Never was this more apparent to me than when I had the chance to play at a jam session in Paris recently.
On my second-to-last day in town I found myself at a 12th-century dungeon that has been turned into a jazz club, called Caveau des Oubliettes. The start time was advertised as 10pm, so we arrived around 9:45 to find a line already waiting to get in. At 10pm sharp they opened the door and we all descended a long, narrow staircase made of stone and brick. Along the walls were indentations that once housed skulls of the dead prisoners. Quite an ominous beginning!
I was happy to find that the room filled up immediately, and most of the people there were young, hip Parisians (see my post on the #jazzlives Twitter campaign). We were lucky to get a table close to the bandstand and ordered a couple drinks. The waiter spoke some English to us, but all around us we heard the sounds of French conversation. My wife speaks no French at all and my four years of high-school French classes turn out to have failed me miserably, so we couldn’t really converse with the other patrons. We just sat and took it all in, something we had become quite familiar with over our two weeks in Paris.
I had read that the session was led by a guitarist named “Jumpin'” Jeff Hoffman, which didn’t sound very French to me. Turns out he’s from California by way of Chicago! He was playing with a drummer from France and a keyboardist from Austria. They started playing some jump blues and jazz standards and were not too shabby! When the first set ended I introduced myself and told him I’d like to sit in. “Do you know some tunes?” he asked. “Yeah, I know a couple,” I replied with a smile.
When the band got back up for the second set, Hoffman called me up along with expat trumpeter Ronald Baker, a British drummer, Italian sax player and a bassist who’s nationality I never caught. There we were all staring at each other, wondering what would happen, when I decided to take the lead and called “Beautiful Love”, one of my favorite standards. I figured it was better for me to call something I was comfortable with than to have the sax player count off “Cherokee” at 200 bpm!
The drummer started to count it off as a ballad, but I waived him off and snapped my fingers at a brisk tempo (although not quite as brisk as the clip above!). Without discussing what key we would play in, what the arrangement would be like or what the feel would be, we were off. The rhythm section played a chorus up front, and then I took the melody and the first solo. Once the music was rolling I closed my eyes and tried to find the groove, feeling for the pulse from the drummer and the accents from the keyboard player, who was killin’!
Even though I couldn’t have carried on a conversation about what I had for lunch with the other musicians, within seconds we were having a musical conversation. Everyone was listening and reacting, trying as best we could to compliment each other. That’s what’s so exciting about the jam session, be it in France or the U.S. or in Istanbul. You never know what cats are gonna do, but somehow it always works out (well, almost always).
I built my solo up from a few sparse notes in the first chorus to some high note trills and bluesy runs by the end, and the rhythm section both came along with me and pushed me to reach for more. When I was done each horn soloed, as did keys and bass, before we traded fours with the drummer and took the head out, with the other horns playing counter melodies behind me.
With almost no words exchanged and many languages between us, this rag-tag band that had never met, let alone played together before, made some fine music that night. We were able to do so because we did share one language – the universal language of music.