Let's say you're a jazz musician without a band. You're playing coffeehouse dates in a solo or duo format, always wedged into a corner-usually in close proximity to dueling coffee grinders-and the only clientele gracing said coffee shops are newly pubescent, zit-zappin', Goth-grubbin' kids with black dye running down their foreheads. And let's say you've played at about every coffeehouse in Orange County, but it feels like you've only played one . . . over and over.Take heed: every Sunday night from 7:30 to midnight, Steamers Cafe has the hippest, hootin'est jam session in OC-dom. Hosted by an auspicious trio, the session features Cecilia Coleman, a Hennessey Jazz Finalist, on piano; Mark Gusek, who can be seen at a coffeehouse near you with the Jazz Midgets, on traps; and Bill Markus on the upright. This is a lot of talent for up-and-comers to stand next to, which is why weak players are quickly weeded out (see Darwin's theory of natural selection), so the business of quality jazz is always being attended to. That said, the atmosphere onstage is professional but relaxed, and all of the players are made to feel at ease and are given a chance to show their wares.A jazz jam is a precarious thing that has the potential to cave in on itself; because of this, some musicians like to "case the joint" before they decide to play at a club for the first time. But the jam at Steamers gives off impeccable vibes. This is a beautiful room in which to play or listen to jazz, with "a nice live sound no matter where you sit in the house," said Terence Love, club owner and jazz entrepreneur. On some Sunday nights, Love said, he has seen up to 60 musicians show up for the jam; on an average night, that number seems to be somewhere between 20 and 30. At the last jam, I was fortunate enough to run into Ramon Banda, who has played timbales with Poncho Sanchez for more than 20 years. (If you don't know who Sanchez is, stick a fork in yourself.) When Banda is between road trips, he often stops by the Steamers jam to check out the scene or sit in. "I don't know why this place isn't packed," he said, referring to the less-than-crowded house that night. "We play all over the country, and people would die for a place like this. . . . You get to hear top-quality musicians for the price of a cup of coffee. Shit, you can't beat that."Banda also has his own sextet, the Banda Brothers, which will appear at Steamers on Tuesday and March 24. "The Banda Brothers play Steamers because they want to," he said. "Terence is a good friend of mine, and he treats us right." Banda had a little friendly advice for young players coming to the jam for the first time: "Woodshed tunes with a friend first, then come down. But the main goal is to have serious fun."After my chat with Banda, I looked up and saw Jimmy Ford sitting in at the kit. It was a beautiful moment; Coleman was playing some "out" harmonizations (the tune was "Solar"), while some dude was blowing bop colors on trombone. Ford was tilting the beat like it might be the last gig he would ever have the chance to play. It was nirvana coming through my ears, and I couldn't believe I hadn't paid a bone to see this! I made a beeline to Ford after he got offstage to get a few words with him. "This is one of the hippest places to play," he said. "[Steamers] opened up a lot of doors for national and international musicians." Ford has played with the likes of Lionel Hampton (for five years), Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer and Freddie Hubbard, just to name a few."Guys can come in and experiment," he said. "If it doesn't work, you go back and woodshed. An open jam session like this is a great way for musicians to network. . . . The heavy hitters come in and take care of business, so I come out here to collectively create with them."Ford also stressed the importance of educating audiences to jazz through exposure, saying that folks need to know the difference between the contemporary stuff you hear on 94.7-FM (the Wave) and true jazz: John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ralph Moore. Ford plays "pure" jazz regularly at Steamers with the Edmund Valasco Quintet. You can also catch him on Thursday nights at the Memphis Soul Cafe with the Todd Oliver Quartet.Indeed, Love only books straight-ahead or traditional Latin jazz at his cafe. "No contemporary," he said. I recommend any night of the week for live jazz at Steamers (and there's never a cover), but Sunday night is the shit! You never know who's going to show up; this jam session is a MUST ATTEND for jazz fiends who want to know what's really happening. It's an eclectic turnout of musicians who want to play even if it means getting their asses kicked onstage. If you're an up-and-comer and are having serious doubts about sitting in with the big boys, remember: the quickest way to get better at tennis is to play with someone who is better at it than you.Steamers Jazz Jam at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Every Sun., 7 p.m. Free. All ages.
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