Jazz Jam Sessions foster growth, unite community

Posted on January 27, 2023

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Every Thursday evening starting at 7 p.m., you’ll find a crowd of UNC Greensboro students, faculty, and community members gathered at Oden Brewery for the UNCG Jazz Community Jam Session. 

For over 20 years, UNCG has hosted these weekly gatherings, sharing food, music, and good vibes. Steve Haines, Professor of Music and Interim Director of the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, says the jam sessions are soulful and funky: “It’s not at all academic. Children are running around dancing, people are hanging out with their dogs. The train rolls past as we’re playing, and we just roll with it. It’s a vibe I’m really proud of.” 

Jazz as ‘Social Music’  

These jazz sessions aren’t just a time to participate in and hear great music; they also build community. 

“Jam sessions are a common part of jazz culture,” Haines says. “They are a healthy way to learn and develop as a musician. Jazz music is very social music. Understanding the notes and how to play your instrument isn’t enough. We need to learn the history, economic, social, and communal aspect of this music.”

For those who participate regularly in the jam sessions, the real world experience and community support make a big difference. 

“Thursday sessions were designed to give us as students a chance to get real band stand experience and apply what we’re learning in class,” says alumnus Chrishawn Darby ‘17. “I believe this was essential in my personal growth as a student and percussion musician because it gave me a chance to experiment with different ideas I had been working on.”

Haines says there’s no question that the musicians who participate regularly attain excellence much quicker than those who don’t: “I’ve witnessed it. The jam session is a safe space, and they gain confidence along with skill.”

A UNCG Tradition 

Haines started the jam sessions in 2001 when he was the only jazz faculty member at UNCG. For almost two decades, musicians met at Tate Street Coffee House, a great place to share their love of music with the community. 

“Playing at Tate Street was a unique experience,” says Darby. “It’s such a small venue, so it was a very intimate space.”

But when the pandemic shut businesses down, the jam sessions were put on hold. Haines reached out to another venue that might allow them to start up again.

“Oden Brewery put picnic tables and large heaters outside with a stage,” says Haines. “We could resume our jam sessions safely, and we quickly attracted a couple hundred people each week. Nobody cared about the cold. The students just wanted to play, and the audience just wanted to get out and hear live music.”

A core group of three to four students and faculty serves as the house band and plays for the first hour before welcoming others to join in. By the end of the night, anywhere from 15-30 musicians, ranging from local middle schoolers to big names in jazz like Peter Bernstein and Jocelyn Gould, have graced the stage.

“What is remarkable,” Haines says, “is that most jam sessions have an attitude of eliteness, the feeling that you can only go up if you can really play, which obviously discourages a lot of people. Our jam session is the opposite. We’re an all-inclusive jam. It’s not about how well you play; it’s about the music. Virtuosity comes with experience and hard work.”

Benefits Abound 

Haines adds, “It’s such a joy to watch the range of skill and see people evolve and grow. Students are sometimes hired for gigs. But being part of a jam session is also about supporting the other musicians and making the soloist sound as good as possible. It’s very communal.”

The impact on the community is also quite clear. As Haines says, “Music is one of the reasons we can be defined as humans. There is no other species that creates music with different instruments. A lot of us live because of the arts. Many people come up to me after the jam session and thank me, saying they had a lousy day and our jam session turned it around.”

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Story by Amanda Saber, AMBCopy
Photography by Sean Norona

Videography by Grant Evan Gilliard, David Lee Row


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