There are many ways of playing "Autumn Leaves". How do jazz musicians know what version to play (there are many versions of the chord progressions for this song)?

What are their secrets to a spontaneous jam session?

Is playing an instrument or singing different from talking in a social situation in which you must figure out stuff all the time?

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    Practicing for a couple hours every day and having consistent, weekly, band practices aren't secrets, are they? What about studying music, music theory, and sight singing? Basically, hard work, practice, and study - those are things that make almost any endeavor possible. Is that a secret or does everyone know that? If that is a surprise to you, then I'll post it as an answer. – Todd Wilcox Aug 8 '18 at 13:38
  • True. But the question is about a jam session. 'Autumn Leaves' is very likely to be called on such an impromptu occasion. – Laurence Payne Aug 8 '18 at 13:50

Your question is deceptively simple. But jamming takes years to master. For a deep answer to this question I suggest that you get the 900 page "Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation" by Paul F Berliner.

To quote from the site:

A landmark in jazz studies, Thinking in Jazz reveals as never before how musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. Chronicling leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Paul Berliner documents the lifetime of preparation that lies behind the skilled improviser’s every idea.

The product of more than fifteen years of immersion in the jazz world, Thinking in Jazz combines participant observation with detailed musicological analysis, the author’s experience as a jazz trumpeter, interpretations of published material by scholars and performers, and, above all, original data from interviews with more than fifty professional musicians...

Thinking in Jazz overflows with musical examples from the 1920s to the present, including original transcriptions (keyed to commercial recordings) of collective improvisations by Miles Davis’s and John Coltrane’s groups. These transcriptions provide additional insight into the structure and creativity of jazz improvisation and represent a remarkable resource for jazz musicians as well as students and educators.

Berliner explores the alternative ways—aural, visual, kinetic, verbal, emotional, theoretical, associative—in which these performers conceptualize their music and describes the delicate interplay of soloist and ensemble in collective improvisation. Berliner’s skillful integration of data concerning musical development, the rigorous practice and thought artists devote to jazz outside of performance, and the complexities of composing in the moment leads to a new understanding of jazz improvisation as a language, an aesthetic, and a tradition.

Too much? Then the other answer is just one word: listen. You are absolutely correct in comparing improvisation to a musical conversation. Jazz musicians tend to use chord progressions as the common ground upon which they base their conversations--one notable exception being Bill Frisell, who uses the melody ("head"). I like to say that music is the only conversation that gets better when everybody talks and listens at once.

Chord progressions start with the lead sheets and a common jamming trope is to trade solos, 4s (four bar sections) or 8s (eight bar sections). Reharmonization of the bare-bones lead sheet chord progressions is something that the rhythm section negotiate among themselves.

If notes or chords clash more-experienced musicians will correct on the fly. Less-experienced musicians may have to stop and discuss.

Like playing guitar, you can get the bare basics in a few months but you will spend the rest of your life trying to master it.

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Picasso was once asked:

"Are you OK with doing a painting in a few minutes and then sell it a fortune?"

(I'm not sure the exact terms, but you get the idea).

He simply replied: "Yes! Because it did not take me a few minutes to do this painting. It took me my whole life!"

The same goes with improvisation. (Actually I think I get this story from the cover of "Kind of Blue").

Here is the secret of jamming: there is no secret! It's a life time of dedication and work! Until it becomes (you nailed it my friend) just like a second nature, like people talking together in a conversation.

Say we're going to have a conversation about.... Autumn Leaves! Yes! It's a good subject to talk about! Let's agree on a few premisses: a key, a tempo, a mood, maybe... OK, Saxophone, you come in first! Tell us what you think about Autumn Leaves, then Piano... Nice but that was without counting on what the Drums had to say!!

Sons Mélés, by Michel Portal, is a fantastic example of this kind of conversation between musicians. Listen to the Bass and the Guitar having an argument, and how the Clarinette pacifies the situation!

A life time of work, a life time of music...

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There's a basic chord structure to 'Autumn Leaves' without which it wouldn't BE 'Autumn Leaves'.

Here's one common way to phrase the head (forget about the 5/4 introduction, and page 2 is missing):

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Or you can just plough straight through:

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Then you start listening. Some rhythm sections will delight in 'substitutions'. Others will play more simply. But they need to play something that COULD support the melody.

Jams can be like conversations. Except that everyone needs to LISTEN to everyone else :-)

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  • Any audio examples of these? – avi.elkharrat Aug 8 '18 at 14:36

There may be different keys to play something like Autumn Leaves in, but there is a basic chord structure to which most players adhere. In a jam session, the key will be agreed upon(obviously everyone in the same key sounds better!), the tempo and feel need to be established, and away we go. If there is only one chordal player- generally guitar or keys - then the first time round, they'll either stick to the basic pattern, or put in any changes (tts, etc.) which the other players will pick up on, as it's important they are aware of the chords (changes) when it's their turn to solo. There maybe a time honoured order for each soloist, or the baton may be passed around by a glance in someone's direction.

It's all very well being a great improviser, but using eyes and ears is just as, if not more, important. Listening to what's going on, being aware of when to put in a supportive flurry, without crowding out the soloist, is so necessary.

If, as you suspect, there's a completely different harmonisation to go with the melody, firstly, after the initial verse, it ceases to be Autumn Leaves, and could be any old thing, as without the basic, very well known sequence, those Autumn Leaves are dead...

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On a "blues harp" (a harmonica) there's no way to play the VII note when you're in the "cross harp" position. So when the chord progression gets to V, and you really wish there was a nice VII, you just don't have it. You need to do something else.

I've heard this described as "being stuck in a corner". But "improvise" is another word for "doing something else"... everybody knows the performer wants that note--- what's he or she going to do instead?

I suspect that a great deal of the fun of jazz is showing off--- individuals bringing something to the table that they think is really fun and finding an appropriate time to present it for the group's benefit.

With the harmonica example, the performer is constrained (artificially) by the instrument and by some felt desire for a missing note... and the audience, together with his or her co-performers, get to see whatever invention or secret trick the performer has in his or her back pocket instead.

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Jazz is arguably primarily about improvisation and self-expression. However, when you get multiple instrumentalists (vocals are an instrument) playing together, you need to have at least some common ground, otherwise you have free jazz, which a lot of people don't find appealing. That common ground often is the progression of chords associated with a given well-known song (often referred to as "changes"). Once everyone agrees to the same changes (which can be relative: A minor to D dominant to G major is essentially the same as C minor to F dominant to Bb major; this allows people to play the same relative chords of a song in different keys), everyone gets to decide how they play their tune; the bass player walks, or plays half notes, or plays on 1 and 4 only; the drummer does a simple swing cymbal ride, or hits with the bass player, or swirls the brushes on the snare; the piano/guitar player play more harmonically, more melodically, or alternate; and the soloist decides whether or not, and by how much, they abide by the "traditional" melody. This is all before we get to any "solo" section, and everybody is improvising. It's a LOT of practice and memorization to allow them to fluidly and seamlessly start playing in this manner.

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  • Bass is more likely to be 1 and 3 with something like Autumn Leaves. – Tim Aug 8 '18 at 16:52
  • If we're gonna get picky, at least for the beginning, it's 3 and the & of 4 =P ;). I just picked numbers to illustrate a point, not to instruct someone how they should 'comp on the bass. – John Doe Aug 8 '18 at 19:47

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