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Jam Session: Jazz hits a high note at Bay Street Theatre

Charles Certain plays the saxophone at the Jam

Charles Certain plays the saxophone at the Jam Session, held every Thursday night at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor through the month of March. (Feb. 25, 2011) Credit: Photo by Randee Daddona

Holding two fuzzy-tipped mallets in each hand, the vibraphone player taps aluminum bars feverishly, beads of sweat forming across his furrowed brow.

"Work it out!" another man shouts.

You could call it a jazz workout, but the occasion is known as "The Jam Session" - a weekly free night of improvisational jazz at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

On a recent Thursday more than 50 people sit at silver tabletops with glowing candles or stand near the bar, some swaying to the melodies with closed eyes. A 2-year-old dances on her mother's hip.

It's the kind of scene that drummer Claes Brondal envisioned when he started the series almost two years ago at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor.

"The Jam Session is a public performance, but it's also a workshop where musicians bring out new ideas," says Brondal, 36, of Sag Harbor. "If there's no fear, there's more room to create."

The house band (guitar, bass and drum players) plays the chords; local musicians make up their own solo melodies. While jazz is the foundation of the sessions, Brondal encourages soul, funk and occasionally hip-hop to show that "jazz is constantly evolving."

That's exactly what Mary Beth Kerstiens, 25, of Manorville learned, having arrived with a perception that contemporary jazz was like "elevator music or Kenny G kind of stuff."

"Now that I'm here, I really love it," she says. "When they're working off each other, each instrument is kind of taking the stage and shining."

Other audience members are equally impressed.

Says Myron Levine, 69, of Sag Harbor: "It's almost a religious experience listening to them . . . like watching some incredible sunset."

Dick Behrke, 74, a retired composer and trumpet player from Shelter Island who started playing his instrument again 12 years ago, says sessions have offered him “a new lease on life.”

“You can play at home and in a studio and rehearse, but it’s not the same,” he says. “You play differently with an audience.”

John Ludlow, 21, an alto saxophone player from Bridgehampton, agreed. “You surprise yourself . . .  all of a sudden sounds pop into your head,” he says. 

But perhaps most importantly is the “spirit in improvisational music” that permeates the room, according to bassist Peter Martin Weiss, 51, of Easthampton.

“The freedom of expression is about having a voice in the world,” he says. “Maybe it sends somebody home with an uplifting feeling.”

'The Jam Session'

WHEN | WHERE: 7 p.m. Thursdays through March 31 at Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor. Continues April 7 at Bay Burger, 1742 Sag Harbor Tpke., Sag Harbor

INFO: 631-603-6160,

COST: Free

Taking the A train to Mills Pond House

In a small art gallery room, young music students take turns improvising jazz tunes with professional musicians. The notes drift into an adjoining room where audience members listen, seated in folding chairs.

There are no frills here at Mills Pond House in St. James, where "Jazz in the Living Room" has been presented monthly by the Smithtown Township Arts Council for the past nine years. But, as one audience member tells series founder Francis "Ranny" Reeve - an 85-year-old jazz maestro and piano teacher from Coram - "There's blood in the music. It's not like pushing a button and getting perfection."

Audience members have the chance to “get inside a person’s soul, mind and heart” during an improvisation, says saxophone player Mark Gatz, 44, of Hampton Bays. “When he points to you and says, ‘preach,’ you better be preaching on your instrument. The whole rhythm section drops out and its just you."

Though musicians have cheat sheets that display melodies with chords, "you're telling the story your way," says Glenn Baldwin, a 66-year-old piano player from Northport. "The challenge is to tell it so it's coherent and interesting."

Reeve says children have been a central focus of the series since its inception 35 years ago, when Reeve and his wife, Georgia, held jams in their Fort Salonga living room twice a month. "I insist that you have kids, because if you don't have kids, the music is going to die!" he says.

Adam Hammer, 15, of Nesconset, has been playing the trombone with Reeve for four years - it took a while to adjust to the rhythms of the improvisation. "At the beginning, I didn't realize what to do," says Hammer, who lives in Nesconset. Now he relishes the unpredictability. "It's playing anything you want without feeling judged," he says.

Richard Bonzer, a 16-year-old saxophone player from Syosset, has taken several mental notes at improv sessions the last three years, where songs like “Take the A Train” and “Satin Doll,” are staples.

“I played most of the songs about 100 times now. I hear something a little different every single time,” Bonzer says, adding that the supportive environment boosted his confidence. “I feel like that’s my home now,” he says. “Everyone is very nice and motivating.”

And that’s the reason why Steve Witthoft, 68, a trombone player from Northport, has been playing at the sessions for the past 20 years.

“It’s home grown,” he says. “You get to see everyday people having a good time playing, and for the people who are there you get to see the progress.”

'Jazz in the Living Room'

WHEN | WHERE: 7:30 p.m. March 25 at Mills Pond House, 660 Route 25A, St. James. Continues once a month on various Fridays.

INFO: 631-862-6575,

COST: Free for listeners, $5 to play


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