Mike Drop 2: The Song Is You – On Melody in Jazz


Do you remember when Clinton ran for President in 1992 and his winning slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid”?  His campaign bridged my last year of nearly 15 on the East Coast and the first of my past more than quarter century on the West Coast.  While I was not a particular fan of Bill and his slick Willie centrist triangulation DLC ways, I did crib his slogan, and wrote a version for myself, taped inside my sax case. “It’s the melody, stupid”.   Like so many jazzers then and even more today, I was, for a brief period in the late 1980s, so into the inside baseball of this advanced jazz lick/permutation and that, that I would forget the fundamental principles of playing that appealed to me. A powerful sense of melodic development in solos coupled with a beautiful sound, strong time, deeply steeped in swinging and the blues.  I had been composing seriously for about 12-13 years at the time, and yet, despite having a good natural instinct for melodic soloing, had moved away from that, enthralled by the blinding tenor pyrotechnics of the era.  Around that time, I began making a concerted effort to start playing more melodic and pure melodies, even on the fast tunes, and I continue to do so, with no regrets. 

I have observed that one of the grand jazz traditions honored more in principle than in practice is that of melody, and especially in playing melodically.  

Why do I say more in principle than in practice? Because so many aspiring jazz musicians now go through a jazz education/training system where they are working out licks and scales and patterns and triad pairs in all 12 keys, transcribing and regurgitating solos or parts of solos, and so on and so forth. 

Meanwhile, when we think of what is memorable in the soloists and songs and solos we love, a beautiful sound, swinging time and beautiful melodic sense are what come to mind for most of us as practicing musicians, and for virtually ALL lay listeners. (You know – those folks who come to listen to us play, and DON’T expect to be on the guest list?).  We pay lip service and obeisance to the notion that solos should be melodic and “tell a story”, but so many of our younger players, professional or student, do anything but that, and for the most part, those who teach this beautiful music glance over it or even dismiss the value of learning melody. 

One of the shining examples we all like to point to is Miles Davis’ solo on So What, a masterpiece of economy, blues, development and song.  And when we look at the players who we love who also connect with a larger audience (IE communicate), they all had or have, among other virtues, a deep and profound sense of melody in their solos. To list just a few:  Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane,  Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, etc, etc. (I am sure you can add others to that list.)

Now they were/are also imbued with other virtues of great jazz soloists, to be sure, including incredible time, a striking sound, the feel of the blues, a mastery of jazz harmony, and the clichés that help give eras of jazz their specific dialect, etc…but everyone on this list had in common the ability to put a melodic element into their solos, the idea of an arc, of a story, of space, of the “singing” notes.  Not a one of them was simply a licks player or only a lines player. And ALL of them knew many great American songbook songs by heart, melody and harmony and even, in the case of folks like Lester and Dexter, the lyrics.  So whether they were prolific composers like Kenny Wheeler or Wayne Shorter, wrote very little, like Lester Young, or somewhere in between, they all had absorbed a full understanding of what made a great melody. That shone through in their playing, in how they constructed a solo, and made their playing so much more memorable and compelling than the latest triad/pair, lick-spewing, 8th note-depositing internet sensations we get subjected to/infatuated with nowadays.  I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is, there is so little in the way of melodic structure and memorable content in a lot of solos today, and I think ONE major reason is the lack of understanding of melody and its crucial role in creating beautiful and memorable solos.  In fact, I am stunned at how few melodies many younger players have memorized now.  

I think I have a pretty good perspective to speak on this, as I am someone with a foot planted firmly both in the jazz player/composer camp and the jazz educator camp. As a player/composer, I have been fortunate enough to gig and record with some of the truly great musicians in this music for more than 40 years now, starting at 18, and have 12 well-received/reviewed CDs and counting to my name as a leader.  As an educator, I have been teaching this music almost as long, starting with running ensembles at Tufts when I was 22, and continuing to doing clinics and masterclasses around North America, as well as running a college jazz program in California and teaching groups and composition/improv theory classes at the California Jazz Conservatory, both for well over 20 years.

In those roles, I have seen the widely-remarked on transformation of jazz.  It has changed a lot. It was music we learned largely on the bandstand, where its practitioners were diverse and mainly working-class and middle class, where one learned through on-the-gig training under the rough “tutelage” of leaders and club owners and audience. Through the mid-1990s most jazz musicians were protean souls who could be counted on to play well and convincingly in every setting from funk to blues to pop to Broadway to, of course, many varieties of jazz, from bebop to fusion to free.  Now the model is one where the elite jazz academy and its “star” teachers have become the new guides for a largely upper-middle-class clientele, where the gigs are far less plentiful, and the ones available are largely door gigs or even “pay-to-play”.  The concerns addressed in the new jazz academy are rarefied and specialized, so that students may become adept at negotiating an Indian Tali form hybridized into a 15/16 broken-up quasi-funk groove, or throw various triad pair permutations over an F Sus vamp. And yet, the idea of grooving convincingly on a swinging blues or standard in 4, not to mention having a thousand (or more)  beautiful melodies and harmonies committed to memory and ingrained in the DNA?  Not relevant or of interest. I am constantly shocked at how many students can spit out 20 memorized Sonny Stitt solos on classic standards, but cannot play the melody or truly sing on the harmony of the tunes these solos come from.  In fact, I am stunned at how many young musicians nowadays blithely dig out their IRealB apps on their phones/ipads to read melodies and changes to tunes that previous generations would have been embarrassed if they had not committed them to memory, even tunes as canonical as Stella or All The Things…

