The longest-running jazz jams in Ottawa are making some major changes this fall, to get a better listening experience.

The previous JazzWorks jam location at the Carleton Tavern was long and narrow. Even with a second speaker half-way back the music was difficult to hear. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
The previous JazzWorks jam location at the Carleton Tavern was long and narrow. Even with a second speaker half-way back the music was difficult to hear. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
The JazzWorks monthly jams are moving to the Georgetown Pub in Ottawa South, and to Fridays instead of Thursdays. The first jam in the new location will be held this Friday, September 18.

JazzWorks executive director Judy Humenick told that the main reason was to improve the sound and the sightlines.

“As much as the Carleton Tavern has been wonderful, and they've been a great home for us for the last several years, the actual layout of the space doesn't work as well for vocalists. Because of the shape of the room – it's a long, narrow, room – it's a tricky room to have a jam session in.”

The jams had been hosted by the Carleton Tavern in Hintonburg since September, 2009. Humenick said that JazzWorks had looked at moving the stage and other fixes, but could not figure out any way to make it substantially easier for people to hear and see. “It's very tricky to set up the sound and everything. In the long run we decided we were better to make the shift.”

In January, 2015, the Georgetown started hosting the separate monthly jazz jams organized by local vocalist Jacquie Dixon. Humenick attended and checked out the pub's layout.

“Sightlines are better, and, for actually paying attention to the performers, it's better because of the shape of the room. So that was a big factor in making the move.”

Dixon's jams are continuing at the Georgetown on the first Friday of the month, but Humenick didn't expect any confusion.

The Georgetown also has a sound system which JazzWorks can combine with its equipment and a place for JazzWorks to store equipment, “so it's a good practical solution”. As well, she said, there's a space for talkers away from the stage, around the other corner of the bar.

Moving to the third Friday of the month, to avoid conflicts with sports

The JazzWorks jams had been held on the third Thursday of the month for more than a decade. Humenick said they're moving them to the third Friday because “it just didn't work as well on Thursdays for the Georgetown, because they have a lot of people who come in for sports on Thursday nights. We're going to give that a shot until Christmas, and if it goes well between now and Christmas we'll stay with the Fridays.”

On its website, the Georgetown promotes itself as “Ottawa's #1 soccer pub”: hosting broadcasts of soccer games and pre- and post-football get-togethers, as well as hockey events in the winter

For at least the first two months, though, the jams will face some competition in the neighbourhood – at least for finding car parking! September 18 is the third night of the CityFolk festival, with performances at Lansdowne Park and at clubs and restaurants in the Glebe. And on October 16, the Ottawa Redblacks football team will be playing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Lansdowne.

Cover charges increase

JazzWorks is increasing the cover charge for the jams – for those who aren't students or JazzWorks donors – to $8 from the previous $5. The reason: “we have operating costs to run the jam sessions and the organization. And our grant income has dropped substantially in the last couple of years. It's a matter of survival. And we think it's still a bargain.”

The operating costs include remuneration for staff and expenses like insurance needed for a non-profit, registered charity, Humenick said, running the Friday evening and Sunday afternoon jam sessions each month, and other programming.

Vocalist Gaby Warren will return with the 15th edition of his Christmas jam this year ©2013 Brett Delmage
Vocalist Gaby Warren will return with the 15th edition of his Christmas jam this year ©2013 Brett Delmage
The jams will keep their same format: a host band opens the evening at 8 p.m. and plays for 45 minutes, and then opens the stage to those who have signed up to play. Jam coordinator Alf Warnock said that the host bands for this fall would be The Bedner Boppers (September), The Union Brewery Quartet (October), and Free Association (November). In December, vocalist Gaby Warren will present the 15th edition of his Christmas jam.

Humenick said that attendance at the jams has been stable for the past few years: about 40 to 80 people, with a few sessions attracting 90. “Right after [the JazzWorks Jazz] camp [at the end of August], the first couple of jam sessions are higher.”

About 80% of the musicians playing, and almost all the host bands, are JazzWorks volunteers, Humenick said, although they welcome any musicians interested in playing. “There's always a waiting list for the groups to be the host band. It's like an honour now to be able to host a jam, and people come out with interesting ideas and they rehearse ahead of time. Sometimes it's a preformed combo that plays together all the time and sometimes it's a group that gets together specially so that they can host the jam sessions.”

Sunday jams return to Westboro in October

Humenick said the JazzWorks' Sunday afternoon jams will also continue at the Bluesfest School of Music and Art in Westboro. “It was very, very popular last year. People who came out loved it.”

Those jams will run from 2 to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month from October to May, with an $8 cover charge. Each session is run by a mentor who is an experienced jazz musician: in October, guitarist Garry Elliott; in November, saxophonist Rob Frayne. She said they hoped to have Toronto vocalist Julie Michels as coach in December.

Jams are "a huge part of the tradition – it's a very integral part of the art form"

JazzWorks began its monthly evening jams shortly after its first jazz camp 22 years ago, Humenick said, making them easily the oldest local jazz jams still running. In 2013, they added the Sunday afternoon jams to attract younger and less experienced musicians.

“We just found after doing the first jazz workshop that people wanted to get together during the year outside of the JazzWorks camp and they wanted to play together. So they started the jam sessions that year and they've continued ever since.”

“It's absolutely a huge part of the education of any jazz musician, to participate in jam sessions. To listen to them and to participate in them. It's a huge part of the tradition – it's a very integral part of the art form. It helps people to learn how to improvise, to get experience performing in front of an audience, it helps them connect with other musicians they can jam with in the future or form groups with.”

She said that running the jams was part of JazzWorks' education work, and “the listening is key. I think that that's really, really important. It's also a chance to reach out to some new audiences. It keeps us connected in Ottawa and to us it's really important.”

Other local jazz jams include Jazz Mondays at Le Petit Chicago in Gatineau (more than a decade old), the Thursday night jam run by the HML Trio at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge in Kanata (2 ½ years old), the Beeched Wailers Tuesday night jam in Hintonburg (1 ½ years old), and Dixon's jam at the Georgetown on the first Friday of each month (almost a year old).

“I think we started the trend,” Humenick said. “We're happy to see that people think it's a good idea to be doing that. We've maintained, all through the years, our level of energy and excitement about it, so we're happy to see other things happening. We think there's a place for everything.”

    – Alayne McGregor