Current appearances and short essays by jazz bassist Don Mopsick

Archive for December 2011

Landing Anecdotes

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Landing signThe following are samples of actual comments made to the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band at the Landing in San Antonio, TX or on the road. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. I was inspired to collect these by the very entertaining book, Jazz Anecdotes by jazz bassist Bill Crow.

* * * *

Drummer Kevin Dorn was approached one night by a man wanting to know which of our CDs he should buy that “has the most tunes featuring Neil Armstrong.”

* * * *

Guests would often make  tune requests. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band specializes in jazz as it was played before WWII, but many people, unaware of this, requested tunes by modern jazz artists with which they are familiar. One such customer asked me, “Do you know anything by John Coltrane?” I explained that no, we don’t play any modern jazz. “You’re kidding, right?” was his incredulous reply.

One night, a young woman, after asking if it was OK to request a tune, said, “Um…let’s see, you’re jazz…” She turned to her companion for help. “What should I request?” He said, “Um…anything by Grover….” There was a brief pause while he searched his brain for the name. Finally, it came to him: “Cleveland!”

* * * *

One night, a large group of high school kids was seated in front of the bandstand. Jim announced the title of one of the Bix Beiderbecke tunes, “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” One of the girls in the group shouted out, “That bitch!

* * * *

The single most frequently asked question by Landing patrons is “Do you guys have day jobs, or do you do this full-time?” This is actually a fair question, because the majority of musicians currently appearing at Traditional Jazz festivals indeed have some career other music. I usually replied quickly that we’re all life-long full-time musicians, some of us have advanced degrees from music conservatories, have held down other prestigious music jobs, etc.

But occasionally I encountered a doubter. “Nahh, that can’t be right. You must all be lawyers or doctors or something. You’re too well-dressed to be musicians.” Or, “You’re having too much fun up there to be professionals.”

So, to humor such a person, Jim would ask him to guess what he thought each band member’s “real job” might be based on his appearance. The interesting thing about the responses is that they tended to conform to what the person himself was engaged in. If there was a doctors’ convention in town, then we were all dermatologists, cardiologists, etc. If there was a convention of educators, then we turned into high school principals, college professors, etc.

* * * *

Old-school jazz, when played authentically, sometimes provokes some rather weird reactions. Every once in a while, we encountered a customer who, upon first hearing the band, had trouble dealing with long-entrenched musical and racial stereotypes.

One night, a rather tall, thin, well-dressed middle-aged white woman introduced herself to me as a member of the board of the Arts Council of a large state. “Let me ask you a question,” she began, “You guys are way too good to really be into this traditional jazz stuff. Come on, aren’t you all beboppers at heart just putting this on?”

I assured her that the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band have made the study of historical jazz a life-long passion. “Well,” she continued, “do you have any minorities in the band?” “Yes,” I replied, “I’m Jewish.” “That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t have any minorities in the band, so it’s much harder for me to sell you to my Arts Council.”

I had no answer to this. I had the feeling there was nothing anyone could ever do to make that particular sale.

* * * *

On another occasion, after a spirited rendition of a Louis Armstrong Hot 5 tune, a fairly large, balding and inebriated white man of about 60 started walking toward the bandstand shouting “White men playing the black man’s music, this is bullshit!”  To which Jim replied, “I think you must be a racist.” The man, on his way out the door, shouted “No, you’re the racist! Why don’t you play some Dizzy Gillespie or something?” Then he quickly ducked out the door.

There was a moment of bewildered silence while we all struggled to get our minds around what the man had said. We’re still trying to figure that one out.

* * * *

The Landing in San Antonio was designed by an acoustic engineer to enhance the natural sounds of the instruments so the band could play without the use of amplifiers and only one microphone for vocals and the guitar.

For road gigs, however, sound reinforcement becomes a necessary evil, and we were too often at the mercy of sound technicians. The degree of skill and experience among these folks varies from seasoned professional to rank amateur.

On one concert date, an eager young sound man had beforehand set up an impressive array of microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers and other gear on stage. This happens quite often—the technicians are merely going with what they know as the requirements of a typical modern performing group.

Jim asked him to please remove everything except for one mic for the vocals and guitar, explaining that the group tried to get as close to an acoustic sound as possible. Not comprehending, the young man said, “Just tell me what I need to do to make it sound acoustic, and I’ll give it to you!”

* * * *

Pianist John Sheridan was with the band for 23 years. Toward the beginning of his tenure, John tipped the scales at over 300 lbs. He decided to do something about this, so he went on a diet and lost 115 lbs. in 4 months (and has managed to keep the weight off, in fact, to this day). Afterward, as is common with people who drastically change their size, he found it necessary to buy a completely new wardrobe.

A few years after he lost the weight, a customer came up to John on a break. “Say,” he said, “you really play great! In fact, I like your playing a whole lot better than that other piano player they had here before you. What was his name again, John Sheridan?”

* * * *

The Landing has an outdoor patio area on the San Antonio Riverwalk. It’s a very pleasant, shady outdoor café where patrons can sit under umbrellas, listen to a live jazz duo, and watch the people and boats passing by while sipping a tasty frozen Margarita.

For several years, I played some of the afternoon 4-hour duo shifts on the patio with pianist John Sheridan. One cloudy fall day, the Riverwalk was deserted and desolate. The sounds of our instruments bounced unheard off the buildings nearby. John and I decided that it was a good time to run through some of the tunes that we don’t normally play so we could get more familiar with them. We stumbled through a few of them, not caring about the occasional “clam” or missed note or chord change.

After about the third tune, we saw the familiar figure of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli bounding toward us. We knew Bucky well from many encounters at jazz parties and concerts but didn’t know he was in town.

“Hey, you guys,” he said, smiling, “I’m in town with [famed jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli. We’re sitting over there at the next restaurant having lunch and we heard every note you played!”

John and I were, of course, mortified. “We were just messing around….” John began. But Bucky was his usual nice self and said, “Nahh, you guys sounded great!”

