The pulse of a dance beat from a pop song trickles from unseen speakers and bounces softly off the wooden doors that line the walls of lounge. Students sit together at circular tables, working on group projects. Some gaze up at the sports program on a television above. A man snores in an armchair. The patrons seem oblivious to the activity occurring at the other end of the room, where we have been setting up drums, a piano, an upright bass and other instruments.
I stand at the microphone, poised to make an announcement, taking in the scene. A wave of indignation swells as I wonder why the students aren’t facing us, waiting with hopeful eyes for the session to begin. I take a deep breath and the feeling passes as I remind myself that it’s a Thursday evening at Nordy’s, in the basement of the student union and students are working diligently to free up their Friday and Saturday evenings.
As I make the informal announcement that the jam session is beginning, many of the patrons look up at me with surprise. I hear one of them murmur, "I didn’t know there was a band playing tonight!"
I introduce the host of the evening, Ryan Salisbury, an undergraduate guitar player at the University of Pittsburgh. Ryan has hand selected a short repertoire for the house band of myself on bass, Dan Leon on drums, and Alex Landis on piano that includes selections from his guitar heroes: George Benson and Grant Green. On the first tune we take some time to gel, this being the first time the four of us have played together. On the second and third tune, the solos start to stretch out and the audience becomes more engaged. While playing, I look up occasionally to take inventory of observers. Familiar faces slip into the crowd, and I greet them with a nod while still walking bass lines.
After we play a good four songs, Ryan announces that the jam session has opened, and some of those familiar faces come to the stage. David Chen takes over for Landis on the piano, and on his request, we play a free form improvisation that goes on for several minutes. Kevin Lynch comes up on the drums next, and him and I do a duo version of a Snarky Puppy song.
The environment for this jam session is friendly and laid back. The patrons continue to work on their projects, watch TV or shoot pool, yet occasionally I can see them moving to the music. This reveals the function of the session less as a show for the public and more of a hangout for musicians.
The momentum of the night slows as I am left on stage with Dan; Ryan and Alex are hanging off stage with friends. Dan corrals them back on stage to play a few tunes to close out the night. In its yearlong existence, the Nordy’s Jazz Jam has attracted all sorts of activities to Nordy’s including a student swing dance group that broke out in full dance and implored us to play faster to fuel their twirling bodies. On this particular night its the normal draw of musicians to hang and a few passersby surprised to hear live music. When the night ends, there is no money to be exchanged, just gear to move, hands to shake, and dorm rooms and apartments to head back to.
For more information about Jazz Jams next semester, keep an eye out on Facebook!