From the studio

Jazz musicians improvise at downtown open-mic night

Nalae White | Staff Photographer

Jazz Jam at Funk 'n' Waffles was born out of Melissa Gardiner's experiences in the New York City jazz scene while she was getting her master's.

Walk into Funk ‘n Waffles downtown on a Sunday, and the vibe instantly feels jazzy, even though no music is playing. Jazz musicians of all ages, from all over the city of Syracuse, gather at the venue every Sunday from 3-5 p.m. for an open mic night that revolves around jazz music. Jazz Jam has been occurring consistently since May of 2015.

One Sunday, the stage is lit up in purple and blue, and three tie-dyed backdrops hang from the ceiling behind the double bass, drum set and keyboard that belongs to the house band. Musicians sign in as they walk in and then begin warming up with various scales as they mingle with other musicians. Audience members find a seat at one of the many round tables that scatter the room, with either a glass of wine or a waffle in their hands.

The house band gets onstage and begins playing without introduction, led by a woman playing the trombone. Like almost all jazz tunes, the song is long and consists of solos from each of the musicians on stage. When the song ends and the crowd cheers and whistles, the woman introduces herself as Melissa Gardiner, the creator and coordinator of Jazz Jam. Gardiner then plays her last song with the band, Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me,” before opening up the floor to the other musicians.

Gardiner decided to create Jazz Jam when she returned to Syracuse after completing her master’s program at The Juilliard School in New York City. She recalled attending a local jazz jam as a high schooler living in Liverpool, NY, a jam hosted by peers at The Coffee Pavilion, a venue now called ProntoFresh.

Although she studied classical music in college, her experience at that jazz jam encouraged her to switch genres. Living in New York City, she said she loved having an abundant number of jazz jams to choose from every week. When she moved back to Syracuse, she was sad to see that nothing like those jams still existed, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“It’s just really important for a community to have a regular, weekly jazz jam because the best way to learn jazz is with other people,” Gardiner said, explaining that practicing by yourself only gets you so far.

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Jazz music is all about interaction because musicians hop onstage with people they don’t necessarily know. There is no sheet music, and musicians either work from memory or improvise, while making sure it sounds good with the other instruments who are doing the same thing.

Performers often ask Gardiner for other musician’s numbers, so they can put on gigs together, or form bands and collaborations.

Jazz Jam is not like a regular open mic night, because a house band is provided, and musicians can sign a list so everyone gets a chance to take the stage. With this list, everyone gets a turn and people do not have to be intimated by fighting for a spot on stage. Gardiner hopes this list encourages not only people of all ages to play, but also more women to perform, since it is a male-dominated genre. She makes sure that she is present and visible at each Jazz Jam in hopes that it will encourage more women to come out and play.

“I have people taking people taking out their horns after 20 years without playing,” Gardiner said, including people who have not played since high school but are trying to get back into the music.

As a trombone instructor, Gardiner has had high school students, past and present, come routinely to Jazz Jam. She said it is incredibly essential for young musicians to have this place as an outlet and gain this experience, if they want to continue jazz music. One of these students is 18-year-old trombonist Jake Lawless, who comes to the Jazz Jam every Sunday.

Although he has been playing since sixth grade, Lawless enjoys jazz more than concert band and Gardiner has seen a drastic improvement in his playing since he has been performing at Jazz Jam.

“It just lets me express myself more than concert band,” said Lawless. “In concert band, you’re reading and you have to play what’s written but with jazz you can do your own thing.”

Guitarist Drew Serafini goes to the jazz jam each week for a different reason. At 28 years old, Serafini has always focused on rock. But one day, he decided that he wanted to try something different and more challenging.

“What’s more challenging than jazz?” said Serafini, who also is attracted to the interaction aspect of a jazz jam.

At Jazz Jam, one will hear a variety of performances with an even wider variety of instruments: piano, bongo drums, cowbells and more. Gardiner hopes Jazz Jam will continue on for many years to come, even if she is no longer the coordinator.

Said Gardiner: “The greatest gift to me would be for the Jazz Jam to be happening, if I had to travel somewhere, to come back a year later and have the Jazz Jam still going on.”

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