* * * *

This one was told at Summit Jazz in Colorado by bassist Paul Keller and brought a smile to the face of everyone who heard it.

The revered jazz bassist Milt Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90. In his later years, and on Riverwalk Jazz, he was fond of performing a song composed for him called “Mona, Take Me Home.” One line of the lyrics was “Now I’m the oldest bass player standing, I’ve got shoes as old as you.”

One year, a jazz festival featured Milt, Paul Keller, and another outstanding bassist–Jay Leonhart. Unfortunately, Jay’s bass fiddle had suffered a serious accident at the hands of one of the airline baggage handlers who dropped it from a baggage cart, breaking the neck of the instrument.

The three bassists were discussing this incident. Jay asked Milt, “Have you ever had your bass dropped from a baggage cart?”

“Baggage cart?” replied Milt, “Hell, they dropped mine from a stagecoach!”

* * * *

In the normal course of performing, instrument malfunctions occur: guitar or banjo strings break, drum heads are punctured, clarinet reeds go bad, etc. While waiting for the broken part to be replaced, Jim Cullum came up with an entertaining time-filler: he would auction off the broken part to the audience members. The bidding would usually start off at a dollar, and the winning bid would typically wind up at about $5, the guest would go home happy with an authentic Landing souvenir and everyone would be entertained, by which time the problem would be fixed and the performance could then resume.

One night, Jim was auctioning off a broken drum head. “What am I bid for this genuine drum head, played by our drummer Ed Torres?” Spirited bidding ensued. After about 3 minutes of escalating bids, a woman’s voice rang out, “A blow job, I’ll give a blow job!”

All eyes turned toward the door where a couple was standing. They both quickly ducked out the door and escaped to the anonymity of the crowded Riverwalk.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then wild laughter for a good 5 minutes. The auction was over.


Written by Don Mopsick

December 23, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Swingin’ Unplugged

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Electric instruments—especially the electric guitar—have become so universal and ubiquitous in the post-WWII rock-dominated world of pop music that a word had to be invented to denote the old-school way: “unplugged.”

Decades ago, an ad agency for 7-Up came up with the ingenious and successful “un-cola” campaign, and proved that defining things by what they are not can appeal to the impulse to stand out from the crowd, go your own way, and march to the beat of a different drummer.

As a mid-Boomer, I saw my first electric instruments at age 12 when my big brother Mike came home with a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Precision bass guitar. Both of these instruments are solid-bodied, meaning that they have no acoustic sound of their own—they must be plugged into an amplifier to be heard. Mike let me fool around with the P-bass. In the quiet of our living room, without using the amp I could hear the tiny, plinky sounds the P-bass made well enough to learn how to get around on it.

I also played the trumpet in the junior high school Band, two hours per week during the school day, but after school I played bass guitar in a rock and roll “garage band” with its heady promise of raw sexual power. In theory at least, plugging in an electric guitar converted one’s testosterone into electrons, which were then broadcast directly into the brains of nearby females via an irresistible magnetic beam.

It turned out that we were the first generation of musicians steeped in the dual worlds of loud, electrified rock ‘n roll and softer, subtler unplugged jazz, folk, and classical music.

Jazz had discovered the electric guitar in the late 1930s with Charlie Christian, and Miles Davis embraced rock rhythms and all-electric combinations with his seminal 1971 albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Since then, electrified rock elements have been important contributors to whatever commercial success jazz has had in recent years. These days, the average listener is likely to encounter a live “jazz” performance not quite up to the volume of a heavy metal band, but very loud nonetheless.

As a young adult professional musician, I went through what I thought of then as reinventing myself as a  “jazz bassist.” In my work I used both the solid-body electric bass guitar and the bass fiddle. According to the fashion of the time, I explored every known method of amplifying the fiddle. My aim was to produce a sound at least loud enough to compete with the other players who would show up to the job with their amps and gear. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was contributing to an endless “arms race” of upwardly spiraling volume levels.

The results were rarely satisfying. In all of my experimenting, I never found a pickup or amp that sounded as good to me as the unplugged bass fiddle did in my practice room at home. The more gear I bought, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. In 1990 Jim Cullum called to offer me an audition with his band in San Antonio with the stipulation that the bass position involved playing strictly unplugged. That immediately got my attention. Then, a phone conversation with bass legend Bob Haggart convinced me that this was the way to go.

Our friend Marty Grosz, acoustic guitarist, singer, raconteur and guest on Riverwalk Jazz, has a lot to say about how electrifying stringed instruments changes the way they function in a jazz setting. “With an amplifier, your sound is not coming out of you, it’s coming from behind you out of a box.” Furthermore, he says, the string height of electric instruments is usually so low that the player feels very little resistance under his fingers. Marty says, you’ve got to have that “fight” or a certain amount of stiffness, to create a pulse that swings.

During 14 happy unplugged, amp-less years with the Cullum band, I’ve come to learn that creating swinging rhythm involves some physical as well as mental effort. I realized why jazz performances captured on old 78-rpm disks often swing more and sound more alive than on more modern ones: The pre-electric player had to learn how to draw a living sound and swinging pulse out of a hollow wooden instrument by moving and controlling a resonating air column with sheer muscle power and musicality.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

Today my music room closet is full of pickups, cables, amps, pre-amps, equalizers, etc., gathering dust. I should probably get rid of all of it on eBay, but it’s nice to know it’s all there in case I have to “go electric” again. But by then it will all probably be way obsolete, and I’ll have to start over from scratch.



