Play the melody!

By Don Mopsick

At the age of 23, I began to work weekends at resort hotels in the Catskill mountains of New York. By that time, I had already been earning money playing the trumpet and bass guitar for seven years. Eventually, I took up playing the bass full time, but during that period my only real interest was to become the next Clifford Brown, and Bebop was my creed.

Bebop, or Bop, was a jazz movement created in the 1940s by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Based at first on earlier jazz, the style explored new harmonic possibilities of familiar standard tunes and 12-bar blues by using substitute chord changes. The soloist improvised on the new chords (often of his own invention) using many, many notes, sometimes quite abstracted and far removed from the original tune, often played at double-time or nutty, fast tempos.

Most of the musicians I knew in the early 1970s who were my age and worked the Catskill hotels were similarly infected with the Bop bug. Our duties consisted of playing ("faking," or playing without written music) standard tunes for dance sets followed by a floor show. When called upon to stand up and solo, the temptation was to wail forth with our most righteous, fiery licks.

The customers, over 50 and, of course, hopelessly square to us hipsters, were not shy about complaining to the bandleader if such an outburst occurred. What they wanted to hear was what Gershwin, Porter or Berlin wrote, not some far-out, bad jazz.

The bandleaders were acutely aware of the problem. Very often, right before the job began, the leader would admonish: "When it's your turn to play a solo, I want to hear the melody. This ain't no jam session. Just play the tune for them, okay?" It was okay, we all understood that this was a matter of job survival.

Sometimes there was a late dance set, by the end of which most of the customers had gone off to bed. That's when the lid came off, and what we thought of as the "real music" began.

It was okay for a few years of summers and weekends, but then I moved on. My jazz sensibilities evolved as I became aware of a much wider world, in fact, an ocean of jazz. I became interested in playing the tuba and found myself in traditional jazz bands, learning "Jazz Me Blues," "Milenberg Joys," and discovering Armstrong, Jelly, Oliver, Bechet, and many others. I learned to value simplicity, purity, and above all the heartfelt truth of hard-swinging and stomping rhythm.

Finally settling on the bass fiddle as my instrument of choice, I got calls to play many different kinds of jazz, blues, pit bands, and generic jobs which are known in the music trade as "general business." I never lost my interest in trad and Dixieland and tried to seek out as many of those jobs as I could. In the fall of 1990, I got a call from Jim Cullum in Texas. His bass player Jack Wyatt had just died after a long illness, and would I be interested in coming to San Antonio to audition for the job?

I went, Jim hired me, and I'm still there.

Since 1992 the Jim Cullum Jazz Band has had a unique opportunity to serve on the faculty of the annual Stanford Summer Jazz Camp at Stanford University in Northern California. The Stanford Camp is a week-long immersion in the basics for instrumental and vocal students between the ages of 12 and 17. Since 1972, the umbrella organization, The Stanford Jazz Workshop has been presenting a variety of education and concert programs at Stanford.

Our teaching duties at Jazz Camp include the entire band performing a few classics of pre-war jazz made famous by Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, etc., along with a talk by Jim Cullum. This presentation is given to the entire student body as part of a class called "Jazz Tradition." Additionally, individual JCJB members conduct classes in ear training and master classes for each instrument, as well as private individual lessons.

As far as I know, Stanford is the only jazz camp in existence that offers faculty proficient in both pre- and post-war jazz styles. The majority of the faculty is Bop or Post-Bop oriented. A typical student ensemble will perform tunes made famous by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock such as "Milestones," "So What?," "Blue Bossa," etc. Our band coaches two student combos in simpler, more traditional fare. This year, our "advanced" student combo also prepared a separate program that included, among other Bop tunes, "Tadd's Delight" by Tadd Dameron.

Jazz Camp is a rare opportunity for two cultures of jazz, which are too often worlds apart, to rub up against each other. For me, the annual experience helps to crystallize my thoughts about what I believe to be the most important elements in all of jazz and, therefore, what are the most important lessons for the next generation of players.

When we first started teaching at Stanford back in 1992, I felt as a stranger in a strange land, as if the JCJB was a hermetically-sealed time capsule pushing its way upstream against a torrent of modes, complex chord-scale relationships, polyrhythmic explorations, and reverence for a spurious teaching device called the "blues scale."

By 2003 I felt that the seal had eroded considerably, and the message was finally diffusing out into the general camp population: good jazz doesn't have to be complicated, some of the best jazz ever played is based on simple three-chord tunes, and great jazz solos can be constructed on a series of simple melodies played in hot rhythm. In a word, jazz is fun.

In my bass master class, I've had the pleasure of witnessing the musical growth of a few returning students over a period of several years. One of the returnees had made a leap from last year, when he was an average bass guitar student, to this year, when he showed up playing some formidable bass fiddle and the promise of great things to come.