And this is where the problem lies, in my view.  I am no outlier. In my generation, it was commonplace to know at least 1000 tunes, and some of the musicians I knew were legendary, having around 3000-5000 in their brain vault.  In my case, I probably know, with brushing up of a bar here or there, somewhere around 1500, and am still learning new ones and refreshing old ones to this day.  As someone who both improvises and composes, I know it is nearly impossible to create as beautiful and coherent a melody in the moment as with pencil and paper at a piano. But that is a noble and worthy goal, and sometimes we can come close.  There are all kinds of other virtues and challenges to the in the moment creation, including the common language movement and phrasing and interaction, etc. However, having all of these melodies from the great American Songbook, as well as a good representation of the master jazz composers’ melodicism in your veins cannot help but inform and shape what you play for the better and more musical. 

To me, it is not either/or, by the way.  But I think the transcription/lick cart may now have been put before the melody horse for many young players.  Transcription becomes an end in itself. Licks are an easy shortcut to apparent competence.  But, as I have told any student who will listen, much better to learn 1000 melodic standards and perhaps 8-12 transcriptions than vice versa.  (The discussion on transcriptions is a whole other conversation, but I would refer you to David Liebman’s excellent writings and approach to it, where the developing soloist learns 8-10 solos deeply and fully as part of the process of getting one’s own voice.)  

A friend of mine, who is a superb teacher, has a method where he prepares his students marvelously to have fantastic technique, transcribe Charlie Parker and other icons, and dive down to the nuts and bolts of bebop harmony at a granular level.  It is pretty wonderful what he achieves with motivated students.  Many teachers do similar good work in prepping their students to be competent in the bebop/post-bop language.  And yet, as he and I were discussing, it is interesting how many of these students do not find a way to develop their own voice. My belief is that in addition to the excellent prep they get from their teacher,  an aspect we need to guide them to is for them to write music from an early age, always keep an eye on understanding why solos work, not just that they work, and especially to learn these beautiful melodies/harmonies that will help them develop their OWN in-the-moment compositions. It, along with a deep immersion in the blues and swinging, will keep them from sounding antiseptic and like schooled re-creators of what has already been done, since 1000s of melodies marinating inside your neurons as you improvise will give you a sense of song and development that will shape your voice in a way that is uniquely you.  I would much rather hear a player allude to a fragment of a song than spit out a worked-out Brecker or Bird line. It is so achingly obvious when a soloist does that, whereas it is melody and sound and rhythm that connects our solos to our audience.  Playing a worked-out burning lick or triad pair is inside baseball that appeals mainly to fellow jazz musicians/students, and most all of THEM want to be on the guest list. Conversely, playing in the moment with a deep intuitive and organic understanding of 1000s of melodies, along with having done the necessary homework of the common language, will create an experience that musicians and non-musicians alike will love.

To this day, one of the main reasons that folks like Herbie H, Jarrett, Metheny, Mehldau, Lovano, and many others can connect with audiences beyond the “put me on the list, man” jazz bros, is the ability to create a free-flowing in-the-moment melody that effortlessly weaves its way among the harmonies.  That, a powerful and emotive sound/tone and a deep and rooted sense of rhythm? These are the three legs of the stool that will draw in any listener from a pure babe in the jazz woods to the most seasoned aficionado lovingly caressing their pristine vinyls.

So yes, jazz student aspiring to make your mark. Like Bird said, learn all your chords and scales. (Never forget the second 1/2 of that famous quote -“then throw it away and play music”) Listen to and emulate the masters, especially for feel and sound and how they resolve their lines. (By now, 70 years after Bop, especially with the surfeit of transcriptions and software slowdown programs, there’s not that much mystery to the notes and resolutions if you take the time, on your own or with the help of a teacher). Fully imbibe the subtle moves that make a line swing and breathe.  Comprehensively understand harmony, and how melodic tension and release over that harmony and rhythm can create a captivating drama. But never stop learning those beautiful and timeless melodies, a lifelong practice that will help make you an in-the-moment composer, even if you never set pencil to paper,  (and THAT is something you should begin the lifelong practice of doing).  After all, ultimately, while we pay lip service to it, it is a cliché because it is true.  Soloing is a composed melody in real-time, marinated in a rich stew of conversation with your fellow musicians on the gig.  

However you want to say it, whether “it’s the melody, stupid” or “It don’t mean a thing if it don’t make you sing” or “tell me a story”, the truth is: The song (and melody) is YOU!