Fake Books and Mosh Pits

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Mel Siff and I were enjoying a meal at an eatery which ironically considered itself a ‘healthy buffet.’ We have these here in California too, like Fresh Choice or Your Belly May Be Big, But Let’s Pretend this 1400 Calorie Meal Might Be Good For You. But this particular one in Denver, which has since gone out of business, will always stick in my head because it shared a name with a pilates and strip aerobics studio down the street from BodyTribe called Healthy Habits.


This was probably the second or third time I visited Dr. Siff, and I was there as part of a strength camp that he hosted at his place. Mel’s brain worked on a level unlike yours or mine. It functioned on about 4 hours of sleep a night and if it were a heart, it’s resting rate would be roughly 26,000 BPM, unlike our 70 or so. In other words, it was a information processor that was always running at speeds that could challenge a modern Mac. If I could have hooked him up as an external hard drive, I would’ve and so would you.

This made his lectures works of art, in a slightly chaotic, Pollock-ian vain. And he knew it. On that particular evening, while we both sat behind our custom made ‘healthy’ salad mountains wondering how many types of dressing we’re allowed by law to drown it in, Mel had concerns that not everyone understood his style of teaching.

“Do you think I’m making sense? Do they get it?”


This was a grown-up moment for me. I had to live the cliche and step up to the plate.  It was time to provide my mentor with an answer that didn’t prove me to be a complete idiot. Not a complete one… maybe just a bit of an idiot. That I’d be okay with.

Although he played with everyone, he only produced one solo album in his career. It's now a rare collector's gem.

Although he played with everyone, he only produced one solo album in his career. It’s now a rare collector’s gem.

On the way to Healthy Habits, we were talking a bit about music, especially jazz, and I earned a point or two of respect (or maybe just curiosity) by bragging about some of my father’s accomplishments in the jazz scene with enough nonchalance to make it seem like I was surrounded by well known bop musicians while I was growing up. This wasn’t entirely true, since most of the really cool stories relating to my piano-playing father jamming with other jazz masters mostly happened before I was born (including the night he met my mother, when he was having an after-hours jam with the Tijuana Brass and a drummer who my mother swears was Buddy Rich). But whether it was implied that I was surrounded by bop cats of fame throughout my youth or not, it opened a wonderful dialog about music and art that continued from the drive to the buffet, through the overwhelming walk in line while a veggie and pasta Kilimanjaro grew on our shaky, groaning plates, up until we sat our hungry tushes down and commenced stuffing our pie holes, practicing ‘healthy habits.’

My clean and jerk, and snatch, for that matter, are only slightly less pathetic, but I've had some great teachers along my journey

My clean and jerk, and snatch, for that matter, are only slightly less pathetic, but I’ve had some great teachers along my journey

Then he hit me with with his concern about being understood. We had spent all day with him lecturing and about 8 of us listening and lifting, and now he was wondering if he made sense. He did, at least to my ears and brain, but I saw his worry and wanted to make the transition from dumb-ass pleeb with a pathetic clean and jerk to a friend who also has wisdom to share. Could I give back to this man who had given so much?

So I broke down the anatomy of a bebop song. And compared it to that of a symphonic orchestration of classical music. Stay the course… this might make sense.

Both styles get from point A to Point B, they both have a structured beginning and a determined ending. But the path from start to finish is considerably different. While classical music follows rigid guidelines based on very linear patterns and conforming harmonies that can make a beautiful and provocative straight line from start to finish, jazz, particularly bebop, follows a structure that could only be described as loose at best and has rule-bending options of harmony and rhythm that, when compared to the straight line of classical music, H.P. Lovecraft would probably describe as “non-euclidean.”

Then I told Mel that his lectures were BeBop. Sometimes hard bop, but never venturing into avant garde or free jazz territory where no one could make sense of what the heck he was getting at. He always started with a point, a strong idea he wanted to get across. But in the process, a Coltrane solo of anecdotes, side bars and asides embellishes the point, sometimes almost beyond recognition. Yet, somehow the chord changes never dissipate into chaos and, like Davis when he was on fire, there is always a strong, almost emotional return to the original idea (what is referred to as the ‘head’ of a bop song) before the lecture/song ends.

Frankly this was my style of education, despite the dimness of my own bulb. A mind who moved as fast as Mel’s could unleash a huge host of information before you realized he was back to where he started. This is often where the gems of information were. Sure, the opening notes of So What might bring goosebumps to your skin, but it is only in anticipation for what a good soloist will do with the chord changes.

This is why I traveled to Colorado on many occasions to learn from him. Sometimes solo, or sometimes within a strength camp, the jazz always made it worth while. Even it he followed the exact syllabus as my last visit (which was never the case) I’d walk away with more new info than I knew what to do with. His lessons might start the same, and they might have ended the same, but the paths from point A to B were pure improvisational jazz.

