Ambitious young crowd brings new life to a staple of the western Mass. music scene
Vocalist Avery Joi has her own band now, but five or six years ago, back when she was first getting into jazz, she was just looking for a way to get on stage.
“I was like, ‘I want to get gigs, I want to play,’” the 21-year-old said recently. She asked her mother how to find venues where she could perform. “My mom was like, ‘I have no idea.’”
A friend of Joi’s told her about a jazz jam session in Northampton, Massachusetts. At jams, musicians with a range of experience join each other on stage to improvise around jazz standards.
The Tuesday night session, hosted by the Northampton Jazz Workshop, has been a staple of the Valley music scene since 2010.
It’s currently located at The Drake in Amherst, but back when Joi first entered the scene, it took place at Spare Time Bowling Alley just off I-91.
“It was so weird, being 16,” Joi said. “It was all like older people. It was at a bar next to a bowling alley.”
But she loved the music, Joi said, including the professional guest soloists from all over the country.
The session was led by pianist Paul Arslanian, who’s played for decades in his own bands and alongside jazz greats like Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“My mom kind of dragged me over to Paul and was like, ‘My daughter's a singer, and she really wants to sing,’” Joi recalled.
Arslanian invited her up and asked what song she had in mind. At the time, Joi was working on the jazz standard, “All of Me.” She didn’t yet know how to improvise, but Arslanian heard something in her voice right away.
“Her pitch is very centered,” Arslanian said. “She really nails it, and then people can hear that. So you can tell that she's singing from a place inside her.”
Joi, who was raised in Westfield, had a great time that first night, and the applause from the audience made her want to keep coming back. She prepared more songs and began going to the session regularly.
“Any time my mom would let me,” she said, “because I couldn't drive.”
But it didn’t escape Joi’s notice that few of her high school peers were into jazz, and that the songs she loved to sing were mostly being played by older people.
“It felt like I was doing something crazy,” she said, “or something really rare, but I have such a supporting loving family. My mom was like, ‘If you like this, it's a gift, and loving something that is a part of your culture, Black American culture, is a very, very good thing.’”
A long tradition
After a couple-year break due to the pandemic, the Tuesday night show reopened last spring at The Drake, every two weeks.
Admission is free thanks to the Downtown Amherst Foundation and donations from Amherst College professors Sonya Clark and Darryl Harper.
Each night starts with a set hosted by the Green Street Trio: Arslanian on piano, George Kaye on bass and John Fisher on drums, along with a rotating cast of guest artists, many of whom travel and perform internationally. Recent guests have included guitarist Mark Whitfield, vocalist Samirah Evans, and, on a Tuesday night in late March, trombonist Steve Davis.
“Paul Arslanian and George Kay and John Fisher, they've been the rhythm section ever since I can remember,” Davis said. “At least for me, it goes back a good 15-plus years.”
Davis teaches at the Berklee College of Music and has played alongside some of the greats, including Art Blakey. He and a former student of his, Hartford-based trumpeter Haneef Nelson, closed out the first set with a rollicking version of the Charlie Parker tune “Billie’s Bounce.”
'A whole plethora of shiny instruments'
The house, which started off full, got more packed throughout the night, as one late arrival after another came through the door with some sort of instrument — a trumpet, a sax, a sheaf of drum sticks carried over their shoulder.
Ultimately there were over 25 musicians standing around chatting, many of them warming up their horns. Arslanian — who acts as something of a mother hen to this session — stepped up to the mic.
“Alright,” he said, “we're gonna get the jam session started now.”
Arslanian called musicians by name, made quick adjustments to the lineup, asked what songs they wanted to play. At one point, blocking his eyes from the overhead lights, Arslanian watched as a half-dozen young men approached the stage with saxes and trumpets.
“We have a whole plethora of shiny instruments,” he said. “Come on up, guys.”
Far less structured than the first half of the night, this free-flowing, off-the-cuff mode of collaboration has a long tradition in the world of jazz.
“The whole idea [of jam sessions],” Davis said, “is to learn how to think on your feet, how to be a good listener, how to cooperate with everybody. It's a way to learn the music in the visceral moment.”
There are more young musicians attending the jam at The Drake than at any of the session’s previous locations. Some of these musicians are students from UMass, others drive up from the Hartt conservatory at the University of Hartford. Haneef Nelson has taught more than a few of them.
“We go to school now and we learn jazz,” Nelson said, “but there's a lot of learning that you can't do in school, that has to be done at the bandstand. The jam session is the real thing. It's where you figure out where theory and the real world actually meet.”
Arslanian announced one number and after another. At times there were at least 10 musicians on stage. And midway through the set — just like he’s been doing since she was 16 — Arslanian called a certain vocalist up to the front.
“We're gonna bring up Avery to sing one. What’s it gonna be?” he asked.
“How ‘bout ‘Satin Doll,’” Joi said.
Cigarette holder, which wigs me
Over her shoulder, she digs me
Out cattin', that satin doll
Guest trombonist Steve Davis couldn’t help but join in.
“I'm aware that she's a good talented young singer,” he said after the show. “And I heard her call ‘Satin Doll’ in G, and I don't know if I've ever played it in G major. I just wanted to get up and try it in that key and see if I could kind of put my money where my mouth is, you know, my money where my ears are, right?”
The vocalist and trombonist improvised off one another through the close of the song.
“It feels like pure joy,” Joi said, describing the act of improvising with her peers. “And kind of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, not knowing what's going to happen, but knowing that if it connects, it's going to feel great.”
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s a good motto for this never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get jam session, every other Tuesday night in Amherst.