Here I am 6 years after I wrote this, living in Southwest Florida and free-lancing. Yup, my gear turned out to be way obsolete. After 19 unplugged years I awoke Rip Van Winkle-like to the world of amplified jazz. I’m using a Gage Realist pickup and an Acoustic Image amp. Sometimes plugging in is unavoidable, especially in those “special” situations where the crowd has been drinking and, their hearing slightly alcohol- impaired, they start barking at each other, even before the band starts playing. Other times it works better if I play unplugged so guests don’t have to shout to have a conversation. That way the rest of the guests who want to hear the music can do so. I’m lucky that I have a nice Mittenwald round-back bass from about 1920 that has a robust sound of its own, especially strung the way it is with high action and gut strings. I bought an electric bass but have not yet used it on a gig down here. And I’m working 7 nights a week. Not every gig situation (or drummer) is suitable for unplugged playing, but those that are are the ones I want.

Written by Don Mopsick

December 23, 2011 at 6:21 PM

Bix and Miles

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Bix’s influence extended well beyond the ’20s and early ’30s.

[Note: this item was published November 21, 2008 for Jazz Me News.]

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke

Here is a statement I included in our JazzNotes article for the recently broadcast Riverwalk Jazz show, Davenport Blues: The Bix Beiderbecke Letters:

The list of trumpeters/cornetists directly influenced by Bix’s playing is a long one and includes such diverse figures as Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Red Nichols, Rex Stewart, Tom Pletcher, Jim Cullum, Jr., and Miles Davis.

Richard Miller, Paris, wrote:

I’m sorry, but to associate Miles Davis’ name in any way with Bix’s is demeaning.

I replied:

Please explain why.

Richard replied:

Aside from playing over 50 years I could probably qualify for a degree in jazz history and had never heard anything even close to the statement of Davis’ being influenced by Bix. I thought the statement—without substantiation—was apocryphal.

Nevertheless, not wanting to be flippant with my answer, I reached out to three sources. Two had never heard anything either. But my longtime friend and fellow musician Brad Kay—besides being a marvelous pianist is a collector with over 10,000 78rpm records in his Venice home—confirmed your statement.

Thus, I sit corrected. See below. Give Jim my best when you see him.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

Miles and Bix, Again
by Brad Kay

Did anyone notice that practically every word spoken about Miles Davis in part 8 of [the Ken Burns film] Jazz is applicable to Bix?:

Narrator: “…Dr. Davis raised his son in the kind of cushioned isolation that few jazz musicians ever knew. A handsome house in a white neighborhood—a cook—a maid…”

Gary Giddins: “He was different…most of the serious people, the musicians, recognized right away that he had a wonderful lyricism that was quite unusual, and he didn’t sound like anybody else. But he had to invent a style because he didn’t have the virtuosity of a Dizzy Gillespie. So he started to create a style that was based more on timbre and melody. Play very few notes, but make them the right notes…create a sense of mood.”

Narrator: “…he was eager to find a showcase for the distinctive introspective style he was developing…”

Wynton Marsalis: “Miles has the finer sound and a style that has the more delicate side of his nature. Now, he still has that toughness and that blade up in there, so his sound is not weepy or weak. It has another type of delicacy. It has a sentiment that draws the romance out of the music and presents it to people. His sound is very tender to come out of a man. Lester Young was like that before him. Miles has a vulnerability that he’s not afraid of sharing with people that are listening to him. Once he allowed that vulnerability to come into his sound, well, then his sound became irresistible.”

Also, in 2002, in a long interview with British jazz researcher Jim Godbolt, cornet player Ruby Braff said this:

JG: We haven’t mentioned Bix Beiderbecke.
RB: A genius. Y’know, Miles Davis was a great admirer of Bix. He would seek out people who knew him and asked questions about him. You can hear a lot of Bix in Miles.
JG: I’ve never heard that opinion before.
RB: You ask me questions and you’ll find out a lot, believe me. Miles was a very interesting guy. Played like no-one else.

I responded to Mr. Miller’s email this way:


It’s not only the opinion of the commentators you cite in your email. In listening to Miles, I for one hear the same approach to sound and economy of vibrato and notes that Bix pioneered. Also, there is a direct descendance through Bobby Hackett, who was very explicit in his acknowledgement of Bix as a major influence, as was Miles in his acknowledgement of Hackett’s influence on his.

Jim Cullum had not heard much Miles when I first played  for him Miles’ Porgy and Bess collaboration with Gil Evans. His first comment was how much Miles seemed to have the same approach to the sound as Bix did.

Lester Young was another one who explicitly mentions both Bix and Frank Trumbauer as major influences. Through Lester, a cooler, more limited-vibrato approach was passed down to Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and a host of other instrumentalists and vocalists of the 1950s through to the present day.

The truth is that Bix’s influence was much more widespread and general throughout the fabric of jazz than has been acknowledged by historians of jazz of any era.

Thanks very much for the quotes.

Don Mopsick

Then I received the following response via email:

Hello Don,

I read with great interest the piece about Bix and Miles. May I express my disagreement with the assertion that Miles was influenced by Bix?

Ruby Braff hears a lot of Bix in Miles. I cannot argue with what Braff hears. I certainly do not hear any Bix in Miles’ music. You and Jim Cullum state that Bix and Miles display the same approach to their sound (economy of notes and vibrato), and you conclude that Bix was an influence on Miles.

Perhaps, economy of notes was a common characteristic of Bix’s and Miles’ styles. However, in my opinion, a lot more is necessary to infer that Bix had an influence on Miles. For me, the factors necessary to establish the influence of one musician over another are structural and emotional. On the structural side, I would list stylistic commonalities, similar melodic constructions, common characteristics in their harmonic inventions. None of these commonalities do I detect in the music of Bix and Miles. Bix constructed his solos by progressive building of phrases of increasing length (the correlated chorus). Miles used phrases in series, one following the other. Melodic invention was of essence in Bix’s improvisations, not so in Miles’ music. On the emotional side, I would assert that the musical sensibilities of Bix and Miles were totally different. Bix’s music was bitter-sweet and complex: as aptly described by Richard Sudhalter, emotionally layered. I view Miles’ music as cerebral, cool.

