Louis Armstrong said it clearly: “. . . there’s people all over the world, they like to hear that lead.  Ain’t no sense playing a hundred notes if one will do, Joe Oliver always used to say, ‘Think about that lead.'”

What many people cherish in the music they call jazz is improvisation.  I understand this: much of the pleasure in hearing a jazz musician at work or at play is observing the new beautiful structures (s)he builds on familiar melody, chords, and rhythms. Consider Lester Young playing I GOT RHYTHM.  As I write now, someone is creating something lovely and surprising on familiar themes. Experienced listeners can discern the original structure as they admire the variations on the theme.

But melody still has so much to say to us, to give us, and while melodic embellishment with a swinging harmonic and rhythmic underpinning may not be the only way to present creative improvised music, it can still be deeply satisfying.

Two examples, from mid-1946: Bunk Johnson, trumpet; Don Ewell, piano; Alphonse Steele, improvising on melodies that were “pretty” and well-established even then.  KATHLEEN was written in 1875; DOLL in 1911:


I don’t espouse this as the only rewarding way to play, but it still sounds very good to me.

May your happiness increase! 

11 responses to ““THINK ABOUT THAT LEAD”

  1. Thanks-that was a nice little illustration. I sometimes wonder how you come up with material to write about almost everyday.

  2. I have a good deal of video still to post — and every time I go to a gig, with luck there’s more; and things fall in to my lap (the Bunk Johnson 78s come from a recent twenty-minute visit to Amoeba Music in San Francisco) — or a blogpost is the result of something I’ve been thinking about for six months or twenty years. Glad you’re reading it!

  3. Michael Burgevin

    imo these 2 songs are lovely to say the least – Someone once said “… simplicity is the keynote to good taste…” – And then there’s everyone’s favorite “… less is more…” – The lead is the melody line, a gift from the composer. Maxie would say of someone who was all over his horn “… he doesn’t know the song…” – Perhaps that was true. Life and what we do in a lifetime offers us many choices. What we put in ourselves comes out of ourselves… as a great man once reminded us “… out of the abundance of the heart… the mouth speaks…” — ‘Er ya go! At least state the lead… then knock yourself out blowing all the ‘Lucky Strike extras’…

  4. Beautiful – I grew up listening to these kind of gems – “Doll” really captures the deep “horn sound” that resonates my soul!
    Just saw your post from re:” 2 hours with Louis”. Had I known you then, would have been there. Where can your “peeps” best follow your calendar of presentations? Live in So Ca – but in NY in July.

  5. That talk didn’t come to pass, but if I ever get to do another one, I will surely announce it on the blog. Be well!

  6. Andrew J. Sammut

    “I don’t espouse this as the only rewarding way to play…” Exactly! I wouldn’t want to live in a world where there is only the melody proper, but there is something to be said for (to paraphrase Thelonious Monk) not throwing out the theme after the first chorus.

    Variety: coming to a radio near you!

  7. all the great players from Louis onward to the present day could play a melody and make it alive and beautiful.

  8. Michael Burgevin

    In a way it is, or can be, quite complicated… Why a musician, a creative person, would want to take a piece of music written by a composer with a beautiful melody line and work off of that to the degree where it no longer contains(ed) but a fraction, or nothing at all, of the original melody line… imo is odd, strange. O course, one has the right to do that /// as I have the right to make a choice when I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and set up my easel to copy the ‘whatever’ and begin to do an abstract painting / version thereof. A choice I have made! imo – if I really had something to offer the world I’d go home and go inside ‘myself’ and paint / write / play – a beautiful ‘song’ — Like- “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”(?) — Please know I not only love the melody line of a song, but love, as well, the lovely blue- and all colorful- harmonies that coincide with that lovely (lead) melody line. It’s a ‘heart’ thing’ – not a mathematical head thing. Bobby Hackett is a study in the heart thing. He never played a note you’d want to subtract. Contemporary musicians, after the war, wanted change… For certain they were very creative, intelligent men and women. There were un-played notes in there that they saw / heard and wanted to play. and so they did… Their choice! – imo it was and is a mind thing rather than a soulful heart thing. But then it’s not easy thing to wear your heart on on shoulder is it? So for me the melody line of a given composer’s song is almost sacred in a way. Enhance it- do not trample it to death! If there is an impulse or drive inside anyone of us to play ALL the notes… why not write original music(?)… Berlin, Coots, Donaldson wrote original music… and they all knew what they were doing… they were very sensitive and very intelligent men. End of (my) story, morning glory…

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