Christine Jensen listens to Steve Amirault and John Geggie at a Festival jam on 2003 July 28. All three musicians will appear (and may jam again) at this year's Festival. Photo ©Brett Delmage, 2003
Christine Jensen listens to Steve Amirault and John Geggie at a Festival jam on 2003 July 28. All three musicians will appear (and may jam again) at this year's Festival. Photo ©Brett Delmage, 2003
Once the Ottawa Jazz Festival starts, it's non-stop for bassist John Geggie.

That's because running the Festival jam sessions is not a matter of simply showing up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the late evening and playing until the early hours. It involves a great deal more advance planning, discreet promotion, and understanding the capabilities of different musicians.

The jam sessions are "an important part of the jazz world," Geggie told Ottawa Jazz Scene. They're a chance for musicians playing at the Festival to unwind and play with musicians they may normally never have the chance to play with – or just to kick back and have a beer and listen. They're also a chance for jazz fans to hear unexpected and unrehearsed combinations, and the possibility of more music from their favourite artists.

But to meet all these expectations is not always easy.

This is Geggie's 10th year organizing the jams. He's backed up by pianist Nancy Walker and drummer Nick Fraser, and together they provide the house rhythm section. The sessions start at 10:30 p.m. with a first set by the trio, and then Geggie begins to invite musicians up to play.

"One never knows what's going to happen next. There may be a piano player from one group playing with a group of horn players from another group, and they may not have ever met. Everything's made up on the spot: nothing is rehearsed. There's true artistry and there are very special moments. It's not the showmanship approach; it's very much a sharing experience. People are there to share the music."

Playing for the love of it
Originally, jams were after-hours events that jazz musicians did for themselves, not for the public. "It was typically something that happened after everyone had finished their work for the night, they'd go to a bar and relax with a drink and just let off steam." This was the way younger players learned from older players, he said, a mentoring process for some, and practice for others.

"These people, when they're playing, they are playing for the love of it. They're playing for enjoyment, for the social occasion of it; they're not getting paid to do it."

Typically, the Festival jams run until 2 a.m. although they may end by 1:30 depending on what musicians are available and around and interested in playing. "Some nights there may not be a great number of musicians that wish to play, or it may be those musicians are very tired and they just want to get a good night's sleep, or they have an early flight, or they've left town already. Sometimes you might not have that many people around. It's possible you may have a fair number of local people playing and mixing in, but it just depends."

"On the other hand, if things are really going for broke and having a great time, sometimes we go until 2:30 in the morning."

An all-day (and night) job
For Geggie, the day starts well before 10:30 p.m. "I'm also meeting with musicians ahead of time; I want to try to go to see as many concerts as I can to introduce myself to musicians and try to get a sense of what's going on and so I'm definitely very immersed into it. It's very stimulating, but it's also quite exhausting."

He also goes to soundchecks, for bands who are playing at the same time as the jam to "hear a little bit of what they're doing there", or to say hi to players he's already met. "So it's a chance for me to go and catch up on friendships with people I haven't seen for a period of time." And some nights, "there's a number of really interesting concerts going on so I might try to go to a little bit of everything or there's something that's really good I might just go to one thing."

But what he doesn't do is push the jams. "I'm not interested in pushing harder because the people who are likely to be interested in the jam session, they'll come out." And some musicians may be "exceedingly busy" during the course of their tour and "so they may just be really, really tired, or they may not want to come out and play. So I simply introduce myself and say, if you feel like playing, there's this session going on and if you'd like to come by that would be great. Or you don't have to play, but if you'd like to come by and have a drink and meet some friends, that's totally fine. If people feel as though they're not being pressured to perform, that works out better than me saying 'You have to go play'. That's never going to work. In my experience, if guests are hanging around and they're hearing a good time happening, then they may want to really be involved in it."

"It's mostly just creating an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable and in a good position to want to play for the fun of it."

"Consider every single performance a gift"
"I think it's really important for the listener to consider every single performance as a gift, because none of these people have to play and they're doing it because they want to play. I know in the past there have been odd moments where uninformed people have gone up to the some of the stars and said, 'I've paid my $5. Get up there and play.' That's the absolute wrong approach. It guarantees that they won't play, and it's just not a very nice thing to do to people who have just been playing for a while."

Geggie said the greatest challenge in running a jam was simply the fact that "it's always in flux, it's always going to be changing. One has to be malleable and have the comfort and ability to change courses and to do different things. For me that's the challenge: to make sure that it's an easy thing to happen, that everyone is happy playing and everyone wants to have fun playing and that there's no work involved."

"It means that I'm constantly having to change the plan. I might decide that, OK, I'll get these people up to play and suddenly that doesn't work because so and so wants to play. The challenge is to keep a positive attitude happening all the time and make sure that everyone who comes to play is feeling comfortable and not feeling threatened or forced to play. And be able to change a plan in a second The idea is to get people to play, so if I have to change things suddenly in order to get someone to play, then I absolutely need to do that."

One very common challenge is too many musicians who play instrument and not enough who play another. "There are always going to be evenings where there are no bass players who want to sit in and so I'm going to have to play the entire evening. And there will be tons of sax players. There will be other evenings where there won't be any piano players so Nancy will play all night. You simply go with it, and that's an understood part of the whole jam session process.

"There was one particular night, many years ago, that the drummer who I had hired, Joel Haynes, had been chatting with Tony Bennett's drummer, Clayton Cameron. Clayton didn't really want to play drums with just anybody. And so I said well, let's do a drum duet. They were really keen on that. What you do when there are odd numbers of people or odd collections of certain instrumentalists, you make do and you do things that are not in the typical way or the typical style."

