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How a Singer can break into Performing at Jazz Jams

Updated on April 19, 2014
Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Music permeates Maren's soul, whether performing (voice, piano, drum, guitar, clarinet) or acting as a crazily enthusiastic audience member.

Newbie Singer at a Jazz Jam

The author's very first singing at a jam - the tribute to Sid Simmons at LaRose.
The author's very first singing at a jam - the tribute to Sid Simmons at LaRose. | Source

Tips to Succeed

Singing a song in a jazz jam is far different from singing a prepared piece with consistent, predictable accompaniment. Following are a few tips for making the transition.

1. Smile, breathe deeply, keep an open mind, and pat yourself on the back

First of all, you are hopefully doing this to have fun and learn another skill. So, give yourself permission to start at the musical bottom, so to speak. Although you may be the star of your church choir or community theatre group, the jam format is a VERY different animal. I cannot emphasize that enough. Therefore, be gentle on yourself when/if you make errors that you usually never make and remember that the fellow musicians and audience want you to succeed and to learn and grow.

2. Know your key range for each song you do

Singers communicate in the same key as pianos – and this key description has the prefix “Concert.” Nothing burns the biscuits of instrumentalists the way having a singer come up and not know his/her key does. It wastes time on the bandstand to have the pianist or guitarist play a few chords over and over for the vocalist to try and see if it feels right. Don’t do that. It is a big no-no. Before you show up at a jazz jam, determine what key is comfortable for your body for each song. If you do not play an instrument, find a coach or friend who does and can help you determine the name of the key for each number.

Also, have a little flexibility. Your vocal chords and body may do the most fantastic job on a number in the key of concert C sharp – but the corresponding key and fingering requirements for some of the instrumentalists could be one of their more difficult ones. A singer can certainly move up or down a half-step or possibly a whole-step without becoming a croaking frog. Let the instrumentalists know this and they may suggest an alternate which makes it easier for them. Remember, the easier that the technical aspects of playing are for your fellow musicians, the more energy they can put into complementing your singing!

Fake Books Provide Tons of Charts

3. Have a few songs prepared – lyrics

I have sung for years as an entertainer at senior citizen clubs and in assisted living facilities. My program is always totally in my control: a list of songs done in the order I planned, with a taped accompaniment (think karaoke), and, of course, entertaining commentary and transitions between numbers. The only variation in all the programs might be how long I stop the tape between numbers and how I interact with each specific audience. Note that I always knew exactly what the taped piano or synthesizer would sound like.

BIG difference at a jazz jam. Your fellow musicians on the bandstand may or may not know your song. They have varying abilities as sight readers. Either way, they are improvising and creating music on the spot. You, as a singer, have NO idea whether they will get all the chord accompaniments in the right spots. Or, whether the correct chords and harmonies will be expressed as a block chord or as an arpeggio (a sounding of the notes of a chord one after the other in rapid succession, instead of simultaneously) or other riff. Your brain will be constantly bombarded with strange input.

This means that the part of your conscious brain which you may have used during a performance to retrieve, for example, a phrase of lyrics not solid in your memory is now very busy integrating all the novel accompaniment happening behind you. There are no longer spare brain cells for lyric retrieval.

Therefore, KNOW ALL LYRICS SOLIDLY! Carry a cheat sheet of the starting word for each line in your hand if you must, but do not count on strategies that worked for you in other singing situations to work in a jazz jam.

Piano in the Rhythm Section of a Jazz Band

Classic upright piano.
Classic upright piano. | Source

4. Have a few songs prepared - charts

There is a saying about the word “assume.” It is to the effect that assuming makes a donkey out of you and of me. Your fellow musicians come from all walks of life and musical backgrounds. A song that you might “assume” absolutely everyone knows can be a “huh?” for others. (I learned this the hard way.) What you must do is to bring 2 or 3 paper copies of an arrangement of your song in the key you have already determined works for you. This helps reduce (not eliminate) harmony surprises for you as you are singing away. The instrumentalists will return these papers, called charts, when your number is finished.

A Start

These are just a few pointers to get you going. Singing and improvising at a jazz jam is heavy-duty brain candy. It can bring many delightful surprises and learning moments. Be thankful and appreciative for your fellow jazz cats and if you find it to be a fun experience, you will probably get a system and comfort level that makes your songs fun for everyone there.

One photo and text copyright 2013 Maren E. Morgan. Maren has the courage to put herself out there and expose herself in order to keep on learning...try it, you may like it, too!


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    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks. I certainly know a lot of jazz cats!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Awesome and so well explained in detail and most informative about jazz