It’s Friday. The noon sun shines down. One story below the sweltering concrete and asphalt of H Street, the cool blue notes of jazz creep their way to the surface.
Every Friday for the past 16 years, a small group of faculty members and students from GW’s Department of Music has gathered to play a few numbers for the Friday Jazz Jam Session.
For about two hours every week, the small group of musicians and their select audience transform the mundane practice room into a smoky, poorly-lit bohemian jazz bar.
After performing their practiced repertoire, the faculty members then hand the stage over to music students and guests who jam and improvise on numbers they often have never played before.
“I think the best way to learn is to watch other people (play jazz),” said professor Jim Levy, who began the sessions in 1986. “I personally have learned so much from watching people.”
Levy, the faculty group’s pianist, said he once picked up a piano method called “locked hands” while walking through a hotel lobby.
At the jam sessions, Levy said students learn by playing as well as watching.
He tells the story of Stewart Welch, a bass student who first attended the jam sessions so confident of his own skills that he would heed the advice of no teacher.
Levy grinned as he recounted how the jazz faculty set Welch up, calling on him to play along with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a notoriously difficult number. But the young student could not keep up, Levy said.
Through this experience, the professors taught Welch that regardless of a musician’s skill level, there is always more to learn, Levy said. By his graduation, Welch had become one of GW’s most skilled players and taught other players at the jam sessions, Levy said.
“He was the first student I ever looked up to as a person,” Levy said.
The jam sessions are not simply recitals. Students use their individual skills and test their abilities to play as a group.
“With the difficulty of playing improvisational jazz in a group, a certain amount of musical virtuosity is required,” said Professor Peter Fraize, the saxophonist and current leader of the group. “They’re reacting to you, and you’re reacting to them reacting to you.”
Beyond instruction, the jam sessions have a larger meaning for the students and professors who participate.
“We do this every Friday to keep the music alive,” Fraize said.
Special guests take part in the jam sessions at least three times a semester. Names such as Tito Puente, John Hendricks, Monty Alexander, Ronnie Wells, John Faddis, Andrew White and Paul Bollenback have made appearances.
“One of my more memorable moments was getting the David Liebman Quartet to come down here,” Fraize said. “He brought his whole group in here for not a lot of bread.”
The jam sessions often center on a theme or artist. On April 19, the session theme was Dizzy Gillespie and opened up with Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” a traditional-sounding jazz song with a subdued, mellow sound.
To Levy, who wrote his dissertation on the musician, Gillespie’s piece is more than just music.
“Dizzy was the last of the trumpet kings,” Levy said. “He was the baddest.”
Levy toned down the foundation with his piano part, allowing other players to shine. Fraize wailed on his saxophone, rising octaves higher than the other players as part of the quintet that day.
Next, the quintet played Gillespie’s arrangement “Manteca,” which marks Gillespie’s fusion of Latin and jazz sounds.
The song began with each instrument joining in one by one and building to a song even less subdued than “Con Alma.”
For its final piece, the quintet became a sextet as Pam Bricker joined them on vocals for an updated version of Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.”
After hitting their last notes, the musicians stepped down, transforming back from weathered and worn jazz veterans into the reserved and supportive teachers that they are other 38 hours in their work weeks.
“Jazz represents the best realization of the American ideal,” Levy said. “I don’t say that because I read it, but because I realized it.”