An unlikely match at the UI Jazz Jam, hosted at Elray’s

The UI Jazz Jam is a monthly event held at Elray’s Live and Dive that showcases teachers, students and the public’s jazz skills. Featuring jazz music ranging from modern to funky, Jazz Jam is the place to go for a real-world jazz performance experience.

A University of Iowa academic program and a downtown dance bar might seem like an unlikely pair, but for the UI Jazz Studies program, Elray’s Live and Dive makes the perfect performance space on the first Tuesday of each month.

On these nights, the Jazz Jam celebrates musicians of all kinds who come together to participate in a fun evening of jazz music. Director of Jazz Studies Damani Phillips said the monthly performances provide the perfect opportunity for students to practice their improvisational skills in a live room setting.

“You can see the spontaneity of music in its purest form, when you’re dealing with something that hasn’t been rehearsed in weeks or months,” Phillips said. “This is where your internalized knowledge of music meets the road and must be used in real time.”

Jazz Jam started about eight years ago, originally at George’s Buffet. He stayed there for several years until the event outgrew the restaurant and needed to find a bigger location. The session then moved to Gene’s, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Graduate Hotel.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Jazz Jam halted its sessions. When he was able to start again safely in August 2021, he had to find another new location.

Blake Shaw, a UI alum who plays double bass, had a stand-up gig every Tuesday night at Elray’s Live and Dive. After talking with Phillips and the staff at Elray’s, they decided that one Tuesday a month would be dedicated to Jazz Jam.

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Each event begins with a performance by the university’s jazz faculty, the “house band”. After their performance, they start bringing in all the willing participants, and soon everyone starts walking out.

All skill levels can participate in the jam session, and musicians can play anything from modern, funky, Latin, or folk jazz.

“It’s a time to come and hang out with people who play the same music as you, to learn and just to talk to get into the lingo and find out what’s going on,” Shaw said.

Although the Jazz Jam is not a school-sponsored event, students and faculty in the Jazz Studies program perform almost monthly. Jazz Studies teaching assistant Matthew White is a regular performer on the monthly Jazz Jam – he sets up the equipment and plays his saxophone.

As someone who has attended other jazz sessions throughout his career, White said the main thing he wants performers to take away is the understanding that the Jazz Jam offers a great opportunity.

“Someone who’s into music might come up to you that you don’t know – it might be a manager from another location asking, ‘Have you ever thought about playing somewhere else?'” White said. “There are a lot of opportunities that come up at jam sessions, you don’t know who’s going to show up.”

Phillips said jazz was never meant to be a “school thing”. Being able to have jazz sessions outside of the classroom is an important experience to have. Performing in front of an actual audience is something they can’t provide as well in the program, he said.

“We have no problem with it being in a bar — those are the types of places where music lives and exists,” Phillips said.

Elray’s Live and Dive allows students under the age of 21 to watch or participate in the Jazz Jam until 10 p.m., allowing everyone the chance to participate.

For Shaw, his favorite thing is the people he plays with. He said Iowa City is home to so many different musicians and he loves everyone.

“Once a month you get together with 20 or 30 other jazz musicians and listen to each other talk and see how things are going socially, not just musically,” Shaw said. “I think jazz sessions are a very strong and important thing to use as an excuse to get together.”

Ada J. Kenney