Jazz Jam Session Etiquette

I really enjoy going to sit in at open jam sessions when I get the chance.  They are an excellent way to apply things I’m practicing at home in a low pressure performance context.  It’s also a great way to meet and check out other musicians and pick up on new tunes and concepts that other musicians are exploring.

They can also be tortuous when they aren’t organized well or the musicians who are sitting in aren’t considerate of the rest of the players (and audience).  In that spirit, here are some basic rules of thumb for how to behave at a jam session.

  1. Sit in on your couple of tunes and then get out of the way.  Two or three tunes at a time seems to be a fair amount to play, but then step off the stand an let other players get a chance.  If you’re the only player on a rhythm section instrument there you can obviously stay up as long as you’re needed, but you don’t need to solo on every tune.  Horn players should trade off every couple of tunes or so.  Two or three horn players are enough at a time, and even a single horn player on a tune or two is a refreshing change.  Guitarists and vibes players should think of themselves as “horns” unless they are the only comping instrument up on the stand at the time.
  2. Say what you have to say in your solo and then get out of the way.  You don’t need to take multiple choruses, particularly when there are two or three other players who want to take a solo on that tune.  Just because the first soloist thought it was OK to play 20 choruses of rhythm changes doesn’t mean that you should too.  Remember Miles Davis’s advice to John Coltrane when Trane told Miles he had trouble stopping after he got going.  Miles told Trane to, “try taking the damn horn out of your mouth.”  There’s no need for tunes at sessions to go 10 or more minutes.  Other musicians are waiting for their turn to play.
  3. If you don’t know the tune, take a break.  I know a lot of cats will sometimes just let someone else cover the head for them and earball the changes to solo, but I don’t think this is appropriate.  Even if you’ve got someone else to play the melody you never know what might happen.  Maybe that guy gets a phone call just before the head out and you’ll be the one who needs to play the melody.  If you’re going to comp or walk a bass line you need to know the changes.  There’s nothing worse than trying to blow a solo when the pianist and bassist aren’t agreeing on the chords.  Personally, I think it’s better to sit out if you don’t have the tune memorized rather than read it out of a fake book.  There are some sessions where it’s not cool to read the charts and others where everyone is doing it.  Regardless, use the opportunity to make note of the tune and memorize it for next week’s session.
  4. Remember the order that the solos went and use that if you trade with the drummer.  Bassists usually won’t get involved in trading fours, and sometimes pianists will lay out on the fours too.  Be ready for this and pay attention.
  5. Practice at home, not at the jam session.  Know and admit whether or not you can really “hang” with the musicians you’re playing with.  By all means, sit in and take your turn.  That’s what an “open” jam session is all about.  But if you’re holding back the other players with your inexperience do a little more listening and a little less sitting in.  Don’t be “that guy.”  If you are, you’re ruining it for everyone else.
  6. On ballads split up the head and solos into half choruses so the tune doesn’t go on too long.  The standard “road map” for AABA ballads is typically to split up the melody in half by two different players, have two players solo half choruses, and then jump to the bridge melody out.
  7. Being a horn player does not give you an open invitation to wander up and play a solo whenever you feel like it.  If you’re not invited to be on the stand before the tune starts, take a break and listen.  If you’re on the stand playing a tune, don’t wander away.  Keep focused on what is going on, even when you’re not playing.  You can’t take your turn on fours or jump to the head if you’re ordering another drink at the bar or flirting with the waitress.
  8. Guitarists and bassists can probably use the amps on stage, but ask before you plug in.  Treat the equipment better than you would treat your own (don’t put your drink on the amp, etc.).
  9. Call standard tunes and do them generally the standard way.  Sure, it’s cool to try out the swing tune as a bossa and such, but don’t get too far afield.  Funk and rock grooves can be fun, but if it’s a jazz jam session you should play jazz, not rock.  Sorry singers, but jazz jam sessions are about improvisation.  If you don’t know tunes that instrumentalists like to improvise over and aren’t planning on doing any scat singing, you might want to try out an open-mic night instead of a jam session.
  10. Just because you happen to be up there with your regular band fellows does not mean that you should call up your original tunes and arrangements.  It’s a jam session, not your band’s show.  I once got to a jam session just before it started, signed my name on the list to sit in, and then waited around for an hour while the session leader let a band play a set.  I left when the session leader told me that they would be taking a 20 minute break and then I would be able to play.  One of the reasons why I happened to be at this particular jam session was because I was scouting for players to put together a jobbing band at the time.  Needless to say, I didn’t want to work with those musicians after that jam session.
  11. Don’t noodle behind other soloists.  If you’re trying to earball the changes see #3 above.  You don’t like it when someone does it when you’re trying to solo, so don’t be rude to the other musicians.  Instead, listen to what the other cat is playing.  You just might learn something, even if it’s how not to play.
  12. If you don’t like the way someone else is playing, sit out and keep your mouth shut about it.  It’s not just being polite, it’s also good business sense.  Maybe that player is at that session to meet musicians to hire (see my story in #10 above).  Maybe that couple sitting next to you are that player’s next door neighbors.

There are obviously other rules of thumb that you can come up with (and others have made similar lists here and here).  Probably the next time I go to a jam session I’ll think of a few more I can add, but for the most part it’s all riffing on the same themes – be polite and considerate of the other musicians and audience.  Once you’ve got that part nailed it’s time to enjoy the music.

