The jazz jam session. If you know what that means, you’re probably picturing a late-night back room where you don’t even think about getting on stage without a good amount of talent and even more guts, because every player there is ready to play you off the stage and they don’t really care if you never come back.
Then again, there’s the Sour Mouse, where the “Jazz by Jorei” Sunday afternoon sessions organized by Katherine Joyce-Reilly and Johnny Johnson are basically an alternative universe to that scene. Newcomers are encouraged no matter where their musical level is and if you sign up, you get to strut your stuff. It might only be one song, but it’s in front of a swinging house band with an appreciative audience.
Johnson and Joyce-Reilly are both veteran singers (jazz and R and B, respectively) who met ten years ago and decided to team up to produce a jazz session at Perks, a well-known club in Harlem. After moving around a bit they settled downtown into the Sour Mouse at the invitation of co-owner Aaron Ho, who loves having them there. “They have a passion for sharing music with others,” he notes. “We’re grateful to be working with people who, like us, want to give something back to the community.”
“We’re trying to create a supportive, positive environment,” says Joyce-Reilly, who has sung with Stevie Wonder and Martha Wash, among others. “We hear from the musicians and singers that they love coming here – that they don’t get that support at other open mics.”
Johnson, who spent some time singing with The Fabulous Aftabs – a group that opened for the O’Jays and the Delfonics at the Apollo – concurs. “You’ve got to lift people up! I learned that from my father and my uncle. Sometimes you’ve just got to say, you’re not there yet, but you can get there.”
The free sessions start around 3 p.m. on Sunday with a featured performer who is backed by the house band led by pianist Steve Niles with Motoki Mihara on bass and Rich Rodriquez on drums. Singers drop in and sign up to sing one or two tunes with the combo and sometimes end up getting their own featured slot. One of those lucky ones with an upcoming gig is Deborah Auer, who has nothing but praise for the setup. “The house band has a really nice groove, the singers and musicians are happy to see each other and the staff at Sour Mouse are welcoming and supportive,” she says, adding, “It’s been a great place to come back to singing since the pandemic!”
Johnson is just as happy to have her there, saying that “Deborah is great – she don’t need me to teach her nothing. She always brings something to the table.”
Frequently in the audience is Lamon Fenner, a DJ with a jazz radio show at WHCR who goes by the moniker “The Voice of Harlem.” He comes by because “it’s a good vibe. What stands out is that the players love the music and they reflect it. They’re not young Turks, they’re seasoned warriors.” At least one exception was 18-year-old Calvin Rey, on vacation from Seattle, who had read about the jam on the internet and showed up with his dad and his baritone sax hoping to play. Mike Young put him in the horn section and gave him a couple of solos. “I wanted to hear him play more,” said Fenner. “He reminded me of Gerry Mulligan.”
The audience also includes the people who have come to play pool or ping pong, as the musicians take up just a portion of the sizable basement space. There are times when the tip bucket gets passed around and Joyce-Reilly takes in more from the pool players than the jazz folks. “We were worried that the younger folks wouldn’t enjoy it, but sometimes I catch them dancing!” she says.
Adding to the atmosphere is the frequently changing art, curated by Evan Salton with input from Ho and contributions from local artists. It’s all part of the venue’s desire to connect with the neighborhood and give something back.
As for Johnson and Joyce-Reilly, it seems that they are in the right place at the right time. “There are always some problems,” Joyce-Reilly admits, ” but the best part is being immersed in music and art and seeing people enjoy it. It’s a lot of work but it feels good. It feels like the right thing to do.”
More info about Jazz by Jorei online at jazzbyjorei.com and on Instagram at @jazzbyjorei. The Sour Mouse is located at 110 Delancey St. can be found on Instagram at @sourmousenyc and online at sourmousenyc.com