Close your eyes for a moment, and you can almost imagine yourself in a smoky Georgetown jazz club, emerged in the depths of musical expression. Now open your eyes, and you will find yourself in the basement of the Academic Center on a Friday afternoon, amid the swirling sounds of the GW music department’s weekly jam sessions.
Each Friday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in room B120, professors and students take turns jamming on jazz standards before a sea of student listeners. With professors Peter Fraize on the sax, John Abertson on the guitar, Jim Levy on the piano, Ricky Loza on the drums and David Marsh on the bass guitar, the improvisational tempos of jazz fill the room of young and old listeners. With a simple beckon of Fraize’s finger, students are called up to perform.
Beginning music students are required to show up, but upper level music students are required to participate. If a problem needs to be immediately addressed during a jam session, professors will stop the song to give a quick tip and then let the melodies fall into place.
“This music is the backbone of American culture, our totally unique invention,” Fraize says as instrumentalists reorganize between numbers. “Jazz music is not instantly digestible like pop. We are creating music spontaneously, from within.”
From behind the rhythms of blues and jazz rises a sultry voice reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald. The voice belonged to special guest Sharon Clarke, who sang for nearly an hour Friday. Hailed as the “best jazz singer in Washington” by The Washingtonian magazine, Clarke is merely one of the many professional special guests invited to jam right along with the players.
“Jazz is an individual art,” Fraize says. Bringing in special guests helps introduce new perspectives of musical approaches and gives the students variety, he says. Also, each week’s lesson-within-a-concert emphasizes a new musical style. Some upcoming sessions include tango, Miles Davis, John Scofield and the three streams of be-bop. New percussion techniques will be exhibited through upcoming Latin music sessions.
For musically inclined students on campus, the jam sessions are a chance to break through the wall of nervousness and simply get up and perform. Vocalist Jamehl Lillie-Holtand approached the microphone shy but learned to sing, exposing a private passion and emotion, she says.
“Playing music is more personal than writing a paper, but once you get up and do it, you find that it is easy,” she says.
Beyond overcoming performance shyness, simply playing with a diverse group of musicians helps students overcome their stylistic challenges. Freshman Karl Bezak, a saxophone player, was considered the “big fish” in high school, but at GW he discovered he still had a lot to learn.
“I thought I knew a lot, but, when I came to college, I discovered that people were really talented, and there are many things I just don’t know,” he says. “I am on the road to a good foundation though.”
Observers, musically inclined or not, unanimously describe the atmosphere in one word: free.
“You can just walk in and out,” Bezak says. “There is no cover, and people are very receptive.”
Friday afternoon jam sessions in the music department are a welcome relief to many students who love jazz or just love to learn.
As Sharon Clarke sings, “We ain’t got time, so shake your shimmy.”