Anatomy of a Jam Performance

My Band, The Standard Deviants, had a rehearsal this weekend. As usual, I tried to record some of it. As so often happens, our best performance was our warm up tune. This time, we performed a tune called “The SMF Blues” by my good friend Paul Campagna.

What is going on here? Quite a bit. People talk about Jazz as improvisation, but that does not mean that “Everything” is made up on the spot. It takes a lot of preparation in order for it to be spontaneous. Here are some of the things that make it possible to “just jam.”

Blues Funk

While no one in the band besides me knew the tune before this session, the format of the tune is a 12 bar blues. This is probably the most common format for a jam tune. A lot has been written on the format elsewhere, so I won’t detail here. All of the members of this group know a 12 bar blues, and can jump in to one after hearing the main melody once or twice.

The beat is a rock/funk beat set by Dave, our Drummer. This is a beat that we all know. This is also a beat that Dave has probably put 1000 hours into playing and mastering in different scenarios. Steve, on Bass, has played a beat like this his whole career. We all know the feel and do not have to think about it.

This song has a really strong turn around on the last two bars of the form. It is high pitched, repeated, and lets everyone know where we are anchored in the song. It also tells people when a verse is over, and we reset.


The saxophone plays a lead role in this music, and I give directions to the members of the band. This is not to “boss” people around, but rather to reduce the number of options at any given point so that we as a unit know what to do. Since we can’t really talk in this scenario, the directions have to be simple. There are three main ways I give signals to the band.

The simplest is to step up an play. As a lead instrument, the saxophone communicates via sound to the rest of the band one of two things; either we are playing the head again, or I am taking a solo. The only person that really has to majorly change their behavior is Adam 12 on Trombone. Either he plays the melody with me or he moves into a supporting role. The rest of the band just adjusts their energy accordingly. We play louder for a repetition of the head, and they back off a bit for a solo.

The second way I give signals to the band is by direct eye contact. All I have to do is look back at Dave in the middle of a verse to let him know that the next verse is his to solo. We have played together long enough that he knows what that means. I reinforce the message by stepping to the side and letting the focus shift to him.

The third way is to use hand gestures. As a sax player, I have to make these brief, as I need two hands to play many of the notes. However, there are alternative fingerings, so for short periods, I can play with just my left hand, and use my right to signal. The most obvious signal here is the 4 finger hand gesture I gave to Adam 12 that we are going to trade 4s. This means that each of us play for four measures and then switch. If I gave this signal to all of the band, it would mean that we would be trading 4s with the drums, which we do on longer form songs. Another variation of this is 2s, which is just a short spot for each person.

One of the wonderful thing about playing with this band is how even “mistakes” such as when i tried to end the tune, and no one caught the signal…and it became a bass solo that ended up perfectly placed. Steve realized we all quieted out, and that is an indication for the Bass to step up, and he did.

Practice Practice Practice

Everyone here knows their instrument. We have all been playing for many decades, and know what to do. But the horn is a harsh mistress, and she demands attention. As someone once said:

Skip a day and you know. Skip two days and your friends know. Skip three days and everyone knows.

Musical Wisdom from the ages

Adam 12 is the newest member of the band. It had been several years since he played regularly before he joined us. His first jam sessions were fairly short. We have since heard the results of the hard work that he has put in.

I try to play every day. It completes with many other responsibilities and activities in modern life. But my days seems less complete if I did not at least blow a few notes through the horn.


Music is timing. Our ears are super sensitive to changes in timing, whether at the micro level, translating to differences in pitch, or the macro level, with changes in tempo…which is just another word for time. Dave is the master of listening. He catches on to a pattern one of us it playing and he works it into his drumming constantly. Steve is the backbone of the band. Listening to the bass line tells us what we need to know about speed and location in the song. The more we play together, the more we pick up on each others cues through playing. The end effect is that we are jointly contributing to an event, an experience, a performance.

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