Ruby Braff tells us that Davis was an admirer of Bix. I do not doubt it. But admiration does not necessarily result in influence. Perhaps Miles was inspired by Bix, but, I reiterate, not influenced. Let me hasten to add that I agree with your more general statement, “The truth is that Bix’s influence was much more widespread and general throughout the fabric of jazz than has been acknowledged by historians of jazz of any era.”

In this context, I want to point out that influence and inspiration must be distinguished clearly from each other. Let me expand on this.

Jimmy McPartland, Red Nichols, Chelsea Quealey, Sterling Bose, Norman Payne, Philippe Brun were influenced by Bix. Their styles, not just economy of notes and introspective feeling, but also the structural aspects of the music they improvised was derived from Bix’s music.

But there is something more subtle which I will refer to as inspiration. Bix was a catalyst for other musicians performing at their best. Pee Wee Russell said, “The thing about Bix’s music is that he drove a band. If you had any talent at all he made you play better. It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. It had to do with his whole feeling for ensemble playing.” This an example of what I call inspiration: Bix inspired his fellow musicians to do their best. But inspiration also means that musicians thought about Bix’s music after they had played with him, or listened to him live or in records during their careers. I hear Bix’s style explicitly in early Goodman (in particular, Benny’s sax solo in “Blue”), but not in later Goodman. Does this mean that Bix’s effect on Goodman ceased? I don’t think so. I would guess that Bix continued being an inspiration for Benny throughout his life.

In the same manner, Bix was an inspiration to most musicians who came into contact with him—Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie Condon, the Dorseys, Miff Mole, Bing Crosby, Adrian Rollini, Danny Polo, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell, etc. Through the musicians he interacted with and inspired, Bix had a long-lasting effect and a far-reaching influence on jazz. Jimmy McPartland says it well in an article in the January 1954 issue of Down Beat: “I think almost any jazz musician besides all the brass men have one way or another been influenced by Bix.”


Written by Don Mopsick

December 23, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Still Driving, Still Breathing

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As early as 1994, I began exchanging email with Jim Robinson about his idea for a movie script involving a tuba player as one of the characters. I had played the tuba in a former life, in fact I had majored in the instrument at the Manhattan School of Music in the seventies.

Ladder of Fire

Ladder of Fire

The tuba is often thought of as a strange, exotic instrument (remember “Ladder of Fire” by the Surrealist painter Magritte?). It’s not exactly the instrument kids think of taking up to be a hit at parties. In fact, professional tuba players are a special breed. Only in the last 40 years has the tuba’s image been liberated from the “oohmpha-and-lederhosen” stereotype by composers like Alec Wilder, Gil Evans; pop acts like Taj Mahal, Leon Redbone; and gifted players such as Harvey Phillips, Howard Johnson, and Sam Pilafian. Sam in particular was my hero, and he was also my first teacher in New York. He is one of the rare players of the instrument equally adept in both the jazz and classical fields, having been one of the founding members of the acclaimed Empire Brass Quintet as well as his own jazz group, Travelin’ Light.

My studies with Sam included an introduction to the classic jazz of the 1920s. The tuba was the bass instrument of choice of bandleaders of that era (pre-electric microphone), and contemporary 1970s bands specializing in vintage jazz provided a lot of work for aspiring tuba players. Sam opened the door to this scene in New York for me.

Severe headaches eventually forced me to quit playing the tuba, but I never lost interest in classic jazz forms, which served me well when in 1991 I began what turned out to be a 19-year tenure as the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s double bassist.

In 1993, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band was feverishly at work composing tunes for a radio jingle. Chuck Huggins, CEO of See’s Candies and a longtime supporter of the band and our public radio series, Riverwalk Jazz, had commissioned us to compose and record music for the See’s radio ad campaign. Between the seven band members, we came up with about two dozen tunes. Ultimately, John Sheridan’s “Just a Little Bit of Sweetness” was chosen as the See’s theme.

One of my tunes which did not make it was “Chocolate Fantasy.” I had written the melody a year earlier. I had always loved the slow movements of Mahler’s symphonies, and the working title of this tune was “Mahleresque.” For the See’s campaign, I wrote this lyric:

Last night I had a sweet choc’late fantasy,
Velvet ecstasy, it was heavenly.
My deep, dark choc’late dream, how it calls to me!
It could be your dream, too,
I know it can come true.
It was the kind of dream that haunts me throughout the day,
Not quite sin, must give in, can’t delay!
If choc’late was a wish, I’d have two or three
Choc’late fantasies, here at See’s.

My lyric was judged to be a bit racy for the jingle, but Jim Cullum liked the melody, so the lyric was dropped and the tune entered the band’s general playlist simply as “Fantasy.”

When Jim Robinson finally got the ball rolling on his film several years later, he again asked me for help in finding the right tuba player for the soundtrack. There was only one name which came to my mind—who else would be able to handle Bach, Verdi, Chopin, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Beiderbecke in the same session? I got in contact with Sam and he was hired to record with us for Still Breathing. I was also very gratified to learn that Jim Robinson had taken to “Fantasy,” wanted to include it in the soundtrack, and our arrangement of it was to feature Sam playing the melody on tuba.

Also recorded that day was our jazz band arrangement of the “Berceuse” (op. 57) by Chopin, a very important unifying musical theme used throughout the movie. I remember that Jim Robinson took time out from the session to have us listen very intently to his favorite piano recording of the piece so that we might get a sense of the romantic longing he was going for in the film. I was impressed by this.

Here is a YouTube clip from the film containing the band’s appearance (we’re in the 1st 4 minutes or so). Jim Cullum has a few lines. Celeste Holm is syncing Sam’s tuba part on our recording.

That day, I also remember Brendan mugging us through the control booth window. Such a kibitzer, this guy. During the period of the soundtrack recording and shooting of the film, Brendan hung out with us quite a bit at the Landing.

One day, early on in the production period, Brendan and I were discussing how best to appear to be playing a cornet, which he does at one point in the movie. “You studied singing, right?” I asked him. “Sure,” he said. “Well, it looks pretty much the same, the important thing is the breath motion like when you sing,” I told him. When I got to see the finished film, I noticed that, to my musician’s eye, Brendan really did appear to be playing the cornet. Now I know what they’re talking about when they refer to an actor’s craft in “attention to detail.”

Then it was our turn in front of the camera. This was not my first movie shoot, but it was the first time I got a sense of all the different skills that go into making a feature. Everyone on the set seemed to be a top professional in their job, including director Jim Robinson who throughout the day appeared to know exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

The guy that really impressed me was the SteadyCam operator. That thing must have weighed a ton. He could only keep it strapped onto him for a limited time, and they had to re-shoot stuff over and over! He must be an Olympic decathlete in his spare time.

I got a big kick out of seeing the completed film in LA. “Fantasy” is heard behind the puppet show during the party scene. Sam’s inspired tuba work is portrayed by Celeste Holm. Evan Christopher’s brilliant clarinet work can be heard when Brendan’s character drops a phonograph needle onto an old 78 disk of “Blue River.”

During my first tuba lesson with Sam, the very first thing he talked about was the paramount importance of deep breathing in playing the tuba. Tuba players can never get too much air, and my daily practice routine was to start with (before even looking at a tuba) lying on the floor on my back and doing a series of yoga breathing exercises to increase lung capacity. “You have to do this,” he said, “because the tuba is one instrument where you have to be in the driver’s seat, and if you’re not using enough air, before you know it, it’ll be driving you.”

I’m glad to see that Sam is still driving and still breathing.

Written by Don Mopsick

December 22, 2011 at 8:02 PM

The Face of the Bass

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Milt HInton

Milt HInton

The great Milt Hinton often said that the bass is the “Atlas of jazz” because its role in the jazz band is to carry the other instruments on its shoulders.

The bass provides a steady beat and the root notes of the chords of the tunes upon which the soloists construct their inventions, melding together rhythm and harmony in one function. “Bass” is often misspelled as “base” but the meaning is very similar in music, that of “foundation.”

In early jazz bands, bassists played the bass fiddle, the tuba, or the bass saxophone. The typical bassist of the 1920s, if he played tuba or bass sax, was expected to “double” on the bass fiddle as well. The wind instruments provided a louder, more directional sound that was able to cut through the noisy, boisterous crowds in large dance halls and night clubs where jazz was first played. The problem of bass projection was “solved” in the 1950s by amplifying bass fiddles and then with specially-built electronic basses, culminating in guitar-like solid-body instruments manufactured by Fender, Gibson, and other guitar makers.

I am amazed by the skills of contemporary electric bass players (since I no longer own an electric bass, I can’t be considered one of them). “Tapping and slapping” has grown into a whole new art form for the instrument. I first heard the thumb-slap electric style as developed by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. I have been told by electric bassists steeped in this style that the wrist action involved goes much further back to the traditional Gospel tambourine technique.

I remember that when I first started in the 1970s experimenting with this on electric bass guitar, it seemed so natural for the instrument.

Like so many other aspects of American music and jazz, the roots of this style go back to early 20th century New Orleans.

There was a New Orleans bass style, by which I mean that there seems to have been a collection of bass players born before 1910 in New Orleans who went forth into the rest of the country acting as little spark plugs in the developing jazz bands in which they found themselves. All of them played in a manner very similar to one another.

The first to appear nationally was Bill Johnson (1872-1972), considered the father of jazz bass. He led one of the first jazz bands (The Original Creole Orchestra) out of New Orleans to tour the country on the Orpheum circuit around 1914. Bill used a syncopated single-stroke hook. This means “hooking” the right index finger under the string and letting it snap against the fingerboard (sound familiar to electric players?). Since he did not use the return-stroke slap, I call it a single-stroke style punctuated by notes syncopated in the ragtime manner. Other later New Orleans bass players who used the single-stroke were Pops Foster (played with Louis Armstrong and others), John Lindsey (with Jelly Roll Morton, 1926), and Wellman Braud (of the Ellington band in the ’20s-’30s).

The hallmark of this sound on the bass is its percussive quality. The audible “snap” of the string against the fingerboard allows the bass to function in fact as another drum in the rhythm section of the band. Like my experience with the electric bass, when I started in the ’90s with the hook-slap style on the bass fiddle, it seemed a very natural, relaxed, and swinging way to play time, because the power of the entire right arm and wrist is involved.

Other early New Orleans players such as Steve Brown (with Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman) and Al Morgan (Cab Calloway) used a double- and triple-stroke slap style. In this, the player slaps one, two, or three percussion notes after the initial hook pull, yielding a lot of possible rhythmic combinations, some of the same ones used by today’s electric thumb-slapping maniacs.

The finest exponent of the New Orleans style in the modern era was Milt Hinton. Born in Mississippi in 1910, he knew and befriended Bill Johnson in Chicago in the late ’20s. Milt says that Bill taught him the hook style as the only way of getting a big sound out of the bass to be heard above the band. Milt replaced Al Morgan in the Cab Calloway band in ’37 and developed the multiple-slap style to new heights. He told me that the way he thought of what he did on bass was similar rhythmically to what a tap dancer does with his feet.

Hooking and slapping was considered passé by the late ’40s and most bass players abandoned it in favor of the warmer, “sideways-pull” sound of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, and Israel Crosby (and later, spectacularly by Ray Brown). Milt himself continued to use both styles. As the single most-recorded jazz musician in history, Milt found himself in almost every conceivable kind of recording session and band, including many “hi-fi” “Dixieland” albums that were made during that period to cash in on the new popularity of the Dukes of Dixieland and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. You can hear Milt on these records slapping away during his solos, but on other recordings of the era such as the famous ones he did with Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, he is using the more modern side-pull technique that is dominant today among the vast majority of bass fiddle players.

On the Riverwalk Jazz radio series, you can sometimes catch a reprise performance of Milt’s 1991 solo version of “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho,” a truly awe-inspiring tour-de-force of double and triple slapping.

