Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Jazz Jam Session: Using the Wally's Model in the Classroom

The jazz jam session is a very important entity that has been instrumental in shaping the very essence of the music: the ethos of fierce competition wrapped in benevolent camaraderie. The jazz jam session can be so cut throat that I could see certain musicians "cutting" their own mother if she didn't ascent to the musical occasion. It truly is survival of the fittest being acted out not in the jungles of the Amazon, but during the democratic forum of the bandstand. Not to mention, it's also a great model for teaching in the classroom.

The classroom is often looked at as a safe haven for intellectual nourishment. But sometimes safe is not always a good thing, especially if it means stunted growth and an unrealistic perception of one's abilities and understanding of the material being taught. A classroom that's too safe won't give students a realistic perspective of their capabilities. And this is where the jazz jam session becomes a great model for learning and self-assessing.

While I was a student at Berklee, my saxophone instructor Andy McGhee always encouraged me to go and play at Wally's Café, a nearby jazz club located in the South End section of Boston, affectionately known as just Wally’s. The club itself was not very impressive aesthetically, as is the case with most jazz clubs, but it's role and importance in the development of generations of jazz players is immeasurable. In fact, the smoke in Wally's was so thick that your clothes would be un-wearable the next day due to the stench of cigarettes and cheap cologne.

Typically the musicians who played there were juniors and seniors, who in my opinion at the time already played at a professional level. I used to think, "Why are they even in school. They should be in New York making thousands of dollars." I was so naive back then.

But they all were excellent players. Most of them did go on to do great things. While I was in Boston, we used to sit in with people like Bruce "Bud" Revels, James "Saxmo" Gates, and Ron Savage. They sent me and my Berklee classmates home many a night depressed and hopeless that we would never learn how to play. We called it being sent back to the shed.

What's most revealing about jazz jam sessions, like those that took place at Wally's, is that your strengths and weaknesses become very apparent--much more than when you do a regular performance, where you are well-rehearsed, knowing exactly who you're playing with, and how long you'll be playing. Jazz jam sessions are more about surviving than just showing off your talents. You're constantly on your toes, never quite sure what’s coming down the pike. You're forced to improvise. So after a jazz jam session you know if your sound is big or small, if your rhythm needs improving, and how well you can hear chord changes--especially at those sessions where musicians are playing songs in unconventional key signatures. Most of all, you come away knowing that you have much work to do.

How can this understanding help you in the classroom?

The jazz jam session in many ways is nothing more than a pop quiz. A pop quiz on how well you know jazz tunes, how well you can play in different keys, how well you can play fast tempos, etc. The one thing that jazz jam sessions and pop quizzes teach us is where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We know exactly what we need to do in order to improve those areas in which we are deficient. Wally's taught this to me more profoundly than any of my final exams at Berklee. 

As educators, we need to take our students to the bandstand of the classroom and put them in situations that challenge them and force them to assess the various aspects of their learning, the way that a jazz musician does when confronted with the challenge of having to play "Cherokee" in the key of B major. I'm not just speaking of music-related learning, either. And these pop-quizzes can come in many forms of assessment: written essays, oral presentations, multiple choice, fill-in the blank, or sometimes just talking off the cuff. Comparable to when we're performing at a jazz jam session, we can even have students collectively elaborate on a related topic--complete with background figures and all. 

As a teacher, your main job should be to get your students started, or count off that metaphorical tune, but then let them intellectually fend for themselves. Like the jazz jam session, this is an opportunity to take information and deal with it in an informal way. This is a chance not only for the students to take chances but also for teachers. In order to create new perspectives on learning, you have to just try things, you have to experiment. Otherwise, you’ll just keep repeating the same thing over and over. In fact, the jazz jam session is one of my favorite contexts to hear musicians play. Not only do they sound more relaxed, but they are often taking chances in ways that they don't when performing during more formal settings. I have fond memories of hearing many of the jazz stars of today at Wally's in a relaxed and informal setting: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Don Byron, Jeff "Tain" Watts, and numerous others. One night, Freddie Hubbard even stopped by and played a couple of tunes. But, unfortunately, I was working elsewhere on that particular evening. 

Besides, as professors, due to the fact we are a part of the university paradigm, we can't totally replicate the informality of the jazz jam session--particularly 1980s Wally's.  After all, we have various members of the administration to answer to. Be that as it may, just by merely borrowing from the jazz jam session’s model of informality, it will allow us to get away from our syllabus just long enough to take notice of the latent opportunities for learning just waiting to reveal themselves. Frankly, speaking, If we aren't putting ourselves in the position where we are always the smartest ones in the classroom, we will allow ourselves to also learn while teaching. And as teachers, anytime that we can replenish our pedagogical licks, we, too, will become more inspired, and maybe even more inspiring to those around us.


  1. Great reflection - 100% on point - James Saxsmo Gates is a great proponent of this philosophy at Virginia State where he is Director of The Billy Taylor Jazz Program... His Monday night Jam Sessions are becoming Legendsry..

  2. Hi Bill - I appreciate your input. And please tell Gates that I said hello. He was a big inspiration while I was at Berklee.

  3. I'm totally agreement Bill. I've known my friend James Gates for well over 25 years
    now. This is a true jazz scholar who practices what he preach. Going to the shed is a way of life for Gates a religion even! Lol. If all musicians took up such an approach could you imagine where the music scene would be?

  4. I'm totally agreement Bill. I've known my friend James Gates for well over 25 years
    now. This is a true jazz scholar who practices what he preach. Going to the shed is a way of life for Gates a religion even! Lol. If all musicians took up such an approach could you imagine where the music scene would be?

  5. The writing style of this article was very easy and delightful to read with a tone of writing prowess. Your point is well taken. Professor ought to not be afraid of divergent learning. I think that the analogy of a learning environment to a jazz club is clever. Indeed, impromptu jazz sessions are great opportunities to both perform, learn, and to stretch oneself. And using this a teaching model in the classroom will likely facilitate an environment that stimulates dynamic teaching and ecstatic learning.


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