Some people like the classical approach. They might not dig his jive. But I didn’t care. I liked it and he seemed to like that I liked it. I liked that too.

sun kb1Something that has since become evident… Training has genres.

In consideration of the three basics (um, train hard, eat well, rest hard… remember?), there is one strong reason why there isn’t a magic bullet program. Taste. There is validity in the promise of beefcake status from many of the programs and protocols offered by every website and magazine. But, like music, these workouts may not fit one’s palate.

Like music, there are workout genres. Musically, soft rock curdles my spiritual milk, but what does indeed float my boat might make the average person associate with the appeal of eating a live puppy. We’re going to like different things, even if your choices are silly.

This man is an ass.

This man is an ass.

This is the only way my narrow-minded brain can properly explain the appeal of, say, any yoga trend that began in Beverly Hills created by a misogynistic ego-freak. The discerning physical culturist may see as a glaring red flag.

Taste. There’s no accounting for it.

When I was entering the modern fitness medicine show a couple of decades ago, there was the promise of huge aesthetic transformation with little effort, struggle, or discomfort. Terms like ‘low (or non-) impact,’ ‘gentle’ and ‘safe’ often shared the paragraph with those marketing gems like ‘core,’ ‘tone’ or the redundant ‘lean muscle.’ Rational, freethinking humans were to believe in fitness fairies and workout warlocks so much they can’t whip out their Mastercards fast enough. They wanted their workouts as easy as those ‘three easy payments.’

Recently the trend has shifted a bit towards hard work. Sounds good, right? Aggressive intensity, the fairy dust of transformation, or so we keep a preachin’. But, of course, even this gets lost in translation. It has become a quest to do a bunch of stuff and do it quickly, with no real rhyme or reason.

‘Easy’ fitness doesn’t exist. Brainless fitness shouldn’t exist either, and in the BodyTribe definition, doesn’t. Sweat is required, and although blood and tears aren’t mandatory, they sure can be fun, but only with purpose.

And breaking down barriers is physically required and metaphorically pretty punk. No ‘adult contemporary’ allowed.

autumnleavesAs far back as the 30’s musicians referred to collections of bootlegged sheet music called ‘fake books.’ These tomes of charts were often little more than hand-scrawled chord changes with a melody line, sans any arrangement or additional harmonies. In the jazz world, these charts were simply loose outlines, the ‘heads’ that I mentioned earlier, that were a basic reference point for the musician to embellish, depending on his or her mood, ability and creativity (and drug ingestion). Bop musicians could get together and riff on tunes called out from their fake books and find common ground through improvisation and chaos, creating unity through a sort of randomness or anti-structure.

As early as the mid-sixties there was another music movement that was taking shape that had, in terms of intensity and non-conformity, similarities to bebop, although neither the intensity nor the non-conformity were as refined. By the mid 70’s that genre was being referred to as punk. When taken to a slightly more intense extreme, the ’80’s saw the rise of hardcore. Brutal, loud, maybe a little scary, but with a purpose for change (uh… in most cases. Sometimes there were just dipshits being angry, but let’s consider the overall movement as a platform for a cause).

The recipe for fitness success requires two main workout ingredients: intensity and purpose. All else – focus, technique, program design, etc. – falls under one of these two headings. If we’re talking musical genres, then we need some hardcore and some bebop. Around these parts, workouts require speed, drive and not just a little violence, plus a true desire to create change. Our goals are well defined, but with a malleability of structure that makes formulas and spread sheets become like charts in a fake book, giving us a skeleton to build on, using our own creativity, our own Jazz.

It’s a bebop/hardcore combo.

bham 6  153


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Showing 8 comments
  • Craig

    Good one. D.E.E. rocks as always….

  • ultrafknbd

    I’m reading Supertraining as we, um, speak.

  • chip

    And you’ll be reading it the rest of your life. It’s the Atlas Shrugged of exercise phys books, although the author had an actual sense of humor and thriving social life.

  • chip

    Craig, are you a Wovenhand fan too? Damn, it’s like gothic Americana bitched slapped by Dead Can Dance. Painfully good.

  • Leon

    “They might not dig his jive.” Reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, Motto.
    I play it cool
    And dig all jive
    That’s the reason I stay alive.
    My motto
    As I live and learn is
    Dig and be dug in return.

    Thanks. Love your site. From a distant tribe member.

  • camilo@midtwn s&c

    pretty good Chip, as we progress into our training wheather it’s max strength or great conditioning are tastes do change with the goals we set forth. chip i still have your copy of supertraining and were going on a few years now. I’ve also acquired Mark Bell’s copy too last year. thanks for your help.

  • chip

    I was wondering where that went.

  • Josh

    Fun read Chip! Mel Siff is the man. Your very fortunate to have spent some time with him before he passed. Thanks for sharing.

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