In late 1990, when I first considered joining the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, I had a revealing phone conversation with Bob Haggart, the bassist and composer who was the guiding light behind the Bob Crosby Bobcats and the World’s Greatest Jazzband. Bob had been filling in at the Landing and on the road for bassist Jack Wyatt, who was ailing. As one of the only bands left that still performs Haggart classics like “Dog Town Blues” and “Smoky Mary,” Bob always felt very strongly about the importance of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s role in preserving classic jazz.

On the phone, Bob suggested to me that if I were to go to work for Jim, who preferred the old-school acoustic way of playing the bass, I should consider re-stringing my bass with gut strings and high action. “That’s what I would do if I were going to take the job,” he said. It was the way the vast majority of bassists set up their instruments before the advent of amplifiers and pickups, because it afforded the biggest possible sound to cut through even a big band swinging at full tilt.

I decided to follow that path and have never once looked back.

Written by Don Mopsick

December 22, 2011 at 6:27 PM

The Jazz Orthodoxy

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[Note: This article first appeared in the American Rag. Below is a version from 2000 I posted on Jazz Corner’s Speakeasy. I also gathered and pasted the lively discussion below. It’s hard to believe that 13 years later, people are still having this argument, although there seems to be more interest in older jazz in general nowadays. I like to think that some of the credit for that goes to Jim Cullum and the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series (to which I contributed much energy), still on the air in most major US markets and Sirius/XM satellite radio. Another key figure in this revival has been Mat Domber and his Arbors Jazz label. You can see from my gig blog page that these days my opportunities to perform old-school jazz in Southwest Florida are limited to a few concerts and festivals.]

I first wrote about the Jazz Orthodoxy on the 16th of February 1998 in another forum. During that period, my time during the day was taken up with researching my Jewish genealogy and the history of the Jewish community of my ancestral town, Bobruisk, Belarus. For the previous sixth months, I had been learning the Yiddish language in order to complete the first English translation of a history of Bobruisk contained in the Memorial Book of that town.

The subject of Orthodoxy had been much in the news in 2000 with the candidacy of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Many Americans learned for the first time what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. Being a rather assimilated Jew myself, I had no clear picture of the place of Orthodoxy in Judaism until I began my study over two years ago. A very helpful reference book in this regard was Life Is With People: The Jewish Little-Town of Eastern Europe by Mark Zborowski, Elizabeth Herzog available here.

I learned that for about six hundred years, there was a vibrant Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe. Jews had their own culture, languages (Yiddish, which began evolving around 1000 AD; and of course Hebrew), cuisine, music, legal system, schools, and most of all, religion. Orthodoxy was by far the majority sect in the eastern part of the European Jewish world.

In short, there was a Jewish Nation in fact if not in real political terms. The Tsar even created geographic boundaries with the Pale of Settlement in the late 1700’s, intended to keep most of the newly Russian Jews from infiltrating eastward into the interior of Russia.

In Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, Jewish civilization and culture had evaporated until very recently. The Tsars’ repression propelled many of us, my grandparents included, to America. For the Jews who remained, the Soviets successfully suppressed their religion and culture, the Nazis slaughtered 6 million of them, and the result was that after WWII, the Soviet Jewish remnant became almost completely assimilated into Russian culture. Beginning in the 70s and continuing to the present, Jews have abandoned Russia and the countries of the former Pale of Settlement, emigrating to America and Israel. Today there are very few Jews left in Bobruisk, for example, from a peak of about 70,000 in the 1970s. Some have returned to Poland, and a large, vibrant community has remained in Hungary.

During the course of my genealogy research, I came across quite a few of my cousins who were born in Bobruisk. I was astounded at how little the former Soviet Jews I met knew about their Jewish heritage. Only the elderly spoke Yiddish. Of course, a similar outcome happened in America, but American Jews assimilated voluntarily, not through edicts of the state. A small minority of American Jews chose to adhere to the classic Orthodoxy to varying degrees and stripes, and thankfully have had the Liberty to do so. The rest of us are largely cut off from a long past that is rapidly receding from memory.

During the period between the two world wars, there arose in America a vibrant classical popular culture with jazz music and dance at its creative center. Swinging jazz rhythms could be heard on phonograph records, radio programs, Broadway musicals, and movie soundtracks. The inspiration of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and others could be heard in scores of pop dance orchestras and their recordings. James Lincoln Collier (“Art vs. Commerce”) has compared American pop music to a mountain with jazz as its springhead, trickling down and informing all other styles “below” it.

Pop music has long since moved on to other realms: Folk, Metal, Delta Blues derivatives, Mowtown, Punk, Hip-hop, Techno, Disco, etc. The current audience for jazz has been estimated at about 3% of the entire American budget spent on entertainment. What is sold these days as “jazz” by the record companies is very different in style and form from that of the classic period. Unrecognizably so, according to the Jazz Orthodoxy…

The essential defining element of hot jazz in its classic period was the swinging or stomping rhythmic feel. By the time the Smooth Jazz movement took over, that feel had been totally abandoned in favor of the rhythms of Urban Soul and Hip-hop. Along the way, other traditional elements of the old jazz were gradually discarded: improvised ensemble playing, the natural sounds of the instruments, sliding blue notes, etc. The cult of Bop clichés became pre-eminent, stylizing and thereby limiting the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary. Other cults followed: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea.

The songs of the Golden Age of popular songwriting are still performed by some contemporary jazz artists, although in a diluted form. One can still hear a limited number of evergreen songs by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers and Hart, Kern, and others. The harmonies (and in some cases the melodies) are often altered to fit the newer, limited style. Modern jazz singers and instrumentalists are interested in performing only a small subset of the vast American Songbook, usually those that were recorded by the major gods of their Post Bop pantheon.

