Current appearances and short essays by jazz bassist Don Mopsick

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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 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