School for stompin'

The history of jazz boasts uncountable tales of legendary jam sessions – stories that over the years became touchstones and calling cards for the people, the places and the music that made one night’s gathering of talent shine bright and hot.

Pianist Teddy Harris wants his Wednesday night jam session at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge to be an environment where musicians can blow and explore. For more than 30 years, he has been devoted to keeping jazz alive. Players flock to him because of his willingness to share his musical knowledge.

And so far, Harris’ session is hot. It attracts musicians of all makes and models. For example, trumpeter Melvin Vines travels from Toledo, Ohio, to participate. He has played at sessions throughout the country. His brash solos are one of the highlights.

"Teddy and I have a relationship, which he does with many of the older musicians there. We come there to have fun. We don’t have to prove anything. This is how the music gets carried forward by the socialization of the art. You just come together to play no matter who you are. Whether you are Max Roach or Sonny Rollins, you have to have this creative interaction. That’s why I go to Baker’s, because as a musician that’s what you’re supposed to do. Play with other people," Vines says.

Harris has literally redefined the meaning of a jam session. Historically, it has been a creative outlet where reputations and legends are made. For aspiring jazz musicians, Harris has transformed his gathering into a classroom.

"Guys weren’t getting the right information about how a jam session works, or how things are done. A jam session is more than seeing if you can blow the next guy’s head off. We have an abundance of young musicians around here, but once they leave the classroom there is nobody around to instruct them on how the other stuff goes."

No matter how serious the session gets, the music never stops swinging. Once the older musicians get on the bandstand, the atmosphere in the club changes. The music gets so hot and sticky that the walls sweat. The blues jump out of Johnny O’Neal’s piano, and George Davidson’s muscular drum solos could awaken the dead.

But Harris keeps the pyrotechnics in perspective.

"All this jam session is, for me, is another platform to teach on. The older guys that come and play know what’s happening. I’m trying to get to the younger guys. The ones that got to carry on the legacy," Harris says.

Changing the way young players approach the music has been his biggest challenge. On occasion Harris has attacked their work ethic.

"Everybody wants to play a solo but nobody wants to do the work. The work is to learn the song. What are you soloing on if you don’t know the song? How can you attempt to solo if you don’t know how the song goes? You have to do all the work, not just part of it," Harris admonishes. "You’re not fooling anybody but yourself. I would rather listen to a guy that could play one note and project some emotion into it than listen to a guy trying to dazzle me with his footwork."

His criticism has made most of the young players reluctant to jump on the bandstand unprepared. Veteran players such as Larry Smith and Richard "Pistol" Allen show them how to be accompanists.

"I try to do it by example. I put guys in an environment with people that know about this music, and I just let them play. And you can see what is happening because you’re right in it. Then after you finish doing it, we can talk about it," says Harris.

"I do all these things for a reason. I want you to listen to each other. If you can’t hear the guy standing next to you, then you’re playing too loud or wrong. In other words, the music isn’t blending or swinging. You are going to play with a lot of different people in your career. Each one of the bandleaders requires a different thing. So the thing is to make yourself a complete musician. These are all the things I try to say."

By the end of the night, most of the young musicians are sitting in the back of the club trying to recover from the workout that Harris, bassist Don Mayberry and drummer George Davidson have given them.

"The rhythm section that I provide them to play with is world-class. They are guys with a lot of experience who have played in a lot of musical settings, with all kinds of artists. So they are at a certain level of proficiency. Man, it’s very difficult for us to play down to somebody’s level because we have passed that. But we can inspire these young guys to try and turn their playing up a notch."

Helping musicians to grow is Harris’ gift. He’s unselfish with his talent, and his impact in the jazz community has been monumental. To him the bandstand is sacred ground.

"You got to have a lot of nerve when you step up here on the bandstand. We aren’t going to try to intimidate you. We just going to make it so hot that you have to do something when you get here, that’s all. A lot of cats don’t know that fire is hot until they stick their finger into it. I don’t try to intimidate, but I try to bring the best of you out. That’s the way it was done. That’s the best way," Harris says. Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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