The Orthodox Jazz canon has been suppressed in the schools, stripped of its political respectability, Soviet-style. Jazz History educators tend to use the originators of Bop—Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—as their starting points. The result is that young saxophonists (not clarinetists) are weaned on “Giant Steps” and “Milestones,” and not “King Porter Stomp,” “Star Dust,” or even “A String of Pearls.” The words “hip” and “unhip” are used as weapons to keep the young acolytes in line. As a result, several new generations have grown up knowing nothing of Orthodoxy, lacking the essential qualities of self-restraint, taste and swing. They have evolved onto today’s jazz fans and musicians, buying Kenny G records in mega-quantities and tuning into “Yanni at the Acropolis” on Public Television. A tiny subset of these jazz fans consider themselves among the “avant-garde,” extolling the virtues of “free jazz” as exemplified by Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler.

Jews have a word for heretics: “apikoyres,” derived from the Greek for “epicure,” or one who lives for the moment. From the point of view of the Orthodox, the Jewish world is today mostly heresy, and a small kernel of the Orthodox keep the flame alive in insular communities in Brooklyn, LA, and Israel. Similarly, the tiny world of the Classic Jazz Orthodoxy preserves its own values, keeps its own counsel, yet quixotically hopes for “discovery” and redemption by the masses.

In both the Jewish and Jazz worlds, the Modernists and Traditionalists have not been particularly interested in a dialog with each other, but some of the more enlightened Modernists are awakening to their true heritage, finally seeking it out and trying to come to terms and thereby connect with it. In jazz, this process is only just beginning.

Like all orthodoxies, the Jazz Orthodoxy is about tradition. Sometimes, just knowing about it can be enough.

Don Mopsick

Flame-Retardant Post Script for Jazz Corner: the above was written from the point of view of the Jazz Orthodoxy, of which I am a member. I also simultaneously consider myself a Jazz Heretic from this point of view. I’ve been lucky enough in my playing career to have performed on both sides of the fence. Some here would deny that this fence exists at all. Others out here in the trenches like me know better. I wish the fence weren’t there, but, there it is, tripping up performers and fans. Let’s tear down your fence, Mr. Gorbachev.

Old Post 12-14-2000 04:24 PM
Pete C

Ahh! The “moldy figs” rise again!! Yippee! Last time there was a significant revivalist movement, they bought Bunk Johnson a new set of teeth. Who gets the teeth this time? (Last time I checked Bob Wilber’s chops seemed in pretty fine fettle.)

Old Post 12-14-2000 05:20 PM
Don Mopsick


Proud to be moldy!


Old Post 12-14-2000 06:03 PM

But Don, all shtetls aside, I really don’t get your leap from Bird & Diz to G & Yanni–I see no logic in that reasoning.

Old Post 12-14-2000 08:28 PM

Heraclitus hath spoke: >> The “moldy figs” rise again!! <<

If the realm encompassed by “moldy figistry” includes:
Barney Bigard
Chu Berry
Benny Carter
Benny Goodman
Charlie Christian
Charlie Shavers
Oscar Peterson
Bobby Hackett
etc., etc.

Please can I be a moldy fig too?

Old Post 12-14-2000 08:46 PM

Louis – He was for a while. Called bop “Chinese Music.” Eventually came round.Barney Bigard – naw
Bix – Nobody who came from Iowa could EVER be a moldy fig.
Berigan – Died just as the new sounds were coming out. I don’t think he would have signed on with the figs.
Chu Berry – Nope.
Eldridge – No way.
Hawkins – Are you kidding? Bean was a big supporter of bebop. Even hired Monk as his pianist.
Benny Carter – I don’t think so. Why did he hire all those boppers like Phil Woods for “Further Definitions.” Heck, if he was a fig, there would be no need for further definitions.
Benny Goodman – Nope. He went the bop route for a while. His heart wasn’t in it, though.
Charlie Christian – died before he could hear bop. Still, no way he would be a fig.
Duke – Figs don’t record with John Coltrane.
Charlie Shavers – plenty of bop lines played by Charlie
Prez – Pres would never put down a new trend in music. He had his own problems with figs insisting that the only proper way to play the tenor sax was like Bean. (Now Fletcher Henderson’s wife WAS a fig.)
Oscar Peterson – no way
Bobby Hackett – Well, probably. But he was such a sweet man I can’t hold it against him.

etc., etc. – Yup. Etc. Etc. was a hard core “moldy fig.”

Old Post 12-14-2000 09:46 PM


>>etc., etc. – Yup. Etc. Etc. was a hard core “moldy fig.” <<

Then let Etc. Etc. be cast into the darkness, to dwell in the house of King Oliver and Frank Teschmacher forever!

Old Post 12-14-2000 09:59 PM
Don Mopsick

Pete C. wrote:

“But Don, all shtetls aside, I really don’t get your leap from Bird & Diz to G & Yanni–I see no logic in that reasoning.”

What I was getting at is that in the past, jazz educators, for the most part adhering to a Bop canon, have not done a good job of enabling the public to tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken sh*t, if G and Yanni’s sales figures are any evidence.

BUT, I see a change in the wind a-blowin,’ as more and more jazz educators finally understand the intellectual dishonesty (and bankruptcy) of ignoring or disparaging pre-WWII jazz styles.

This is why a lot of us of the mold fold are already cheering Ken Burns’ film, simply because of the fact that 7 of the 10 episodes are about jazz before WWII (The Golden Age). This in spite of the likelihood that there will be very few of today’s moldies included.

Whoops! I just realized I turned this into a Ken Burns thread. Damn!


Old Post 12-15-2000 02:10 AM
Tom Storer


Very interesting post!

“The cult of Bop clichés became pre-eminent, stylizing and limiting the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary.”

If you’re talking about clichés only, maybe; but can you really say that bebop was a reduction of melodic and rhythmic vocabulary in jazz? I couldn’t live without moldy jazz, but it seems to me the rhythmic and melodic choices of post-mold jazz are just as wide if not wider.

