Playing Jazz Calypsos: To Bop or Not to Bop?

St. Thomas, with it’s infectious calypso rhythm, is one of the first tunes that many jazz musicians learn to play.  Saxophonist Sonny Rollins is credited as composer, but it’s possible that the song is actually based on a traditional Caribbean tune. Either way, the song became an instant classic when Rollins recorded it for his 1956 album, Saxophone Colossus.

Even though the melody is easy to play and the chord changes are basic, for years I struggled while improvising on St. Thomas. As a teenager, I loved listening to Rollins’ solo, in which he spun out beautiful and elaborate jazz phrases over the song’s basic rhythm. The problem was that every time I tried it myself, I was disappointed that I couldn’t do the same myself. I could play bebop on other jazz tunes, but somehow my playing on St. Thomas sounded stiff and contrived.

It took me about 15 years before I realized that there was another possible approach to the tune: it could be played in a harmonically simple, rhythmically fun way. Just like a traditional calypso, with more “island” feel. Sonny Rollins had found a way to meld his bebop outlook with the latin rhythm, but I had a different sensibility and it didn’t seem natural for me. So, inspired by pianists such as Randy Weston and some steel drum players I had heard in Nassau, I went in the entirely opposite direction.

I’d be playing a jazz concert, and when someone counted off St. Thomas, I’d forget all about jazz and mentally go down to the Caribbean. The amazing thing is that everyone started complimenting me on my solos! I couldn’t believe it. After years of fighting myself on this tune, I was an “overnight sensation.” Just by changing my approach.

The ironic thing is that later in his career, Sonny Rollins did the same thing. As he got older, he started playing calypsos simpler and with more of an authentic, island feel. And as for me, starting my solos simply, with an emphasis on rhythm, has also enabled them to sometimes go in a bebop direction much more successfully than ever before. The best of both worlds!

I guess this can remind us that musical development is an ongoing process, and that we each need to find our own way, and keep exploring.  I’d love to hear if any of you have had any similar experiences, of finding your own way of playing tunes as you’ve developed musically. Please leave a comment below.

Here’s a video of me playing St. Thomas on solo piano, from July 2013:

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