By Joshua Sirotiak | Special To THE OBSERVER
From 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday afternoons since the beginning of March, the William A. Carroll Amphitheater in Land Park has become a classroom. Several musicians, mostly men in their 20s, have been honing their craft, providing entertainment for anyone who happens by. They seek fluency in a language that has been declining in usage for generations — one that used to dominate bandstands nationally and worldwide. Many would call this language “jazz,” but to trumpet player David McKissick, that term’s outdated.
He describes his music as “BAM,” or Black American music. “A lot of people like to call what we do ‘jazz’,” he said. “Or you know, hip-hop, R&B, whatever. I call any form of music that I play BAM because it’s rooted in Black Americans. I say that to pay homage to the Black Americans who came and went, who lived and breathed for this music.”
“It’s sad,” said McKissick, “to see so many people take the music of Charlie Parker, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you can essentially break Charlie Parker down to 13 licks.’ Well, no, he was a Black American and had to deal with a whole lot of other things that went into that. So he’s not just 13 licks. You know, he’s a whole-ass person.”
McKissick, 23, who leads the Sunday jam sessions with his band The David McKissick Trio, or “DMT” for short, grew up in North Sacramento. From an early age he was drawn to music, toying first with a Casio keyboard, transcribing melodies from video games. When a neighbor moved out, McKissick’s family inherited their upright grand piano. They moved the piano into their garage, and every day for six years David would spend time getting to know the instrument.
“I didn’t get into trumpet until I moved to Vegas,” said McKissick. “It was my sophomore year in high school. I started on the euphonium and trombone.” Then McKissick got a surprise. “I was just playing around with a trumpet, just randomly one day, and the mariachi instructor walks in – Daniel Valdez – and he sees me playing trumpet, goes to my band director, and they both come back out. And they’re like, ‘All right, you’re just playing trumpet now.’”
McKissick’s fellow musicians at the park, regardless of their own race, tend to agree with his use of the term BAM.
“That’s just giving credit to the fact that that music came from Black culture dating back to, you know, the spirituals, African music, all that stuff,” says Samuel Phelps, a White bass player and regular attendee of the Sunday sessions. “It’s all a clear thread to where it got to today. But it’s music that is for everybody. And anyone can play it. It’s good to pay tribute to the fact that, when you’re talking about most American music you’re talking about Black American music.”
The jam session has been integral in the jazz world since the music’s inception. McKissick said it began when musicians coming off of gigs wanted to play, but not for an audience.
“Today’s jam sessions are bridging the gap between the lineage,” he said.
Phelps said the sessions are vital outlets for improvisational players to be spontaneous.
“It’s really a great place for musicians to tap into their community, see how they measure up against other musicians, show off their stuff, get better at their instruments — all that stuff,” he said. “If you’re a musician that can play, and you know the jazz vocabulary, you can go to any city in America, or the world, and you can go to the jam sessions, and next thing you know you’ll be getting gigs. You’ll find the community you need to find. And it’s really a litmus test of the [health] of a music scene.”
Judging by the music on display at the Land Park jam session, the Sacramento music scene is vibrant.
McKissick plans to go to New Orleans for a month at the end of June to connect with other musicians and tap into the city’s wellspring of Black American music. He’s uncertain whether he’ll have someone run the Sunday sessions in his absence. But when he returns he intends to keep things going “until it gets too cold out.”
In the meantime he wants everyone to know, “BAM is for the people. Black American music is for the people. Period.”