An unlikely match up 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 faculty, students, and the public’s jazz skills. Featuring jazz music that ranges from modern to funky, the Jazz Jam is the space to go to to get real world jazz performance experience.


Contributed photo of Damani Phillips.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

A University of Iowa academic program and a downtown dance bar may feel 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 those nights, the Jazz Jam celebrates musicians of all kinds coming together to engage in a fun-filled night of jazz music. Jazz Studies Director Damani Phillips said the monthly performances provide the perfect opportunity for students to practice their improv skills in a live venue setting.

“You get to see the spontaneity of the music in its purest form, when you’re dealing with something that has not been rehearsed for weeks or months,” Phillips said. “It’s where your internalized knowledge of the music meets the road and must be used in real time.”

Jazz Jam began about eight years ago, originally held at George’s Buffet. It remained there for several years until eventually 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 it was safe for it to begin again in Aug. 2021, it had to find yet another new location.

Blake Shaw, a UI alum who plays the double bass, had a standing 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 the Jazz Jam.

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Each event starts with a performance from the university’s jazz faculty, the “house band.” Following their performance, they begin to bring up any willing participants, and soon enough everyone is jamming out.

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

“This is a time to come and hang out with people who are playing the same music as you, to learn, and just to talk to get into the lingo and find out what’s happening,” Shaw said.

While the Jazz Jam is not a school-sponsored event, students and faculty of the jazz studies program perform nearly every month. Jazz Studies Teaching Assistant Matthew White is a regular performer at 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 provides a big opportunity.

“Someone that’s in music could come up to you that you don’t know — it could be a manager from another venue asking, ‘Have you ever thought about playing elsewhere?’” White said. “There’s a lot of opportunities that happen at jam sessions, you don’t know who’s going to show up.”

Phillips said that 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 that they can’t provide as well in the program, he said.

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

Elray’s Live and Dive allows students under 21 to watch or participate in the Jazz Jam until 10 p.m., letting everyone have a chance to join in.

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

“Once a month you get to 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 that jazz sessions are a very strong, important thing to use as an excuse to get together.”