‘Official’ Jam sessions

This is part of a paper that I presented at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music Australia/New Zealand conference this year. In addition to sharing it with you, I’d like to make an appeal to anyone from outside of New Zealand who may know of similar situations in about the same period (1940s).

Going to Town in the Big Jam: ‘Official’ Jam Sessions in the 1940s and the development of the New Zealand jazz community

In the 1940s New Zealand jazz fans (both individuals and clubs) organised jam sessions for musicians at which the fans could be audience and witness to what was usually a private musicians affair. Reported in local jazz magazines Swing! and Jukebox: New Zealand’s Swing Magazine as “official jam sessions,” these jam sessions were structured around both the musicians and fan based activities. These activities usually included listening and discussing the latest (or favourite) jazz records and talks or discussions and debates about a particular jazz related topic.

The ‘official’ jam sessions in 1940s New Zealand were in some ways similar to the public jam sessions of the same period, but also different, as these were not held in commercial venues such as nightclubs (or more commonly in New Zealand, music stores), nor were they a commercial venture. Arranging and organising jam sessions in this manner appears to be very unusual in the context of global jazz culture and fandom. In fact, I have not been able to find another jazz community during the 1940s that formally organised jam sessions in this fashion.

It is unknown exactly when this type of jam session was conceived. Swing! magazine indicates that the first ‘official’  (fan organised) jam session took place on November 24 1941 in Wellington. However, I believe that such sessions might have also occurred in the late 1930s as newspaper reports on the various swing and rhythm clubs note what appear to be similar types of events within the context of club activities. For the sake of simplicity though I am focusing on the 1940s because the existence of Swing! published from 1941-1942, and Jukebox, published from 1946-1947, meant that such sessions were reported on in depth.

It appears that fan organised jam sessions became a regular feature on Wellington’s jazz scene from late 1941. It is unknown whether these types of jam sessions were occurring anywhere else in New Zealand, as Swing‘s local content was mostly Wellington focused. However, it seems likely that rhythm and swing clubs in other main centres embraced this format. Certainly the concept had spread to other centres by the middle of the decade as Jukebox magazine reports such events in other centres in 1946 and 1947.

Why these jam sessions were ‘official’ is entirely up for debate. None of the reports state why these sessions were ‘official’ as opposed to the ones held during the swing or rhythm club meetings or informal private jam sessions. I speculate that the jam sessions discussed here were termed ‘official’ because they were closer to the informal private jam sessions that musicians held among themselves, and these sessions were (theoretically) not as structured or constructed as the ones held at the swing and rhythm club meetings. Perhaps in the eyes of the fans and columnists this made the experience a more authentic one: as if the audience was witnessing a truly private jam session.

The ‘official jam sessions’ were invitation–only affairs usually held at a fan’s house, or in a venue such as a church or community hall that was hired for the night. The host would invite all local jazz musicians, and any other jazz musicians touring the area, and then invited members of jazz clubs, and other jazz fans to be the audience. The sessions began at various times of the evening, some early (eight or nine), some later (closer to, or after, midnight).  Some of the jam sessions, especially the ones starting late at night, were just that, an informal jam session that happen to have an audience. Some were jam sessions that had some organisation and structure- this might include a partial or full set listing or certain combinations of musicians playing for certain amounts of time or between or after certain hours. This type of arrangement was often a result of which musicians were going to arrive when because of other gigs and what time they began or finished. And still other jam sessions- especially those that began early in the evening had an entirely different structure that involved more than jazz musicians jamming.

In this last type of jam session, the first part of the evening before the performing musicians arrived consisted of fan activities, such as the playing of the latest acquired, or favourite, jazz records. Accompanying these record recitals were discussions of the recordings that were often quite wide ranging including research into the arrangements and soloists, or even discussions about recording venues and techniques. Other presentations might be on specific musicians, or the evolutions of bands or styles- such as one given by drummer and radio host Cav Nichol on the evolution of swing, subtitled ‘jazz-schmaultz-swing’ at a Wellington Swing Club hosted evening. Or there might be a presentation on a specific subject relating to jazz, such as the one given by pianist Vora Kissin on the effects of marijuana on jazz musicians abilities. There were also games and quizzes, such as guess the band or soloist, to amuse the audience. This portion of the evening would usually last until the musicians began to arrive from their gigs. The arrival of the musicians would signal a break in proceedings for supper, enabling the musicians to set up their instruments, and socialise with fans and the other participants.

After the supper break, the musicians would begin the jam session. From this point the structures diverge. In some sessions it would proceed as a normal jam session, where the musicians chose tunes, or took requests from the audience for pieces to jam on, and decided who was going to play when. In other structures there might be some formal construction to the session as mentioned above with certain combinations of musicians or structured sets.

