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First Jazz Girl Goes to a Jam Session

Last year, when I started the Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I thought I’d better whip myself back into shape, and twice I attended the monthly jam session at the Aqus Cafe in Petaluma. Both times were low key. I came, I played, I left. I hardly talked to anyone.

A year later, I returned with my daughter. I was so excited that she wanted to go! We both wore our hot-pink Sonoma Jazz Girlz shirts. I had prepared her for exactly what happens. You put your name and desired song(s) on the list. They call you up, and then you solo when someone looks at you. It’s okay if you play at the wrong time or don’t play at the right time. It’s all casual!

It was almost over before it started; they didn’t put out a list. This was enough to make my daughter sure that everything I’d told her was wrong. (Typical mom!) She wasn’t sure she wanted to play anymore.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. I got out my trombone and knew they’d come ask me if I wanted to play. Some friends of ours were there with their saxes, and I knew the house band knew them and would ask them to come up. I didn’t know if they’d recognize me with my short hair and long absence.

But now she was nervous. Isn’t everyone at their first jam session? It’s so different than any of our other musical experiences. People you don’t know, songs you may or may not know, and zero written notes!

I told her she could wait until next time if she wanted, but she was determined. One of the guys from the house band did come by, and I told him that my daughter wanted to play piano, and I recommended C Jam Blues. I went up with her.

She played a short, melodic solo, acing the changes. The group didn’t coddle her—in fact it was really hard to tell when to play what. But at the end, we got a lot more attention than when I’d come by myself the year before. The guitar player wanted to know what Sonoma Jazz Girlz was. He has a daughter, see?

So thanks, daughter of mine, for letting me pretend your perfect pitch had anything to do with my jazz teaching. Thanks for being brave. We’re getting the word out, and you are going to be a first call pianist before very long at all.

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The Best Laid Song Lists

I came prepared to my second jam session. This time I had three songs in mind, and although I hadn’t actually practiced them, I’d listened to the chords go by on my irealpro app. The men in the band said “Hi!” like I was a long-lost friend. Things were going to go better this time!

When they called me up along with a teenage (male) trumpet player, the band called “Blue Bossa.” I was confused, as I had written “Autumn Leaves, Ain’t Misbehavin’, or Maiden Voyage” on the sign-up sheet. Oh well, “Blue Bossa” would do. Next they called “Cantaloupe Island.” I might as well have written “any” on the list again. If I’d thought that I was at least a little familiar with every jazz song out there, I’d thought wrong. Cantaloupe Island was uncharted territory. I did my best. Unfortunately I didn’t check my irealpro app. (Cantaloupe Island is there, it turns out.)

After a feeble trip to the island, I turned around and said, “Before I go, can we do a song on my list?” I truly thought it was an easy list to contemplate, but no. They liked “Autumn Leaves” best, but the bass player’s book had it in the wrong key. I reluctantly but cheerfully gave up my phone to him. I would remember the chords, sort of.

The good news? My hands shook like they did last time, but my stomach didn’t hurt. This might have had something to do with the 95 degree room we were playing in. Trying not to sweat distracted me. My playing was as good or better than the first time. A guy eating at the cafe even said “Sounded good!” to me when I went back to my seat. My husband came this time, and we chatted with a friend.

The bad news? My playing could still improve, of course. And when I remembered that I hadn’t gotten my phone back from the bass player, I went up to the stage and made the “hang loose” sign by my ear, by which I meant “Do you have my phone?” but which, since he forgot he had it, he probably took to mean, “Call me, Hot Stuff.” Ah well. The dangers of being the only woman in a jazz world.

 

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

A follow-up to I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band

So I made myself go to a jam session. I had played approximately one improv solo in the last twenty years, but I wanted to put a flyer for Sonoma Jazz Girls on the cafe’s corkboard, and I also thought I should probably dust off the old chord extensions before teaching them.

I walked in as the band (five men and no women) was setting up, and I took my trombone out of its case. Is that how these things work? Do you just show up and take out your horn? I didn’t remember, but I’m old now and didn’t care if I was doing it wrong. I took out my horn and waited for someone to tell me what to do or at least introduce himself. No one did. Of course, I didn’t introduce myself either. Finally I went and sat at a table by my mom. Four of my husband’s (male) high school students had come with their instruments, too, and I overheard another patron tell them that there’d be a sign-up sheet out soon.

When the sheet appeared, I went and signed up, writing “any” under the “song” category. I wrote “any” not only because I’m indecisive, but also because I figured that “any” might seem impressive while also covering for me if I sucked. Because how terrible would it be to suck on a song that you chose as the one you’d most like to play in front of an audience?

And there was an audience—a small but friendly one. After the house band played two tunes, they called me up and the drummer said to the other band members, “Caravan?” I could have misread the body language, but at least one band member seemed to think Caravan was a poor choice, and I thought it was because they had no idea what level player I was. The drummer asked me, “Do you know Caravan?” “Yep,” I answered. At least I used to, and I hoped it would be like riding a bike. Well, not exactly like riding a bike, as I haven’t gotten on a bike since an accident landed me in the E.R. when I was nine.

I had forgotten about the pain I get in the pit of my stomach as surely as I had forgotten the chords to our second song, “God Bless the Child.” No one seemed too impressed with my playing, and I have to admit I kind of wanted to get on the mic and say, “I’m the girl who wrote that blog? Some of you probably read it? Kind of a poignant moment, here.” But of course I didn’t. My playing fizzled, and I went back to my mom. I don’t think she even told me I played well.

My husband’s students played their songs. (Mercifully, I knew beforehand that one of them could play circles of fifths around me.) A man sang “It Had to Be You,” and then my husband’s students and I all went up for the last song of the night, and one of the band members called “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Now, I know the melody of that song, but I didn’t remember the name, so I didn’t know that I knew the melody. “What are a few of the chords?” I asked, trying to be funny. Gospel blues. B flat. “You’ll find something out about yourself,” the drummer said.

I wish what I had found out about myself was super dramatic. The drummer’s setup statement sounded so prophetic! “You’ll find something out about yourself!” I thought that I might discover that I had more in my soul than I had ever dreamed over a C minor 7 and the clinks of dishes in the kitchen. Alas, here’s all I found out. 1) I should have gone pee before the song started. 2) I should have used my irealpro app at home a few times instead of making my poignant return to improv in public, and 3) No matter how many times I heard “Mercy Mercy Mercy” before it was my turn to solo, I would not notice the very obvious lead-up to the C minor 7 chord.

I left feeling a little sad. The men were not rude, but I was the only woman, and that stirred up old feelings. While I played, I almost felt like I had to force myself to play more than whole notes. “Whatever, here’s a simple lick. Here it is again changed a little to fit the new chord.” I know it’s a form of fear of failure. Don’t let yourself care, and it won’t hurt when you suck. I remember it well. I’m back in the E.R.

Mercy. Mercy. Have mercy on me, Lord, and help me help my students to reach higher than I ever did.

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