13 thoughts on “Jazz Jam Session Etiquette

  1. Nice list.

    I’m no jam session veteran, but I’d suggest another category of advice that isn’t fully addressed here or in the other articles you mentioned: respecting the venue. I frequent a weekly jam in San Diego which has moved around over the years due to venue management changes and/or lack of revenue from the jam. Particularly when there’s no cover, I try to order something from the bar or menu whenever I attend. And I tip because it helps keep relations friendly between the bartenders/servers and the musicians.

    1. Excellent point, Joe! Treating the staff well seems like it should be obvious, but apparently it’s not because I didn’t mention it. Like you, I try to order something when I attend and always tip. It not only goes a long way to keep things friendly between the staff and musicians, but probably helps a lot keeping the jam session regular at the venue. Sessions move around here in Asheville for similar reasons that you mentioned.

      Thanks for contributing!


  2. Very useful article thanks for the advice – I’ve been reading a bit about sheet music etiquette and charts but being a total musical novice the whole world of sheet music is alien! I read somewhere that musicians wouldn’t appreciate if you take sheet music that’s more than 4 pages long … what’s your take on this?

    P.S, what exactly are charts?? told you I was a complete novice!!

    1. Your question is a little unclear, perhaps because of your confusion about “charts.” Jazz musicians call a musical arrangement a “chart,” meaning the sheet music to be played as written. Sometimes they’ll call any sheet music, such as a leadsheet of melody and chord symbols a “chart” too. It’s generally considered amateurish to read a “chart” at a jam session, as you’re supposed to have the tune memorized.

      As far as having sheet music that’s longer than 4 pages, it just gets difficult to turn pages. If the music is long enough you might just have to put it on more than 4 pages, so you try to organize the sheet music so that the page turns are easy (e.g., at a point where the musician is counting rests or where the pianist is only playing with one hand). That’s not always possible, but as an arranger that’s something you try to accommodate. I’m not sure that this applies to a jam session. If you’re going to read a “chart” at a jam session it’s probably only going to be 1 page (maybe 2) most of the time.

      Hope that helps!


  3. Speaking of jam sessions in Asheville, do you know of any going on right now? I’m a bass player and I just moved to town a few months ago. Thanks for any tips.

    1. Hi, Kevin.

      Right now there aren’t any jazz jams in Asheville on a regular basis (that I know of). Some are often coming and going, so keep your eyes peeled. There’s one that’s just started up in Hendersonville and another in the works for Black Mountain. There are a couple of blues and funk jams around town that you might also be interested in. Check the Mountain X-Press for those.

  4. Thanks for this advice. FYI, I am using your page as a reference to read for musicians who come to the jam sessions we organize.
    Vienna (Austria)

  5. Great article! i do have a question- as a drummer who works in Chicago and does do some of the jam sessions with various players, i bring a good drumset for the guys to play and there is ALWAYS some cat that comes in, expects tp play and NEVER brings his stick bag- what do you do? How am i supposed to respond to that? Please advise!! chicago drummer

    1. Hi, Paul. Thanks for stopping by.

      Not being a drummer, I don’t know how I’d respond to someone who not only wants to use the house drum set but also needs to borrow sticks. Using someone else’s sticks don’t seem to be as big a deal as playing on another brass player’s mouthpiece, for example. Bottom line, though, it’s your equipment and so it’s your rules. If you don’t want someone using your sticks, you don’t have to let them.

  6. Hello from Little Rock!

    One thing that is rarely discussed is the act of vining…

    Vibing is the the act of musicians purposefully ignoring you and your efforts and try to get others to the same… This attitude is prevelent amongst B level musicians who think that greatness is arrogance… The top musicians (A level musicians) rarely if ever treat younger or less experienced in an arrogant or self important way… Many of these B level musicians “vibe” because of a lack of self confidence…

    I’ll never forget participating in a jam session with High school Juniors and Seniors in New York City. (The place will remain unnamed… The owner was super cool!) We had about 15 students and the house band refused to play with them. I had to go to the back to convince them to play with my students… Not only that they refused to listen to our students solos or listen to the head they played… They were very good players but they punished the kids who worked extremely hard to raise funds to go to New York. We are from Arkansas and that hurt to watch so called feel threatened by high school kids…I told the kids to never for get the way they were treated and to remember the faces of those who did it…

    Vibing should be outlawed at jam sessions… What do y’all think?

  7. Nice article
    I’d love to ask the exact definitions of some of the terms you’re using lol jazz is a whole different scene lol I grew up in the classical/music theatre scenes and growing a love and appreciation for jazz now in my 30s.
    Words I don’t know are
    Trading fours
    Fake book
    I feel like I could get most from context but would be nice to have a pro tell me what it means so I don’t look silly in the fray 🤪🤪 haha

    1. Hi, Daniell.

      Comping – Improvising an accompaniment to a soloist by a pianist or guitarist

      Fours/Trading Fours – When soloists trade off back and forth playing for four measures, often for a drum solo.

      Head – The melody of the tune

      Earballing – Just an expression to mean playing by ear rather than already knowing the tune

      Fake book – A book of standard tunes in lead sheet format.

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