When arguing for or against a jazz style, all of us are guilty at times of pointing to the best of the style we’re rooting for, and the worst of the style we’re criticizing. Don’t forget that pre-WWII jazz had more than its fair share of cliché.

“jazz educators, for the most part adhering to a Bop canon, have not done a good job of enabling the public to tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken sh*t, if G and Yanni’s sales figures are any evidence.”

“The public” – the vast majority of those who buy Kenny G and Yanni records – have never come within 100 miles of a jazz educator! It ain’t their fault!

Old Post 12-15-2000 02:28 AM
Don Mopsick

Tom Storer wrote:

“If you’re talking about clichés only, maybe; but can you really say that bebop was a reduction of melodic and rhythmic vocabulary in jazz? I couldn’t live without moldy jazz, but it seems to me the rhythmic and melodic choices of post-mold jazz are just as wide if not wider.

“When arguing for or against a jazz style, all of us are guilty at times of pointing to the best of the style we’re rooting for, and the worst of the style we’re criticizing. Don’t forget that pre-WWII jazz had more than its fair share of cliché.”

True enough. The most tired Louie licks are just as stultifying as the endlessly repeated Bird solo fragments and Trane quotings one hears in the “Young Lions,” for example.

Rhythmically, I’m thinking mainly of the Bop and Post-Bop practice of building a jazz solo on series of eighth note passages, with very little rhythmic relief. You know the argument: technique for its own sake, not as the servant of swinging.

What you seem to “get” and many others don’t is that a jazz style does not have to be newer to be vital and creative. There are no important playwrights and composers writing today in the style of Shakespeare or Brahms, so why do we still study and revere the originals?

Jazz is different because the art of it resides in the mind of the creator ephemerally: the musician and the process itself becomes the work. So necessarily, study and reverence of Classic Jazz must come in the form of present-day blowing in that style and within those parameters.

Of course, this argument can and does apply to those blowing Bop and Post-Bop as well. My point is that from the moldy point of view, “modern” jazz holds no special claim on righteousness merely because it came after.

Here is a quote from the preface of a new book by Floyd Levin, Classic Jazz, a Personal View of the Music and the Musicians:

“For years, the most obtuse jazz critics have delighted in branding the art form that matured during the first four decades of this century as arcane, archaic, crude, obsolete, and merely a foundation on which “modern” jazz has been constructed…

“A curious literary trend attempts to promulgate the illogical theory that “latest” is synonymous with “best.” It is true that all forms of art undergo change. Jazz, too is an evolving form, and though gradual variations are inevitable, we should never completely forget the music’s cornerstones. While technical ability is essential, the vital elements are a sustained beat, combined spontaneous improvisations, and freedom to use imagination, ingenuity, and taste.

“True classicism, in every form of art, is always revered and never becomes obsolete…”


Old Post 12-15-2000 10:48 AM
Tom Storer

Well said, by both you and Levin. Never say die!

Written by Don Mopsick

December 21, 2011 at 8:32 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Play the Melody!

with 5 comments

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 for familiar standard tunes and 12-bar blues by using substitute chord changes. The soloist improvised on 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 hotel guests, 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 it was a matter of job survival.

Sometimes there was a late dance set, by the end of which most of the guests 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 blues 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 older, hot jazz and tried to seek out as many of those jobs as I could. Then, 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, I stayed for 19 years. Last year we moved back to SW Florida.

From 1992-2005 I had a unique opportunity, along with the rest of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, 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. The umbrella organization, The Stanford Jazz Workshop, has been presenting a variety of education and concert programs at Stanford since 1972.

Our teaching duties at Jazz Camp included 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 was given to the entire student body as part of a class called “Jazz Tradition.”  Also, individual JCJB members conducted 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 coached two student combos in simpler, more traditional fare. One year our “advanced” student combo also prepared a separate program that included, among other Bop tunes, “Tadd’s Delight” by Tadd Dameron.

Jazz Camp was 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 helped to crystallize my thoughts about what I believe to be the most important elements—universal to all jazz—to impart to the next generation.

When we first started at Stanford 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 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 the previous year when he was an average bass guitar student, to the next 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, 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 Miles Davis’ “So What” (a slow rate of shifting), John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (very rapid shifting), or Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” (a moderate rate). Since a large part of a jazz player’s compositional art lies in the solo, the soloist in this style seeks to state or outline each tonality and then in subsequent choruses explore every possible permutation of it (some use the term “deconstruction” to describe this process, others use the term “vertical” to describe the mostly arpeggiated explorations of tonality).

One can think of the opposite of this harmonic compositional model as a melodic one (some use the contrasting term “horizontal” to describe a predominantly step-wise motion). 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 unfold logically 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.

Melodies are popular, that is, easily accessed by most people, because they have the power of narrative—a capacity for which I believe is hard-wired into human brains. Like stories, melodies unfold, revealing themselves over time. 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 8th-note Coltrane. The real interest in such a solo performance then comes from the rhythm section, especially the drummer, who now assumes co-equal solo roles with the horn player throughout the performance. The line between soloist and accompanist blurs and disappears.

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 inventing melodies that are spontaneous, playful, but coherent, logical and tell a story. This is especially helpful to budding bassists, who rarely if ever get a chance to play “tunefully” and are in fact often unaware that this is an option for them.

I ask them 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. The silences and their placement are almost as important as the notes. Modern soloists who understood this were Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Ahmad Jamal, etc.

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?”

The work of tenor saxophonist Eddie Barefield comes to mind as an example of this approach. In a career spanning 60 years, he worked with Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. Watching him work was an epiphany for me. He constructed his masterful, long solos out of simple little riffs, setting them out and developing them 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, but their immediate successors (those that came of age during the Korean War) still go out to restaurants and nightclubs in Southwest Florida, seeking out the swinging, pre-Rock music of their youth.

But, unlike my presumptuous attitude of forty years ago, I now feel inspired and privileged to play the melodies they knew, in the style in which they were 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!”

Written by Don Mopsick

December 21, 2011 at 1:40 PM