Since I was a small child, I've been fascinated by melodies. I passionately learned songs that I heard. I like the words, but I loved the melodies. Those notes spoke to my soul. The way I related to them was special. Nothing else reached me like they did. I was thrilled to be able to sing them, then later to play them on the piano and even later on the trumpet. They became my songs. They expressed who I am.
I didn't distinguish between styles of music. I was open to everything from folk songs to classical music to popular songs. If the melody made me feel connected, I added it to my repertoire. One by one, I added song after song. Before long, I knew hundreds, and then thousands of songs. What began with Row, Row, Row Your Boat, led to Minuet In G and, ultimately, to Stardust.
Just as we humans develop in the womb by retracing evolution, I developed as a musician, beginning with earlier simpler melodies and gradually moving on to more sophisticated modern tunes. When I began to compose my own melodies, I wrote what sounded good to me without any regard to its derivation. I never set out to be original or even new; I just wanted my music to sound and feel good to me.
I didn't realize it, but I was not only expressing how I feel, but also describing the culture I live in. This culture inched forward, one generation at a time, building on the triumphs of the previous generations.
The saying "You are what you eat" extends to every part of our lives. The music we create is built on all the music we've heard and played in our lives. This is as true for me as it was for Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, and J.S. Bach.
Some composers and improvisers are inclusive, while others are more exclusive. An inclusive composer draws from every experience (musical and otherwise), and says, "How do I express that in my music?" An exclusive composer says, "We don't do that in our music."
A week or two ago, jazz trumpet player Jack Walrath posted on Facebook lamenting the lack of melody in contemporary jazz. Of course, jazz players are playing melodies, but what Jack was referring to was the disconnect from the 500-year European and American melodic tradition. The aversion to diatonic and blues melodies poses a similar question to that with which Arnold Schoenberg assaulted the classical music world a century ago. Ultimately, 12-tone music didn't replace diatonic melodies, but it did push us all to accept more chromaticism.
One day 50 years ago, I was sitting in Herb Pomeroy's Line Writing class, when he told the class to sing every note they write, and to make sure that each player they write for gets lines he or she can sing. Ever since then, I have been striving to do just that. This is not always easy, especially in chromatic and dissonant music, but strong melodies hold the music together and make it more accessible to players and listeners alike.
I just finished writing a three-year project of a book of nearly 400 Public Domain songs. It took a lot of research to find the best popular songs and determine their authentic melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. I worked with Chuck Israels writing out lead sheets and adding alternative, more interesting harmonies to inspire the future users of the book to be creative with these old gems. These now-ancient melodies have inspired great musicians and still do. Through them, I have learned their language and principles of serialization. For all my study of complex music, I remain in awe of the beauty of simplicity.
This collection of great songs will be made available online, free to everyone. There is a fundraising effort to support the creation of the book. I hope you will consider contributing –
For those that would like a hard copy, in a couple of months I will be selling the book through my publishing company, Such Sweet Thunder. You can find us online at www.suchsweetthundermusic.com.