The Art of the Jam, Part 2

Publish date:

Welcome back to Berklee Bass Babylon. Last time (March ’18), Victor Wooten and I offered tips on how to make spontaneous onstage jams sound like written compositions. Let’s finish up that idea.

Vic In some jam situations, there will be multiple musicians playing the same instrument, such as multiple bassists, horns, vocalists, or chordal instruments. In this case, make sure to trade roles. For example: If I’m playing the bass part at the start of the song, I should encourage another bassist to take over at the next section. This will instantly add new dimensions and dynamics. Taking turns trading back and forth and accompanying different soloists is extremely fun and can be treated like a game. Just remember to keep it musical.

Singers who jam (especially in jazz) often choose to “scat” sing. That’s okay, but you should realize, at that point, that you’ve taken on an instrument role, and there are usually enough instruments already. So, here’s your challenge: Come up with lyrics. Improvise them on the spot if you have to. They don’t have to be good, but lyrics will create a “subject” for the song and for the listeners to latch onto. Keep them simple so everyone can learn them and so that you can remember them when the verse or chorus comes around again. Think about it: The Beatles made a hit out of singing “She loves you—yeah, yeah, yeah!” over and over again. Creating lyrics, even basic ones, is much more powerful than only scatting.

Steve The most important skill, the key to any of this working, is listening. To listen well, one needs to develop a vocabulary that involves ear training. This includes the ability to name, on beat, the various diatonic intervals of a major scale and also to be able to identify the four basic chord types: major, minor, diminished, and augmented. I have seen students go from “zero to hero” with this level of ear training in less than a week of deliberate practice. Then, when the bass notes or the chords change, you will hear it immediately and know exactly where to go. Again, the key is to listen first.

Vic A famous musician once reminded me that I have two ears. He said, “One of them is for you, but the other one is for the rest of the band.” That is a lesson I will never forget.

Steve The listening concept can also be practiced as a group. In the middle of a song, stop and talk about who was listening to what. Can the guitarist sing the kick-drum pattern? Does the bassist know the lyrics? Does the drummer know what the pianist was doing with his left hand? Regardless of the answers, listening will be immensely enhanced as soon as the song restarts. And remember: Laying out is okay! Adding space is almost always a big plus for the music. It’s interesting that “listen,” with the letters rearranged, is “silent.”

Vic To create the most musical and enjoyable situation for all, jamming should be about teamwork. If one person musically turns left, we should all turn left. The “one for all and all for one” attitude is strictly followed in the world of improv comedy, and musical jam sessions also benefit from following this code. Try using these approaches the next time you play with other musicians. Then, pay attention to the compliments you get.

Developing these skills can take your musicianship to new and exciting places, and it can give you a sense of musical freedom. Jamming in this way can also be used as an excellent songwriting technique. Guaranteed: Using song forms, improvising simple melodies, and coming up with lyrics will cause every jam to emerge as a new song. And, applying these jamming skills in non-jamming situations can awaken songs that have been played hundreds of times.



Steve Bailey is the Chairman of the Bass Department at Berklee College of Music and the grandmaster of the fretless 6-string as a veteran sideman, author, educator, and solo artist. In addition to touring with Victor Wooten in Bass Extremes, he is at work on his next solo record.


One of the most influential bassists of the last 25 years, Victor Wooten is a member of the Berklee Bass Department faculty. In addition to running his numerous camps (, he is touring in support of his latest album, Trypnotyx.