midnight, so if you attend you may want to schedule the following day off from work.

As Hale notes, the sessions around Detroit are popular with listeners as well as musicians. Times are hard economically, so people are watching every dollar. Going to a local jam session is an inexpensive alternative to buying a concert ticket. Cover charges are usually $5 or less. Rebecca Hope, a regular at jam sessions, believes they are better than concerts. 

"For the listener, jam sessions offer a bit more spontaneity," Hope says. "One never knows who is going to be in town and join in to create a miraculous experience." 

In Boles' formative years, jam sessions were mostly about learning, sizing up the competition, and having a ball trying to outplay a peer. Boles says gigs were plentiful back then, so jazz sessions were recreational. Today's sessions are no less full of fun. But when gigs are scarce, for many musicians the jam session is a chance to play — even if they'd rather be getting paid.

Jam factories
From jazz to blues to funk, a guide to key sessions, from connoisseur Rebecca Hope


Milton's Jazz Loft
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: Host Milton Hale (drums), with Phillip Hale (keys), Ibrahim Jones (drums)
Cover: $3
Time: 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Above Golden Fleece Restaurant at 525 Monroe St., Detroit


Concert & Jam at Cliff Bells
Style: Jazz 
Host/Band: Host Gerard Gibbs and ReORGAN'YZ, with Perry Hughes (guitar), Gene Dunlap (drums)
Cover: Free
Time: 8 p.m.-1 a.m.
Location: Cliff Bell's 2030 Park Ave., Detroit, 313-961-2543; cliffbells.com 

WSU Open Jam Session
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: WSU jazz musicians
Cover: Free
Time: 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
Location: Jazz Cafe, lower level of Music Hall, 340 Madison St., Detroit; 313-887-8498; jazzcafedetroit.com (on hiatus until September)

The Carter Brothers Jam Session 
Style: Motown, blues, jazz, funk, rock
Host/Band: Rob Carter (vocals), Kevin Carter (guitar), James Carter (sax — when in town)
Cover: Free
Time: 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
Location: Alvins, 5756 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-638-6300; alvinsoncass.com

Jam at Club 54 in Leland Hotel 
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: Greg Cook (bass, leader) with Prophesy, featuring Djallo Djakate (drums), Jim David (keys)
Cover: $2
Time: 10 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Club 54 in Leland Hotel, 400 Bagley St. (at Cass Avenue), Detroit; 313-962-2300

Funk Loft 
Style: Funk, Jazz, Rock
Host/Band: Host Gabe Gonzalez (drums)
Cover: $5
Time: 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Same location as Monday jazz loft, now on Tuesdays, although the day varies seasonally: Above Golden Fleece Restaurant, Detroit


Sky & Friends concert & jam session
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: Sky Covington (vocals) & Friends with Ibrahim Jones (bass), Djallo Djakate (drums)
Cover: $5
Time: 8 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Harbor House, 440 Clinton St., Detroit; 313-967-9900

Jazzy R&B Jam w High Profile
Style: Jazz, R&B
Host/Band: High Profile
Cover: Free
Time: 8 p.m.-midnight
Location: Jazz Cafe, Detroit (on hiatus until September)

Open Organ Jam
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: RJ Spangler (drums)
Cover: Free
Time: 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
Location: Cliff Bell's, Detroit

The Fun House 
Style: Jazz, Blues, Funk, Rock
Host/Band: Skeeto Valdez (drums)
Cover: Free
Time: 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
Location: Alvin's, Detroit


SBH Trio Open Mic Jazz Jam 
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: Guest hosts with SBH Trio 
Cover: $3
Time: 8 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Bert's Marketplace, Detroit


La Musique jam session
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: Karen E. Fox hosts with Jerome Clark Trio, featuring Jerome Clark (guitar), Willie Coleman (drums), Mark LoDuca (keys)
Cover: $5
Time: 8:15 p.m.-11 p.m.
Location: Restaurant at St. Regis Hotel, 3071 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit; 313-873-3000

Friday night concert & late night Jam
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: John Douglas (trumpet) with Roger Jones II (piano), Ibrahim Jones (bass), Butter Hawkins (drums), Rafael Statin (sax)
Cover: $5
Time: 9:30 p.m.–2 a.m.
Location: Bert's Marketplace, Detroit


Post-concert jam
Style: Jazz
Host/Band: various leaders including Alex Colista Quartet, Chrisopher Key Quintet
Cover: Free
Time: after the Kids N Jazz concert, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
Location: Baker's Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300; bakerskeyboardlounge.com

Soul Jazz Sunday Jam Session
Style: Jazz, Soul, Blues
Host/Band: Various leaders
Cover: Free
Time: 9 p.m.-2 a.m.
Location: Cadieux Café, 4300 Cadieux Rd., Detroit; 313-882-8560; cadieuxcafe.com

Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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