Now that we have all those little ducks in at least a ragged row, it’s time to face the giant monster duck in the room: no one knows for sure why an improvisational performance or informal session by a musical group is called a “jam session.” This usage, which dates back to the 1920s jazz scene, may be using the “pile on” or “pressure” sense of “jam” to describe the effect of many musicians playing together without a score. Or it may be invoking the use of “jam” in the “jelly” sense to mean “something sweet; a very nice treat,” a usage that dates back to the 19th century (“Without Real Jam — cash and kisses — this world is a bitterish pill,” Punch, 1885). I tend to think this “sweet treat” sense of “jam” is more likely to have been the source of “jam” in the musical world, given that we are taking about the slang of musicians, to whom a “jam” represents a welcome opportunity for self-expression.

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4 comments on this post.
  1. Topi:

    I’ve always thought that the difference of jam & jelly is that jam is made out of fruits, wheras jelly is made out of the juice. So jelly has no pulp in it wheras jam has.

  2. danny:

    it’s from Jamaica surely – like mash-up nowadays! jamaica always been a centre of music fusion

  3. Dafydd:

    For a musician, a “jam session” is a voluntary improvised treat, in contrast to a “bread and butter session”, i.e. paid work.

  4. Frank:

    The term “Jam Session”, referring to musicians congregating to play improvised music, came from the late night sessions in the 1920’s, when black and white musicians would get together, after their regular paying gigs. Bing Crosby, a member of “The Rhythm Boys”, who performed with Paul Whiteman, would join Bix Biederbeck, and others, at these sessions. They got a kick out of Bing, who had a problem clapping on the 2 and the 4, and would end up “jamming” the beat. A seminal moment in jazz, when whites and blacks weren’t allowed to play together in public, these became known as jam sessions.

    This is the origin of the phrase, documented in Mezz Mezzrow’s “Really The Blues”.

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