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Friday, May 30, 2014


On Thursday, May 29, 2014 gospel music and truthfully music at large, lost one of the most prolific musicians and composers of our time. Professor Melvin Crispell has died.
In music circles, jazz and gospel especially, to be dubbed a “Professor” is a title of the highest honor because it doesn’t just mean you’re good or even great. There will always be good and great musicians, songwriters, etc. But there’s something about being deemed so great that other greats want to learn from you. Think about it. There are a finite amount of keys and pedals on an organ or piano. And after years of existence, one would suppose that with this limited resource at some point it would be almost impossible to create a unique or specific sound that had not already been heard or created. People have been playing and composing music for centuries before Melvin Crispell was ever born. Surely, they’d played or discovered every note, chord, and progression there was to find. But every now and then, someone comes and breaks the limits off of an instruments limitation. They miraculously discover infinite possibilities inside of a finite construct. I feel like I’m using big words and sounding rather lofty because I’m struggling to properly communicate the grandeur of his gifting. Very few people could take an instrument or a musical art form that had existed for so long and managed to elevate and shape a unique sound that influences its style and musicianship to this day.
One would think that after accomplishing such a feat that there would be no room for humility. But this was the foundation of Melvin’s genius and what made “Professor” such an appropriate title. Musicians and composers borrowed from the sound he created and with a level of grace not seen in people of his stature, he taught them how. Melvin and I weren’t extremely close but because of our close musical circles I was blessed to be around and close to his work many times. As a choir music lover (expert, lol) I knew his entire catalog and there was something so fascinating about watching HIM play HIS songs. And the most honorable part of getting to watch him work was watching him teach. He didn’t keep it to himself. He was always sharing with his contemporaries and aspiring musicians alike.
But I want to be clear, his talent didn’t stop at just musicianship. Yes, he could make a B3 sing and create almost orchestral accompaniment from one instrument but he was a true composer, writing and stylizing songs that challenged our ears and minds but were still inherently singable. I’m an official “choir head” and as a minister of music, choir director, workshop facilitator etc., I never realized how many of his songs I “kept in my back pocket” to teach until today. Songs that if asked on a dime I was ready to pull out and sing. This one hurts folks. I was tempted to type that you had to know him to know what a gift he was to us and to our music but who he was is in the music and if you just listen, you will understand.
Below are some of my favorite Melvin Crispell compositions that you may or may not know he was responsible for. If you weren’t familiar, get familiar. And if you are familiar, reminisce with me as we celebrate Professor Melvin Crispell. Also remember to keep his wife and son in your prayers along with the countless artists, choirs and musicians who counted him as a friend and mentor. Whoever’s playing for the choir in heaven today, slide over for just a second for “Potbelly” and learn something.