What can listeners do
But listeners can also help: don't talk too loudly.

"I think it's really important that people appreciate what the players are doing. So, in other words, if people are making a great deal of noise, then that can detract from the musicality going on."

"I realize it's an opportunity for people to have fun and enjoy themselves. I'm not asking people to sit still as though they're in church or something like that. It's more just to be enjoying the moment and showing your appreciation to the musicians for what they're doing and respecting what it is they are doing there. Playing is like conversations amongst friends, and you wouldn't want to be having someone talking too loud when you're in the middle of having a pretty special conversation."

Compared to a concert, what you see and hear at a jam session "is a more intimate, a less-planned event, a more sincere kind of thing going on. It has been a part of the history of jazz music for a long period of time. It's an essential part: it's how younger people are learning from older people. There's lots of times you see younger players just sit there all night and they're absolutely enjoying everything that's going on because they've never seen these people play before and they have the opportunity of perhaps speaking with some of these players .

It's a tremendous learning process for them and it's a tremendous sharing process for the older players, the mentors."

One advantage of a jam to the audience is that they're so close to the musicians. "They are sitting there enraptured because they are literally ten feet from the stage, ten feet from someone very very famous who's playing. It's that kind of up-close and personal thing which I think is so very attractive for many people."

Ottawa Jazz Scene publisher and photographer Brett Delmage has attended and photographed many Festival jam sessions in the last ten years. He loves the intimacy and spontaneity of the jams.

"Perhaps you can be too close sometimes," he observed. "I sat at a front table in 2008 and ended up only a metre or two in front of a Lincoln Centre trumpeter. The overall sound was great, but when I got home at 3 a.m., I realized I had damaged my hearing. But that's been an exception, and now I carry my earplugs. A far more frequent problem has been noisy and inconsiderate audience members. You wonder sometimes why they are there. The music seems like a disruption to their conversations."

Finding the right combinations
Geggie said he wanted to give local musicians as much opportunity to play in the jams, but within their capabilities. "Strictly speaking, the festival jam session is open to people who are performing on the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It doesn't mean that just any local jazz player can come down and sit in. I try to include as many people as I can and if I know the players and are aware of their playing style, then I'll definitely want to get them to be playing. But it doesn't mean that some guy who plays every second week at some place is going to sit in with, say, a John Scofield. There needs to be a certain hierarchy in terms of ability and things like that. Part of my task is to be able to match players' abilities so that somebody who is a really, really good player is not having to drag along an inferior player.

"So I want to try to make sure that whoever plays, local or out of town, is going to have a good experience. So in that situation, the local players, I want to make sure they're playing with people who they can feel somewhat challenged with or feel comfortable with, they can have a good musical experience. I want to try to fit them in as much as I can, and if they're interested in doing that, that's great."

Any musicians he really enjoyed playing with in the jams? The musicians in "the Maria Schneider Orchestra. My dear friend Donny McCaslin, who I've played with on a number of occasions. John Scofield a number of years ago, who was lots of fun. There's so many people. To be honest, I can't think of all the names, I think of smiles and what-not, and if it was smiles that was enough for me."

The perfect jam session?
How would he describe a perfect jam session? "We'd arrive at 2:30 and we'd say 'My gosh, it's time to end' and it didn't feel like we spent any time. It was like it was a wonderful evening of music happening and there was a lovely feeling of enjoyment and fun and games and it would be a big surprise for all of us when it was time for it to close down because it would feel like it had barely even started." He mentioned one instance a few years ago when players from three top-notch bands, including the Maria Schneider Orchestra, all came to play and produced tremendous music. "It's like having a really nice party and there happens to be some really top-notch music happening at the same time."

What was Geggie's most memorable jam session? Many years ago, he said, an older West-Coast saxophone player named Bill Perkins, a really fine tenor saxophone player, came to the jam and "was keen to play with anybody. He was really happy to play. He didn't mind if he was going to be playing with students. There was a young player in town who wanted to be play, and he was a bit nervous and I introduced him to Bill Perkins, and Bill was great. He really mentored the kid. He was able to talk him through – what tone do you like to play? why don't you play the melody the first time, and I'll play the melody the second time? He created the conditions for this young guy to have a really positive musical experience. In the end, for everybody watching and playing, it was a great moment, because this young player surpassed his abilities simply because he was playing with people who encouraged him. And this older player was very happy not to be taking the spotlight, he was very happy to be playing with somebody and sharing the gift of music."

"To me that's what it's all about. And there have been so many moments of that kind of positive vibes where it's all about creating something right now and creating a beautiful musical moment."

– Alayne McGregor

View a photo gallery of past jams at the Ottawa Jazz Festival

The Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions are held in the 101 Lounge (mezzanine level) of the Crown Plaza Hotel, 101 Lyon Street (between Albert and Queen Streets downtown). They run from June 24 to July 4, There will be no jam session on Canada Day (July 1).

Getting there: The Hotel is about 10 minutes walk west of Confederation Park (exit via the north Elgin entrance and walk down Albert Street to Lyon Street). You can also take any westbound OC Transpo bus from the Mackenzie King Bridge Transitway stop (take the park's bridge stairs exit) to the Kent Street stop near the Hotel.

John Geggie is also playing in two other shows at the Ottawa Jazz Festival:

  • the Hugh O'Connor Quartet (June 28, 4 p.m., National Library)
  • Geggie, Vu, Lewis and Doxas (June 29, 7 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage)