Current appearances and short essays by jazz bassist Don Mopsick

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

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