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Harlem Keeps Jazz Traditions Alive Amid Pandemic - Cat Smith

HOST, ARCELIA MARTIN: Jazz clubs are reopening, and that means [BEAT] jam sessions are back. But a session is more than just a performance, it’s a building block of jazz culture. Part talent show, part networking event. They give young musicians a chance to learn from older, more experienced players. And sessions were made famous right here in New York City. Cat Smith has the story of how musicians are keeping that tradition alive in the pandemic.

(Clip of live jazz.)

CAT SMITH, BYLINE: Red lighting glows inside Minton’s Playhouse on West 118th Street in Harlem. Tables covered in white linen are spaced wide, for Covid safety. The club was closed for almost a year, but this spring, it finally brought back its legendary jam session. That’s a live, improvised show, where anyone can take the stage.

SMITH: It’s 9 o’clock at night. Josh Morris is playing trumpet with the band. He’s 15, and he’s here with his mom. But he looks older in his black fedora hat. He travelled here from Washington, D.C., to jam with musicians he’s never met before. They’re all much older than him.

JOSH MORRIS: There was just so much knowledge coming out of their horns, and coming out of their mouths when I talked to them. They have so much to say, and they just want to teach you.

SMITH: Until recently, musicians weren’t allowed to jam in tiny, windowless jazz clubs. Instead, they’ve mostly been playing online. Because of the pandemic, up-and-coming artists like Josh missed out on practicing in front of an audience. And they weren’t mingling with older musicians who could hire them for gigs or give them tips on their playing. But that’s not the only reason Josh is here tonight. Minton’s has a famous past.

MORRIS: I could feel the history. Jamming with other people is amazing, but jamming in a place like this...

(Clip of bootleg recording from 1941 Minton’s jam session.)

SMITH: Minton’s helped change jazz forever. Its jam sessions were a product of the World War 2 era, when jazz was simple and danceable, like a pop song. Back then, most musicians played their gigs in huge bands in ballrooms and dance halls. It was their job to entertain with catchy tunes everyone knew -- and that could get boring. So, they came to small clubs -- like Minton’s -- for a break. Here, only four or five guys played at a time. They created new sounds onstage that weren’t written down. The music was totally unique every night. But at the time, casual listeners might have found it odd.

SCOTT DEVEAUX: It's music that was created by musicians for other musicians.

SMITH: Scott DeVeaux is a professor of jazz history at the University of Virginia. He says the sessions at Minton’s pushed the boundaries of jazz. That’s partly because the club’s house band in the ‘40s was epic: Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clark, sometimes Dizzy Gillespie. And things could get snobby. These players didn’t want to waste their time on musicians who couldn’t keep up. DeVeaux says they had some brutal methods to weed out amateurs.

DEVEAUX: Things like playing at a faster tempo, things like playing over more complicated chord progressions. So they would just kind of ritually humiliate them.

SMITH: Jennifer Jade Ledesna became artistic director at Minton’s during the pandemic. She says, jam sessions are still pretty cutthroat. But she’s trying to make them kinder, to help newcomers rise and excel.

(Clip of live music.)

JENNIFER JADE LEDESNA: We’re here for each other. Let’s brainstorm and create something in love, not competition, not ego. It’s like, yo, guys, you’re all here together, you gave your life to this jazz, because it’s a cause. It’s American music.

SMITH: Which is why the club is so happy to welcome 15-year-old Josh from D.C.

(Clip of Minton’s owner Ralphael Benavides introducing Morris.)

SMITH: Josh says being onstage with his trumpet again woke him back up, creatively.

MORRIS: It’s like a relief. Just to get this exposure, playing with other people, and people like this, who are so good, who kind of can help influence my playing. ‘Cause now I’ll go home and think about what happened tonight and work with it.

SMITH: He left Minton’s with a bunch of new phone numbers and emails, for the next time he’s in town. Cat Smith, Columbia Radio News.


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