This Thursday will be the last night that vocalist Peter Liu will be the voice of the JazzWorks jam sessions.

Liu, who has coordinated the jam for the last two years, is stepping down – but with a feeling of accomplishment and having ensured his successor.

Younger musicians playing at the September 2010 JazzWorks jam, including Claire Devlin (sax), Emily Denison (trumpet), and Chris Maskell (sax)  ©Brett Delmage
Younger musicians playing at the September 2010 JazzWorks jam, including Claire Devlin (sax), Emily Denison (trumpet), and Chris Maskell (sax) ©Brett Delmage
Trumpeter Charles Gordon has been playing at the JazzWorks jams since 1999. He praised Liu's work: “Peter Liu did an absolutely terrific job. You need a certain amount of forcefulness, as well as humor and diplomacy and Peter had all that.”

Liu will be handing over a thriving series with a long history. For at least a dozen years, Ottawa jazz musicians – amateur and professional – have gathered each month on a Thursday evening to play, improvise, and listen. A host band plays for the first 45 minutes, and then musicians arrange themselves into ad-hoc groups (and there are sometimes pleas from the stage for a drummer or a bass player) and each group plays one song.

The jam series (by far the oldest in the area) is organized by Ottawa JazzWorks, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the development of jazz musicianship in players of all ages. The sessions have moved from downtown to the Glebe to Ottawa South, and have happily taken root at the Carleton Tavern in Hintonburg for the past three years.

Liu said he was happy at the way the jams had progressed under his stewardship – but also credited many other volunteers. “I've had a lot of amazing ideas from other jam session participants and JazzWorks folks … Really, we've all come together and tried to make the jam session a more vibrant place. We wanted to foster more of a sense of community and attract more people to come to both listen and participate.”

One of his goals was to improve the level of playing: “not that the level of playing was poor before”, he hastened to add. So he was glad that more professional musicians have been showing up to the jam sessions in the last two years, “and by doing so they really raise the game of everybody else who's participating.”

He also wanted to attract younger musicians to the jams, and “this past year that's really been happening, both from the high school and university levels – really some amazing players. so we're excited about that.”

In May, the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra (CYJO) – whose musicians range from late high school to university age – was the host band for the jam. But the 18 members in the band couldn't easily all fit onto the Carleton Tavern's small stage, until CYJO director Nick Dyson had the idea of dividing the orchestra into smaller combos, each of which played two or three songs, for the opening set. “That kept it interesting and fresh, but gave everybody a chance to shine,” Liu said, “Rather than a big band format, that also gives everybody a chance to improvise, which I think is also the spirit of the jam session.”

Liu said he talked to some of the CYJO members afterwards, and they said they had a really good time and want to come out in the future. Having both younger and older musicians playing together and connecting musically as well as personally, he said, will make the jam session “a wonderful place to nurture talent and to allow everybody a chance to grow”.

This year's sessions in particular, he said, have also attracted a large number of new faces – not just the same musicians month to month – making them more diverse and more exciting.

One of Liu's most obvious innovations was organizing the entire year of jam session host bands in advance – an innovation he hopes continues. “Part of it was really by demand because, as the jam session was taking off, there became more and more interest in people wanting to host the jam session, people at all levels, with all different kinds of jazz styles. And by planning that in advance, we were up to a year in advance at some points, I think that helps to plan for how the whole year is going to look like."

Peter Liu   ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Peter Liu ©Brett Delmage, 2012
He also set a limit of one song per combo (instead of the previous two), as part of adding more structure to the jams and making them flow more smoothly. “By keeping things rolling and keeping things fresh where we don't have the same band filling up for two songs in a row that just guarantees a whole bunch of different things happening.” That also encouraged participants to make the jams “a real space for music” and not waste time or spend too much time socializing, he said.

“I think that really it's the music that draws people and it's what makes it exciting to participate in.”

Replacing Liu as overall jam coordinator will be guitarist Alf Warnock, a longtime jam session participant. Warnock has been Liu's co-leader of the sessions for the last couple years, mainly in charge of the sound and the equipment, and Liu said it was wonderful that he was now taking on the larger role.

But there will also be a team of volunteer coordinators underneath Warnock, and rotating MCs for the sessions. Liu said he hoped this would engage more people in running the sessions, “give everybody a chance to shine a little bit more, and experience the thrill of coordinating a jam session” – as well as spelling each other off to avoid burnout. The organizers are looking for volunteer MCs, he said, as well as people to help with the equipment set-up and breakdown and with publicizing the jams.

One complaint about the JazzWorks jams has been the high level of noise in the room that arises from the enthusiastic socializing. Liu acknowledged it was still an ongoing problem, but the organizers had addressed it through several innovations:

  • adding lights to shine on the band playing, which he said actually seems to make a difference because it gets the audience to focus more on the band. “They can see them more clearly, and therefore get people's attention a little bit more.”
  • rearranging the location of the speakers to allow sound to be more evenly distributed throughout the room, “so people in the back could actually hear the music instead of just wanting to talk because they couldn't hear anything.”
  • gently reminding the audience to listen, throughout the night in “a real supportive, respectful way, rather than in an authoritarian kind of way. … Most of the people attending the jam session are players themselves, and I think everybody, if they're playing, would like people to hear them play. It's a little discouraging, especially in a jam session environment, to see people all talking while you're playing. Or, I guess, in any performance situation, that could be a little bit of a turn-off.”

In the last year, two new jazz jams have started: the fourth Thursday of every month at GigSpace (now on hiatus until September), and at Pressed every second Saturday afternoon (continuing over the summer). Liu welcomed them: “the more chances and opportunities and venues for people to be able to play our music, and be able to jam together, I think is a wonderful thing. It gives everybody more choices, more opportunities, and ultimately this benefits the whole jazz community because everyone is getting a chance to connect more and develop their talents.”

He said there was more than enough market for the jams. “You might take the view that, 'Oh, they're competing with us in some way', but I don't look at it that way at all. I think that any jam session will provide something different for the jammers or the listeners, and for that reason, the more the better.”

Next year, Liu will be back at the JazzWorks jam sessions – but just as a musician and listener. All he'll have to remember will be to bring his lead sheets.

“I love the jam session and it's been an absolute thrill to be part of it and help coordinate it. It will be a nice change to just come in as a jammer for a while!”

The last JazzWorks jam of the 2011-12 season will be held at the Carleton Tavern on Thursday, June 21, at 8:30 p.m. The jams will take a summer break and start up again in September, on the third Thursday of each month.

    – Alayne McGregor

See's previous coverage of the JazzWorks jams:

See's previous coverage of Peter Liu: