It's a little after 8 p.m. on a sultry June evening, and a steady stream of people is entering the Carleton Tavern.
The tavern is an institution in its Hintonburg neighbourhood and doesn't need to show off. The tables and chairs are wooden, scarred, and comfortable, and packed together. The food is burgers and fries, and fish and chips. The servers are in constant motion, carrying trays full of beer and food
But tonight, and on the third Thursday of each month, the people they're serving are there for another purpose. They're toting saxophones, or drum sticks, or trumpets. At the south end of the main room, a drum kit is being assembled, monitors are being tested, and keyboards are being moved into the best alignment
It's almost time for the final JazzWorks jazz jam for 2010-11 season to start
By the time this month's host band, Restez à l'écoute, starts playing at 8:30, almost two-thirds of the tables are full, well back into the room. And more people continue to arrive for the next hour. That was typical of the entire year, says jam organizer Peter Liu, who took on responsibility for organizing the jams this year
"Attendance ... has been steadily climbing over this past year, and then two months ago we had broken our previous record with over a hundred people. It's been really popular and people are really coming out and enjoying it and wanting to be part of it. It just makes me really happy."
The room quiets down as the host band, fronted by two singers, starts a set of standards drawn from both the Great American Songbook and French chanson – and a few translations, too. Band pianist Karl Nerenberg said the band's "marque de commerce" was doing material in many languages: Spanish and French and English, and then moving out to Hebrew, Dutch, and Creole – all part of jazz's "syncretic international cross-bred musique." This night, they tried "interesting" standards like Have You Met Miss Jones "that's a little more complicated". When the singers wanted to do Autumn Leaves, he said, he "insisted on doing the rarely-done intro".
Nerenberg credited the JazzWorks jazz camp's enthusiastic following, plus Liu's organizing skills, for the high attendance. "Slightly more structure probably makes people feel more comfortable. I haven't been able to go to them all, but those I've gone to have been very exciting. They've been lots of fun."
Vocalist Gerri Trimble has been attending the JazzWorks camp and jams for the last seven years. She said she enjoyed seeing everybody from the local jazz community and the local JazzWorks community coming out to play together. "It's a different experience every month. It's always very interesting and a lot of fun and usually a little bit of learning as well."
She credited Liu for improving the jams this year. "Peter has brought a great deal of enthusiasm to the jam. He's been very invigorating. From what I understand, the house band responsibilities are booked up for a very long time. He's been almost an advocate or a salesman for the jam. He's done a really great job, so it's been a lot of fun."
The jam was started by graduates of the JazzWorks summer jazz camp for teenagers and adults (now in its 18th year), and the majority of the players are still JazzWorks alumni. Some are professional; more are amateurs, many of whom have been playing for years. Each month, a different host band (usually composed of jam regulars) plays for the first 45 minutes; then the stage is opened up for combos, many often formed on the spot. Each combo plays one tune (usually a jazz standard), and the next hustles on.
As the combos continue, the noise level gradually increases, primarily at the back of the room. That side effect of the jams' increased popularity has created one of the bigger challenges this year, Liu said. "Once you have a big crowd, you also have more noise. So being able to work with the [PA] system to be heard over the crowd, and helping people to acculturate to more listening rather than talking during performances, was also a challenge."
However, attendees have become more respectful and quiet, he said. And thanks primarily to the work of guitarist Alf Warnock, the PA setup has been improved to make the music more audible. The organizers have also worked with bands to ensure they're heard well. Liu said Warnock (who also plays with him in the Jazz Mutants) has been "really phenomenal in helping with any technical issues" and in balancing the sound.
When combos are called to play, some have all their players in order. Some add a trumpeter or a saxophonist at the last minute. Some are missing a player or two and have to make a quick call-out – particularly for bass players and drummers. "We never know how many of each instrument or vocalist we're going to get every evening," Liu says, "and so there may be ten piano players and maybe they are not going to play as much, but then we might have two bass players and they're playing all night. And then it might change next month. So it's like a guessing game, and I think that's the fun of it: it's always changing."
And sometimes musicians just spark off in the new combinations. "You can't really define that thing, but it's magical."
The one-tune limit was introduced this year, in order to ensure everybody gets a chance to be up there and be part of things, Liu said. The reaction: very positive. He said he had been told by many musicians that it was "probably the single best change in the jam session that has improved things. I haven't heard any negative feedback about that at all."
Nerenberg said attending the jams had helped him as a musician – if only teaching him how to count. "I used to play by myself and not count. And I'd start something and sometimes not even play in the same time signature. I'd play 3/4, 4/4. You learn when you play with people that really the most important thing in music is the rhythm. Absolutely the most important: the groove, the rhythm. Learn to be part of an ensemble: play with people and how to pick it up and just play together and how to use your ears."
Trimble said she wished the jams "could help me in giant incremental leaps and bounds, but unfortunately I have to work patiently like everyone else. I was listening back on old recordings of myself just recently and I think one thing it does is it forces me to be a bit more relaxed. Because you can't control the environment around you. You just have to go with what it is and enjoy. And that's the thing that it's given me: enjoyment, greater enjoyment in the moment at hand."
"It's like a guessing game, and I think that's the fun of it: it's always changing."
- Peter Liu
Liu said he encountered some wonderful musical surprises at the jams this year. "Because I'm the coordinator, I have to be here every month, which is really fantastic because, then, I don't miss a thing! I have heard some amazing moments, every month, of things that were totally unexpected and totally random in a way of how people put together their combos, and just gorgeous."
And bad surprises? There have been one or two difficult people. "But I think that's part of the challenge of being a coordinator and helping to handle those things tactfully. I try my best to do that, and I think things have worked themselves out."
Next year, he said he hoped to increase cross-promotion of the jams, connecting them more with other organizations and other events. While the idea of increasing the jams' frequency to twice a month had been discussed, there wasn't enough support to do that now. "It might grow to that in the future, but I think we're going to stick to monthly jams for now."
One of Liu's goals for this year had been to attract more young players. He said that had only been partially achieved. "I think probably part of it is the natural priority of things when you're a young person. It's June, it's the end of the school year, and I don't know if going to the jam sessions would be your biggest priority. But we did have several months where the kids came out and it was really super. And we have been getting some folks in their 20s and 30s which is also very exciting coming out more this year It's kind of happening, but I would love to see more of that happening next year."
Getting the young people involved in the jams and using them as an opportunity to grow and interact with other jazz musicians is "really crucial to having a vibrant jazz community," he said.
However, one younger player did show up at the June 16 jam for the first time. Trumpeter Megan Jutting said she found the experience "very welcoming. It doesn't matter what you play: everyone was there to have fun."
Jutting, who was finishing off a biochemistry degree at Carleton University and hoping to attend Humber College's jazz program, is also in Nick Dyson's Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra. She said she had attended the JazzWorks camp a couple years ago, but didn't really know what the jams were about.
She was encouraged to attend the June jam by fellow young trumpeter Emily Denison. When she told Emily he was trying to work on her soloing, Emily urged her to try the jam.
The jams start again on September 15, and will be staying at the Carleton Tavern. "They're really happy with us," Liu said. "We bring in lots of people: that means lots of business, and more dollars for them, of course. But I think they also appreciate the vibe and they appreciate the music and I've heard staff come to me and say they really love the jams and it's really fun to even work in this environment."
He was glad to hear that the Carleton Tavern was slated to survive even if the remainder of that city block is approved to be torn down for a 36-story condo development (the planning application is currently being studied by city staff). "That might actually drive more attention to the importance of keeping this place alive, because it has really been a great venue for a lot of different events here in the community."
JazzWorks moved the jams to the Carleton Tavern in October, 2009, after the previous location abruptly closed. And Liu said the Carleton has proven to be a definite improvement and a blessing in disguise.
"I think in terms of transit, in terms of vibe, service, food, alcohol service, and, now that we've worked out our sound bugs, acoustically. There's plenty of tables for everybody to sit, too, so right now it's fantastic and I don't think there's any plans to move."
– Alayne McGregor
all photos ©Brett Delmage, 2011