As I mentioned earlier, the presence of an audience at a jam session was not unheard of, but an important difference here in is the construction of the audience at these ‘official’ jam sessions. They were not paying customers at a club or concert, nor were they all musicians who were there to relax after a gig (or to line up the next gig). They were primarily fans who had been specifically invited to attend this jam session. A sort of elite audience if you will, whose invitations relied on the social cachet of being a jazz fan, but also whose knowledge of jazz proclaimed them true fans who knew their Bix from their Duke.

The presence of a non–participant audience gave these jam sessions the atmosphere of a gig. However, the main difference here was that this audience was not engaged in socialising or dancing, as most New Zealand audiences would have been at this time, instead they were concentrating on the music. For musicians who mostly performed in cabarets, dance halls, and for company balls this attention would have been gratifying. For the audience too, this situation would have been gratifying as they were in a position where they able to concentrate on the music and not be thought of as anti-social!

Little is stated directly about the fan–musician interaction at jam sessions in the published reports, however there were occasional remarks about the fans and musicians appreciation of each other. The interactions between fans and musicians at the jam sessions were possibly not unlike those at the jam sessions held at swing club meetings, however they were likely less formal, and more intimate as when the musicians were not playing they would be part of the audience. The barrier between musician and fan, entertainer and audience member, was diminished somewhat and they became comrades in the common pursuit of jazz.

As a result of this, different standards of behaviour came into play with some of the notable Kiwi reserve giving way to a more overtly enthusiastic response. This included applauding individual solos (something that New Zealand audiences in commercial settings did not do at that time) and vocalising encouragement to soloists. The published reports of jam sessions indicated that the fans raved about the music, especially the improvisation that occurred during the course of the session, and emphatically demonstrated their appreciation to the musicians. Also remarked on in reports were the discussions between fans and musicians about jazz that occurred during changeovers in performers, and at the end of the session while people were leaving.

Creating Community

The breaking down of barriers between musicians and fans was important for the development of a national jazz community. Through the jam sessions discussed here musicians and fans were able to connect to each other on a level that was not possible at a commercial gig. There was a certain level of familiarity between the two groups at rhythm and swing club meetings, and these ‘official’ jam sessions appear to have extended that to create camaraderie between fans and musicians.

Additionally, while musicians had long had informal and formal networks between towns, assisted by an active musician’s union, fans had no such a network to find other fans. The swing and rhythm clubs in different towns do not appear to have had much, if any, connection to or communication with each other so finding other clubs and fans was mostly by word-of-mouth, and occasional reports in newspapers. These ‘official’ sessions and their reports helped fans to connect with other swing and rhythm clubs, and like-minded individuals.

These connections assisted the development of a New Zealand jazz community in a number of ways, but perhaps most importantly the connections between musicians and fans made at the ‘official’ jam sessions helped to advocate New Zealand jazz and the local jazz scene. The ‘official’ jam sessions helped this advocacy in two ways. Firstly hearing jazz musicians play without the strictures of dancing (which naturally limited the time for each piece and how much improvisation could be included) gave local fans a new perspective on what New Zealand jazz musicians were capable of. This was particularly important because of the disjuncture between the carefully produced artistry that they heard on records and the New Zealand day-to-day reality of primarily playing for dance gigs. New Zealand fans were too often inclined to believe that local jazz could not possibly be as good as that found in other countries (especially the United States) or on records. It is particularly interesting to see in reports of these ‘official’ jam sessions how often the columnists note that there are ‘real’ jazzmen in New Zealand: as if they had not been expecting the quality of jazz that they heard on the night. This realisation was an important factor in developing the local jazz scene, and creating a community that supported local jazz musicians as well as those from other countries.

The second part of the advocacy relates to the fan activities. As mentioned above, the ‘official’ jam sessions also helped to extend a network among fans. The increase in networking led to a closer connection throughout the fan community so that when they travelled they could find other jazz fans and clubs. This also led to fans becoming more familiar with jazz musicians from outside of their home regions; again an important factor in advocating New Zealand jazz, and in developing the local jazz community.

The ‘official’ jam session evenings were a combination of fan activities (record recital and analysis), private gig and musician’s jam session.However, while these activities all occurred in the fan club environment and elsewhere, the fan–organised ‘official’ jam session offered a more intimate atmosphere, which was not possible in a meeting where there may be a hundred or more people. The intimate environment of the ‘official’ jam sessions led to greater interaction between the fans and musicians. These interactions assisted a more involved fan advocacy, which, in the 1950s would contribute to the success of jazz concerts, and the rise in non–dancing venues for jazz.

In the context of New Zealand the ‘official’ jam sessions contributed to the appreciation and musical comprehension between musicians and fans. They also contributed to the stature of local musicians in a jazz community that mostly looked to recordings (primarily from the United States) for examples of good jazz. Finally, these official jam sessions were a significant factor in the development of the jazz community and the culture that surrounded jazz in New Zealand during the middle of the twentieth century.

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