well, not scared to just physically be there, but the thought of playing anything freaks me out. (esp since i'm in nyc) i'm really not at all close to being prepared to actually playing with people, much less people who are actually good.  so how do you bridge the gap?  lessons and practicing alone can only take you so far right?  is there a good way to find some good practice mates other than going to school?
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i don't know anything about playing in open sessions, as i've never done it, but maybe playing along with band in a box would get you some confidence to start playing with others.
the only way to beat performance anxiety of any form is to perform. you can try many different exercises (hypnosis, relaxation therapy, displacement/distraction techniques, beta blockers, etc.) but in the long haul the only methodology that is completely effective is the actual performance. i know from my experience that this is the only thing that has been effective for me.
i think you need to split the problem into two things, which it is, and focus on them seperately. one is that you lack experience playing jazz in a group context, and two, you lack experience performing in public. if you try to take on both at the same time, you could be setting yourself up for a pretty dissapointing experience.  

i think you have the right idea of finding some people to practice with outside of the open jam scene. i'm sure that somewhere in nyc there is a bass player who's at about the same level of ability you are who would love to get some practice in playing some tunes with a pianist. if you have a practice space that will allow for it, maybe hook up with a drummer and/or a horn player. have you tried craigslist? also you could see if any local music stores have a bulletin board, you could put something up and see what responses you get.

as for performing i agree with dennis, you pretty much have to just do it, flail at it a few times, and do it again, just like learning to walk or ride a bike.
thnx, maybe it's not so hard finding a practice buddy..  it's a strange thing because people what you see, are actually good enough to perform, so it "looks" like everyone is super good.  but then, i guess i have to remember that there are plenty under the hood in training, that i don't see, who i would probably feel more comfortable practicing with.  i'll check out craigslist.  thnx!
nothing wrong with jumping in and swimming with established the folks...you'd be surprised how playing with people that are "better than you" actually causes you to play better...put your ego in your back pocket and go have some fun:)
*with the established folks* (i'm a dyslexic typist)
all of the above plus spend a lot of time playing along with many  aebersold cds to get your ears and skills in shape.
i guess that's the thing.. i know for a fact my skills aren't in shape.  it's such a long time untill one can even start playing.. you know, lots of bases to cover.  but i guess it comes with the scene.
i agree with aebersold as one way to build confidence, biab is another.  in an open session just about everyone is going to be at different levels anyway.
if playing in this session is your goal then prepare yourself and go for it.
also, don't approach the jam session as a competition, many do. you can approach it as minimalist, meaning you intend to play a few notes as possible and just blend for the experience (think count basie). play sparse little 2 note chords very economically, you can lay out of there is a guitarist, you can pass when it's your turn to solo, or you can even play the head for your solo. you don't have to match what others play, you can take the music in some other direction, you can play outside when it's your solo, it's ny and you are not being paid for it.  nobody should really care what you do when it's your turn (not theirs) and if they do their priorities are warped or they are too controlling. life is too short for anxiety when things could be fun or funny instead.
one of the things to do before getting up to jam is to make a list of the songs that are most commonly played there. spend a few weeks studying the players and making your list.

once you can see the relative skill levels of the players, and have your list of songs practiced up you can go up.

even if you make up a set solo to the changes, nobody will know that you're not improvising.

but chances are that you'll get signals to other directions at which point you'll have to play it by ear anyway.
thnx again for the kind advice.  this is a big step esp knowing i don't have the basics covered, but it is something i want to accomplish one of these days, so that the steep learning happens.  i started jazz to break out of my studio production habbits, and number one on the list is the "get out and do it".

i'm working out my schedule to sit in at one of the sessions.  the timing is tough for a 9-5 (more like 10-7) since jams start around midnight..  but i'm sure there's lots to be learned from just being there.  that's what real instruments are about right?  real instruments, real people, real places..  i can't stop at just everything virtual.
being embarrassed at a jam session is something that even the greatest  
players have gone through.  stories go that drummers used to throw their cymbals at bird when he first started sitting in at jam sessions because he was so bad.  so at some point you just have to jump in even though it might not be complete pleasure the first time.  we have all done it.  one name for it is "payin your dues".   you just have to understand
when you are done playing some really creepy guy like me might say to  
"son you really suck",  "give up".  or you might get a guy like whacky who has held on to some of his humanity throughout all his carreer that will say something like  "good job son, keep groovin"  you just gotta now when you leave the stage which ever one of us you heard it does not matter... we are both just washed upmiserable old men.  what matters is you did it you jumped in for the first time and it will be better the next time.
for what is worth, i got my first (and so far only) experience playing in a group setting when a neighbor at my community pool started to practice his mandolin pool-side a couple of summers ago (he was just starting to learn, as was i).  another neighbor eventually joined on guitar, and i asked if i could bring my keyboard.  when pool season ended, we started going to each other's houses once or twice a month, and eventually had even more people join (several more guitars, a harmonica, a "percussionist", and finally a bass).  most of us range from novice (me and the mandolin) to intermediate, but we have at least 2 "pro" or semi-pro players, who are just in it to have a fun night out every couple of weeks.  not much jazz in our typical jam play-list (mostly folk, rock, and blues), but i've definitely learned a lot about playing along with others (as well as other musical tips from the more experienced folks), and have also developed a lot more confidence playing in front of others (including the rest of the pool during the summers).

obviously, this won't work for everyone (you might not have a community pool or similar setting), but i guess the point is that there are probably people in your existing network of friends/neighbors who are probably itching for an excuse to grab the instrument collecting dust in the closet and get out once a month or so with "the boys" (or "gals") for a few beers and laughs (oh, and to play some good music as well).
ok, my 2 cent.  i've played a lot with biab and aebersold and they help but not as much as i would have thought.  biab in particular is much easier than playing with people -- it doesn't care if you mess up of course but it's also simpler than the aebersold.

i've played with a trumpet player every couple of weeks for about a year and recently had my first outing with a drummer (pro) and bass player (high intermediate maybe).  it was fun but for me i'd want to do that a lot more before i went for an open session.  i had troubles with time and form that i didn't think i had.  i didn't know many of my songs as well as i thought i did and so on.  we will do more of this and i look forward to it but i want to be at least comfortable with this trio before venturing out (if i ever do -- my main goal is just playing with folks on some regular basis). i think the only thing that prepares you for playing with people is doing it so for me it's best to find a very relaxed setting for now to get some experience.  

i do my best to chronicle this on my blog here on ljp.
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