Jam for Beginners (Uxbridge Cosmos Nov. 2012)

If you intentionally walk into me at a swift clip and knock my purse off my shoulder, I will often apologize to you. If you shove your way in front of me while I wait to get onto the streetcar, I will let you pass and maybe even help you with your over-flowing, garbage-filled granny cart. But, let me warn you that, though I am often a push-over, there is an impulsive warrior princess in my soul whose sass may surprise you.

When I first started performing as a solo jazz singer, I wanted to learn all that I possibly could in the shortest amount of time, so I threw myself into as many situations as I could that involved live jazz and open mics. At first I tried the singer and songwriter jams (some of which I still frequent.) These jams are inclusive and encouraging forums where newcomers are welcome and every performer is supported with open hearts. But being someone who occasionally enjoys an artistic challenge and perhaps a little masochistic rejection, I longed for less friendly, less open-hearted and more open-season kinds of jazz jams.

I had my eye on a Tuesday night jam at a local and somewhat legendary jazz club. Admittedly, it was a little daunting. At this point in my life, my day job expected me at the crack of dawn and I was concerned about how late the jam would run. There was also the stress of music selection. I had choose at least three jazz standards that were eye-roll proof (ie. not “Summertime” or “All of Me”), in simple keys (which is not easy as most standards were either written for low-voiced men or high-voiced women, neither of which I am), I had to type up a bunch of legible lead sheets or charts, print multiple copies and all this was supposed to appear as if I’d just flippantly pulled them out of my hat, because I’m that kind of awesome girl singer. Good God, it’s exhausting looking cool.

I showed up with a supportive friend at my side at 9:30 p.m., ready to get this jam jumpin’. There was a young bass player fronting the host band. They played the first set. I sat at the bar with my pal and my pint, nodding my head in time, inwardly wondering when the actual jam would EVER start and whether I’d be here, “Like Someone In Love” crumpled in my sweaty hands until dawn.

I had been instructed to tell the host that I wanted to sing. When the band took their break, I summoned my bravery and threw myself in front of the circulating bass player. In his hand was the tip jar.

“Oh God, the tip jar,” I thought. “I have nothing for the tip jar!” He smiled sweetly and stared at me expectantly. I smiled back, slopped my Strongbow a little on the floor. Suddenly I was just a speechless, stingy, possibly inebriated, grinning idiot, blocking the poor guy’s path.

“Hi!” my voice squeaked out at a pitch I though must only be audible to Chihuahuas. “My name is Whitney,” I said over-correcting in a strangely low voice, “and I sing… ahem.”
“Great,” said the bass player. “I’ll call you up in the next set.” And he smiled, a kind, inclusive, friendly sort of smile. Victorious, I sat back down with my friend and chirped proudly about my successful sell.

With my lead sheets ready to go, the jam started up and it was thrilling. I sat on the edge of my stool ready to gracefully leap up at the exact moment that he called my name. Looking around the room, I noticed to my dismay that I just might be the only singer… and girl… and non-graduate of a well-reputed jazz program. Gulp… uh boy.

The jam droned on, chorus after chorus of killer bebop trading and one-upmanship among these young men who all seemed to know each other. A beautiful young woman got up and awkwardly warbled her way through “All of Me”, the band barely keeping up with her seemingly random key changes. Almost as soon as she hit the last note, the band started up another instrumental immediately. I began to panic. The night was almost through and I still hadn’t gotten my chance!

“Wait a minute,” I thought, furious. “How DARE this guy railroad me! I’ve gone to the trouble of making these charts and dragging my sweet supportive friend here,” (who was at this point near sleep), “and I have had almost TWO pints!” Incensed with the injustice and the Strongbow, I slipped into my seldom-seen warrior state. I hung on every solo, every rest, every stupid over-held note, poised, like an Olympic sprinter, and before they even finished the tune, I was on the stage handing out my charts.

“Ok… now it’s me,” I said to the host, smiling sternly. “My turn.” I felt like a triumphant, slightly evil teacher, handing out detention slips to the boys I caught smoking in the bathroom.

I told the shocked band members what intro I wanted, barely giving them time to argue and counted them in. The room perked up and listened. It was a jazz jam miracle. Everybody relaxed - myself included - and we all had a blast. In truth, I screwed up the ending of the song irreparably, but I got to sing! And people applauded!

So, even though on the way home that night, a guy took my seat on the bus with his backpack, I felt empowered knowing that I could order him to move it, if I had wanted to. I was a tough, bad-ass girl singer with a dormant warrior princess in my soul and I didn’t take guff from anybody. Since then, I still encounter the girl singer stigma, but I mostly kick it in the backside and have a good time. Because, well… isn’t that the point?

Leave a comment