Culture | Open mic jazz: a primer

Accomplished musicians, look no further – Montreal has the scene you need

Montreal is the historic capital of jazz in Canada. Having birthed a plethora of famous jazz musicians, including Oscar Peterson, the city’s modern jazz scene facilitates the training and discovery of dozens more, whether through its famous international jazz festival and its vibrant jazz bars.

With this legacy in mind, some find it intimidating to try and establish themselves among such illustrious predecessors. But what you jazz-heads may not know is that Montreal is home to neophytes as well as celebrities. Indeed, a handful of smaller venues host weekly open-mic jam sessions that anybody can attend, provided they can keep up. Stephanie Lopez explored a few of these venues; below are her findings.

Upstairs

Upstairs hosts its weekly jam session on Monday nights at 10 p.m. Though the venue’s $5 cover may discourage some, the friendly staff and décor – cozy brick walls and candlelight – make up for the price of admission.

Drummer Jim Doxas, who coordinates the weekly event, opens the night’s proceedings with his trio, made up of saxophonist Cameron Wallace and bassist Adrian Vedady. A successful studio musician with a career in recordings for film and commercials, Doxas has been in charge of the jam sessions for two years. The trio’s favoured style of jazz is contemporary, but still remains rooted in the music of the forties, fifties and sixties. The trio’s line-up, however, is in constant flux, changing every month so as to give other players a chance at a regular gig.

Doxas maintains that the level of proficiency expected by the venue is high. Despite its standards, however, Upstairs remains quite accessible to newcomers; of the 25 or so musicians present when I visited, Doxas only recognized 10 as regulars. This ensures fresh, diverse attendance every week, attracting students and professionals from all over Montreal.

As for figuring out whether first-timers will meet his standards, Doxas relies on conversation to clue him into prospective players’ skill levels. “When you talk to [the musicians], hopefully you’ll find out about their capacity,” he explained. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen,” he added, “but this is very rare; I have around one night every year where I have to stop the [jam] and move on.” Doxas considers music to be a form of language, with jazz possessing a particular vocabulary. His job is to detect whether musicians understand this vocabulary well enough that they can successfully communicate live.

Diese Onze

Every Tuesday, Diese Onze invites amateur musicians to its spacious Plateau locale to accompany its house band through a number of jazz standards. The venue is the exemplification of a jazz bar, beautifully decorated with yellowish lights and exposed brick walls. Diese Onze attracts an older crowd – its regulars are usually out of school and over 25. Matching the crowd are the musicians, whose abilities generally outdo the expectations at Upstairs, making these jam sessions particularly memorable, if not as accessible.

As with Upstairs, the evening starts out with the house band, made up of Alex Bellegarde on the bass, Eric St-Jean on the piano, and Martin Auguste on the drums. Though the band specializes in swing, Bellegarde admits to letting a Latin influence seep into his playing, informed by his love of Cuban music.

Having managed the Tuesday night jam for 10 consecutive years, Bellegarde believes that Diese Onze’s appeal rests in its warmth: “it feels like a friend’s house; it’s an intimate space. Additionally, it is uniquely jazz.”

At Diese Onze, I ran into a musician that I saw at various venues throughout the week, Alfonso Arzoz. A young electric bass player, he’s recently moved from Mexico to Montreal and has already gotten involved in the jazz scene, making Diese Onze his home base.

When asked about the process of playing open-mic nights, Arzoz says, “you can come and talk to Alex. There are different ways; it’s usually first come, first served.” With regard to the preconditions for playing at an improv session, “the requirements are implicit,” notes Arzoz. “You need to have the necessary knowledge of basic tunes. Basically, if you do not know them, do not even try to participate.”

Commenting on his own selection criteria, Bellegarde claimed that he could get a sense of musicians upon spotting them. “There needs to be common harmony and tonality between the musicians for a successful improvisation session…. The jam needs to maintain the same quality as the set played by the house band.”

Grumpy’s

Last on the list is Grumpy’s, where the open-mic nights happen Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Located on Bishop south of Ste. Catherine, this spot attracts a big student crowd from McGill and nearby Concordia. Grumpy’s is more than a jazz bar – the venue also hosts blues, bluegrass, and poetry nights. The spot is homey, not posh. I felt like I was in a friend’s basement, with the bookshelf behind the stage, the old piano, and the soft lighting.

The guy running the soirée, Tom Eliosoff, acts as the house band’s leader and guitarist, pointing their jams in a bee-bop direction. The open jams, however, run freer here than elsewhere, accommodating for a wider skill range than either Upstairs or Diese Onze.

The student-filled crowd informs the feeling of the open-mic nights. Not only are the evening’s contributors younger, but the house band’s members are as well. The atmosphere is also far more relaxed, clearing the way for mid-set conversations.

Of course, there are other options open to eager student musicians. To learn more about jam sessions, I suggest consulting Voir, which runs a list of weekly open-mics. Otherwise, feel free to talk to other musicians. Get out into the world. The more people you meet, the more venues you’ll discover.


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