Igniting Jazz: The Wizadry of Melvin Sparks

By Brian L. Knight


When the Greyboy Allstars played in Burlington during the Winter of 1997, the boys from San Diego introduced a guest guitarist for their second set. The Greyboy Allstars prologued the jam session by saying that playing with the guitarist was one of their greatest honors. This immediately made contact with my synapses in my brain: "If the truly amazing Greyboy Allstars were honored to be playing with somebody, then this guy must be damn good." The guest guitarist was Melvin Sparks and he just may be one of the best guitarists alive.

Melvin Sparks is one of the best kept secrets in the music world but this is a secret that shouldn’t be kept. The music industry is dominated by the sucess of rock and roll. As consumers, we think the best guitarists are Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Garcia etc. These guys rightfully deserve every accolade that is bestowed upon them, but how about the "other" best guitarists: McGlaughlin, Montgomery, Sparks, Green? Because of a lack of "pop"qualities, jazz musicians never recieve the same media attention as the rock and roll behemoths. George Benson and Pat Metheny have been able to slightly penetrate the industry with their pop flirtation but never to the same extent. Melvin Sparks is at the top of the list of unheralded jazz musicians whose time has come.

Melvin Sparks did not stumble upon his love for music for he was surrounded by it as a youth. His older brother, Danny, was a famous jazz drummer who played in New York City. At the famous Club Harlem, Danny jammed with the greats such as Charlie Parker, Lou Donaldson and Sonny Stitt. His other brother, Alfred played along side the blues master, Albert Collins, in San Antonio.

Like Alfred, Melvin initially steered his musical interest towards the blues, espicially the work of BB King. Melvin’s mother had a different opinion and felt that jazz was the right musical direction for Melvin. She ran a local cafe in Houston where the was a jazz jam session every Monday night and the jukebox continuosly churned out the jazz sounds. Whenever Danny Sparks would return from New York City, he could tell a different story about every person whose music cam out of the jukebox.

It was the Sparks family musical legacy that gave Melvin his first musical opportunities. The Sparks name was known throughout Texas and there was no way that anybody was goint to doubt his abilities. Melvin got his first job with Hank Ballard and The Midnighters. Ballard is considered to be on of the fathers of R&B music who is responsible for penning "The Twist" in 1960 which was then popularized by Chubby Checker two years later. Sparks played with Ballard during the early 1960s, but was not allowed to go the road with the band as the 17 year old Sparks was too young. In a rare case of musical responsibility, Ballard didn’t want to introduce Sparks to the evils of a rock and roll road trip. As a result, Sparks left the band, but it did not take long for him to find more work. The funky influence of the Midnighters would be revealed years later as Melvin would introduce R&B elements to the world of jazz and Hank Ballard would end up playing with the James Brown Revue.

After his brief stint with The Midnighters, Sparks went on to join the Upsetters who backed up some of the greatest R&B singers of the time: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Little Richard. The Upsetters, along with other groups like the Showstoppers, played for all the vocal performers of the 1960s. These R&B hit makers didn’t have any back up bands so the Upsetters were constantly on the road playing with the best.

While on the road the Upsetters, Sparks began to create the foundations of the funky jazz that he would soon popularize. While sharing the stage with funky masters such as Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, Melvin blended his Texas blues influence and formal jazz education with the funk and soul of Motown. The end result was the roots of acid jazz.

When Sparks finsished up with the Upsetters, he moved to New York City to full heartedly pursue his love of jazz. In New York City, he used his brother’s name to try to find some work. It was a pretty smart tactic, for by Day 2 in New York City, Sparks was jamming with the great George Benson at Mintons, the famous club where Thelonius Monk was house pianist during World War II. Soon after ths impromptu jam session, Sparks became Benson’s replacement in organist Brother Jack McDuff’s band. Like Benson, Sparks was influenced by the great Wes Montgomery, but this wasn’t the primary reason why McDuff showed interest in Sparks. McDuff liked Sparks for two reasons: his ability to read music and his ability to play R&B. Spark’s tenure with the Upstters had paid off. Sparks comments: "It wasn’t called acid jazz when I was recording this music. We were basically trying to play jazz on top of a funky beat. I had the R&B experience from the Upstetters"

Over the thirty years played with some of jazz’s greatest musicians: David "Fathead" Newman, Lou Donaldson, Hank Crwaford, Reuben Wilson and John Patton to name a few. During the 1970s, Sparks backed up Lou Donaldson on the funk-jazz classics "Everything I Play Is Funky" and "Hot Dog". Sparks recorded seven albums of his own and played on over 100 other albums. As a session man for Blue Note and Prestige Records, Sparks laid his signature guitar work on many other musician’s albums without ever being in spotlight.

In addition to playing with his greatest influences, Melvin’s success has also been an impact on others. Houston, Texas may be best known in the musical world through the Archie Bell ands The Drell’s 1968 hit "Tighten Up" as the song makes a direct reference to Houston in the opening verses. It was Melvin Sparks who was responsible for motivating Archie Bell to write songs and get serious about his music. Archie and Melvin were high school classmates in Houston and when Sparks first hit the road with the Upsetters, it pushed the other Houston musicians to step it up a notch. Similiarily, the great Johnny Copeland was making name for himself in Houston, but when Sparks moved to New York City and started recording albums, a bit of High School rivalry arose and Copeland moved to New York City to attempt to match the feat.

Nowadays Sparks lives outside of New York City, just far enough feel the beauty of the New York State countryside but close enough to stay close to his work. He has just released a new album "I’m a Gittar Player" on Cannonball Records. The album fully encompasses Spark’s musical background of the Texas blues in"All Day, All Night", the rolling soul jazz of "Mr. Texan" and the down right funk of "Get Down Tonite". There is even a little Latino influence on the album with the swinging "Jiggy". This can most likely be attributed to the presence of the Latin groovemeister, Pucho. When Sparks isn’t in the studio or playing live, he is practicing his guitar 4-8 hours a days. At age 52, he still belives in a strong practice regimen.

Sparks has definately felt a revival since the resurgence of acid jazz. In particular, the Greyboy Allstars have been the catalyst for the Sparks rebirth. They went on tour on both coasts and Sparks was introduced to whole new generation of fans. Sparks loved every minute of the tour and he espically loved the fans who came out to the shows. Sparks comments: "It has been a long time coming for jazz. The fans are there to appreciate the music. You don’t have to appease the audience. If the band has talent, you can excite the audience and they appreciate it. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago." With this in mind, Sparks has become reinvigorated and he is ready to strut his stuff on the road one more time, so keep an eye out for this unknown legend to play a venue near you.