A jazz jam is a thing of wonder to me. A thing of both mystery and delight.

Locally it happens in my neighborhood every two weeks (on Monday nights!), in a converted firehouse. You can count on piano, drums, and bass, along with the organizer-leader, veteran sax player Al Hamme. Admission is two-tiered: you either pay or play. I pay the $10, and so do the 15 – 30 others who find their way to candle-lit tables after stopping by the bar on the way in. Of course it wouldn’t be a “jam” unless some performers stopped by to join the house band for a number or two.

Last week my friend Bill Carter played piano most of the night, and saxman Mike Carbone took over for Al Hamme who was rehearsing elsewhere. Tom Whaley was the drummer, but I missed the name of the bass player. The evening would be great fun if that were the only band. They play some jazz classics, and now and then an original tune. And they are exceptionally good. Pros. But it gets even better…

Off to the side of the stage is a music stand where the other musical guests sign in. That night I counted two pianists, a drummer, another sax player, a trombonist, a flute player, and two singers. These are musicians who may have played for many years, maybe just for fun or perhaps professionally as teachers or performers. Yet often on that list are the names of much younger players (or singers) who are still in school, maybe high school or the university’s jazz studies program.  That was the case the other night.

As the house band opened their first set, I watched one of the more experienced “regulars” lead three young guys up to the sign-in sheet. That was a clue that this might be their first jam on the firehouse stage. As they headed to a table to await their call, I wondered how much courage it took to join in the jam. I assumed butterflies, pins and needles, and general jitters. My assumption or my projection? I was nervous for them. Most of us have waited anxiously for our name to be called, for our number to be up.

Minutes passed as Mike Carbone and company played, and then invited a couple of veterans up to the stage to join in. Eventually the young trombonist heard the call and joined the band. More spirit than polish, but that was OK. His solos were fine, with strong melody and some shaky improvisation. But good for him! He took the step, and as a sax-addicted friend once said about his own early gigs, he blew the butterflies out of the ax first, and then hit the right notes at the right time in the right rhythm…usually.

One of the old pros who rarely misses these jazz jams is an African-American vocalist whose treatment of standards is classic, as in Ella and Carmen McRae, with straightforward interpretation and some scat thrown in for good measure(s). When that much younger male singer took the stage for his debut among us, I wondered how many years it had been since the “old pro” had made her first trip to the microphone. How nervous was she then? Butterflies? Moxie? Now well-seasoned, she was relaxed and simply enjoying the spotlight, while we listened with smiles and tapping feet. Then when his name was called, the young guy distributed his music to the rhythm section, clearly not at all into the routine of the jam. He wasn’t even sure when to start singing after the instrumental intro to his song. And when he found his voice, it came off a Broadway stage, not a jazz club venue. Loosen up, I thought. Have fun. Swing a little!

The young drummer sat in a couple of times. I thought about how much easier it might be for him, not so much in the spotlight, but expected to keep the rhythm while adding some creativity to keep things fresh. No solos for him.

When the two hour jam had ended, I spoke briefly with Mike Carbone. “Who were those young guys?” I wanted to know. I had assumed they were some of his students, but he hadn’t seen or heard them before. I joked about their nervousness. Mike had been in their places when he was starting out, so he was not merely sympathetic toward them, but praised their efforts with enthusiasm. “Hey, that’s how we all started in this.” I guess they had made their first dues payment that night. Again, good for them! And for us.

And for jazz. Because the audience that night, as it is for most of those jazz jams, is like the congregation in an old mainline church: mostly gray haired, and over 60. Not entirely, but the clear majority. And jazz needs the young lions who are coming out of high school (and middle school!) jazz bands, who are studying jazz in university music programs, and who are gaining confidence from the applause that follows their riffs on the stages of school auditoriums and later in dimly-lit clubs and downtown bars.

One night I took my 10 year-old grandson to the jam. He may have been nodding his head to the music to humor me. But I’d like to think that he’s a jazz fan-in-training, watching his “Papa” groove on butterflies emerging from axes.