Most Popular Jam Session Tunes

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I was invited to a jam session the other day by my friend Nick, a bass player. He wanted me to come over and help him work on some standards. Normally, I’d be all in for a good-old-fashioned jam session, but this one came with a catch. He wanted me to bring my guitar, an instrument I had only recently started playing. This made me nervous.

As an improviser, I am not nearly as fluent on guitar as I am on trumpet. There is a certain vocabulary one builds up over time in learning to play an instrument, certain lines that will work their way into one’s fingers or licks that will become engrained in one’s head. I certainly had those things on trumpet, but as a guitar player it can be as though I’m trying to form full sentences without even knowing the words.

I thought I’d do some preparing. A few days prior to the jam session I got to thinking about what kinds of standards musicians typically play during informal get together. My initial reason for doing this was so that I could start memorizing the chord changes. But as I ran through the list of my own favorite jam session tunes — the ones I used to call as a trumpet player — I began to wonder whether their appeal was universal. I wanted to know if people in other jam sessions were calling those tunes as well, or if my personal taste in jam tunes was a sort of musical vocabulary I had built up over time.

I think it can be safely assumed that, at one point or another during the session, someone will call for a blues. But what blues will it be? I usually call for “Bags’ Groove,” because the melody is easy to remember and the changes aren’t as complex as other blueses like “Freight Trane” or “All Blues.”

I also like to call a rhythm changes tune, and “Oleo” has long been my go to on that account.

For Latin tunes, St. Thomas is almost always played at the jam sessions I go to, as is “Blue Bossa” and “A Night in Tunisia.” “Afro-Blue” is a close second.

“So What” gets called a lot for modal, and “My Romance” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” are the two ballads I hear requested the most.

But here’s the thing: I’m wondering if these tunes, or better yet, my decision to call these tunes, could have been shaped by  factors other than personal taste. Could they have perhaps been influenced by agents like geographical location, choice of instrument, or age? I’m 25 and grew up on the East Coast. I’m a lapsed trumpet player who switched to guitar but secretly wants to be a bass player. Do these things matter in the songs I choose to call during jam sessions? Or am I thinking too hard about these things? Both?

That’s something to ponder. In the meantime, here’s a list of the top 10 tunes I hear requested at jam sessions. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start. What I think is more important is how it compares to yours.

1. St. Thomas

2. Bag’s Groove

3. Four

4. Oleo

5. A Night in Tunisia

6. Solar

7. Blue Bossa

8. My Romance

9. Someone to Watch Over Me

10. So What

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