The camp lunch hour is given over to faculty concerts outdoors at the student center. Featured at one of these was an accomplished group of faculty players performing original music in a modal modern jazz style. A very energetic drummer played in the style of Jack DeJohnette, along with electric Fender Rhodes piano and amplified bass fiddle, with trumpet and saxophones playing directly into microphones in the pentatonic/modal style of Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, etc. A satisfying, though loud performance worthy of respect.

My bass prodigy sat with me listening to the hour-long concert. Afterwards, he asked me, "How can I learn to like this kind of jazz?" I said, "A lot of people really go for this, but some never really learn to like it." "How about you?" he asked. "I understand it," I said, "but I prefer the kind of jazz where you can hear melodies."

It was time to get back to class. His question was way too good and my answer was way too short. So, Alex, if you're reading this, here's the rest of it.

Modal modern jazz is a very rhythmic form of Impressionism. In the European art-music world, the analogous composers were Debussy, Ravel, and Satie. Their composing is characterized by constantly shifting tonal (harmonic) centers, and, except in the case of Satie, the melody takes a secondary role. The aim seems to be to bring the listener along on a journey of evolving palettes of colors and emotions. This compositional model is ideal for motion picture soundtrack scores, where the music serves to emotionally underpin the unfolding of the narrative.

In the jazz world, modal compositions also feature this constantly shifting tonality, for example, in tunes like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" or Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge." Since a large part of a jazz player's compositional art lies in the solo, the solos in this style seek to state or outline each tonality and explore every possible permutation of it (some use the term "deconstruction" to describe this process).

One can think of the opposite of this harmonic compositional model as a melodic one. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, etc., come to mind as examples. The melody suggests the harmony, not the other way around. Variations and developments suggest and refer back to the melody. The best melodies are logically constructed, are aesthetically pleasing to the ear, and can stand up by themselves as music without lyrics or as an accompaniment to a movie.

If we extend this concept to include hot rhythm, then most of the vast output of jazz created before 1940 can be characterized as melodic. Necessarily so, since early jazz players favored popular tunes as vehicles for their improvisations. In one sense, the words "tune" and "melody" are interchangeable. Irving Berlin, perhaps more than any other tunesmith, had his finger on the pulse of the American popular taste for melody, so it's no wonder that jazzmen love to play his songs.

Another reason that melodies are popular, that is, easily accessed by most people, is that they have the power of narrative. They unfold, revealing themselves over time. Each one is a story in itself. This is the real challenge for the jazz soloist: to hold the listener's interest solely by the narrative power of his melodic invention.

This is precisely the quality lacking in so many modern jazz soloists, and this lack goes a long way toward explaining why so many people avoid modern jazz entirely: they think of it as a mysteriously dense and impenetrable music that one has to study to understand. Jazz for jazz musicians.

Here's a test: if you walk in on the middle of someone's jazz solo performance, how long should it take you to recognize what song they're playing? If the soloist has not cultivated a sense of melodic narrative, and makes no reference whatever to the song itself, it may take all the way until the end of the tune when the whole band states the melody explicitly. If the soloist adopts the same pentatonic/modal approach for every tune, his solo will sound the same no matter what song he's playing, usually a sort of generic Coltrane.

In my lessons and master classes, after suggesting how to practice scales and chords (which are the ABCs of jazz), I spend considerable time with my students on how to cultivate the improvisational mind. A large part of this comes into play in the process of playing and creating melodies. This is especially helpful to budding bassists, who rarely if ever get a chance to play actual melodies.

Another helpful technique in learning how to coherently improvise is to think of a jazz solo as conversational speech. To get your point across while speaking to someone, several short sentences get the job done better than one long run-on sentence. In the same way the student should ask himself, "What am I saying with this solo, and can I say it more elegantly, with fewer notes and in fewer choruses?" And, "How is my solo different from the one I played on the last tune?"

I use the example of the late tenor saxophonist Eddie Barefield. In a career spanning 60 years, he worked with Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. Watching him work was a revelation and epiphany for me. He constructed his masterful, long solos out of simple little riffs, gradually and patiently, at first leaving plenty of space between them, then building on sparse simplicity to a climax of grooving romp.

I've heard it said that almost anyone can learn to write a book, but telling a good story is a gift that few possess. Next to Barefield, my favorite jazz storyteller is Louis Armstrong. Each of his classic recorded solos unfolds in a startlingly creative yet melodically inevitable way, as if it were somehow out there just waiting to be discovered and played.

And what about those old "squares" at the Catskill hotels? Well, they don't call them the Greatest Generation for nothing. Their ranks have thinned since the 1970s, and I hear that the Catskills have changed a lot since then. I still see them at the Landing in San Antonio. But, unlike my presumptuous attitude of thirty years ago, I now feel inspired and privileged to play for them the music they knew intimately as youths, in the style in which it was created. The payoff for me is the look on their faces when, as Ralph Sutton was fond of quoting Fats Waller, "You get that right tickin' rhythm and man, its' on!"

2003 The Mississippi Rag

(This article appeared in the November 2003 issue of the Mississippi Rag and is reproduced here with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz. Also visit the Mississippi Rag website at


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