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Making sense of Parker and bebop...

Making sense of Parker and bebop...

In any art form, people have preferences and favourites, as is only to be expected.

But sometimes it happens that a whole genre - or a particular practitioner - doesn't strike a chord, is totally incomprehensible and leaves you cold - and yet others think that it, he or she is marvelous.

Assuming that these others are not merely intellectual snobs or fashionable poseurs, one starts to wonder why. It becomes an "Am I missing something?" moment... and what if that which one is missing is a revelation, leading to a widening of artistic horizons, appreciation and enjoyment? The thought starts to nag...

This happened to me with Bird - Charlie Parker, one of tragic geniuses of jazz... and to many, the daddy of them all...

It happened a long time ago and was spread over a few days, but is a vivid memory, producing a great leap in my ability to listen to and to follow fresh musical ideas... and to enjoy it - furiously and avidly.

If you haven't yet got to grips with Charlie Parker and his music sounds to you like lots of notes pouring out without rhyme or reason - and if you wonder what people see in him or in bebop - reading what happened to me might produce a lightbulb moment for you, too...

It came about like this: over a couple of years in my early teens I had listened to British skiffle and trad jazz, got into blues, New Orleans, Dixieland, and Chicago jazz, through to Basie and Ellington,too, but on the whole favouring small bands rather than big bands and swing.

I soon started learning clarinet and alto. Some more accomplished friends with whom I used to try to jam with were into bebop, which I didn't "get" at all for a while. It was just strings of notes, played fast.... eventually and by luck, one needed somewhere to park some 78s and EPs and LPs - this is ancient history, man... not just vinyl, but shellac as well... if you didn't like a 78 disk - or it got scratched - some boiling water, some nifty pushing and pulling and you had a plant pot.. complete with a drain hole...

I looked through this borrowed hoard and tried listening to Parker's "Merry Go Round" a few times. I couldn't hear melody. It sounded just like fast noodling for the sake of it - showing off. I didn't get it at all. It didn't make sense to me.

I wasn't alone. Some jazz critics - referred to by beboppers as 'moldy figs' - regularly excoriated this new music and those who played it, and even denied that it was music at all, and certainly not jazz... there were still a few of these sounding off in the 60s, and their earlier critiques were still available... masterpieces of prejudice and willful ignorance, the products of closed minds...

I think it was a few days later I tried "Embraceable You". I played it again. And again. Gradually light dawned. After a few more plays I was hooked - I could follow his lines, his voice leading, his musical ideas. I then went back to "Merry Go Round" and - gradually - more light dawned. It was an awful lot faster, but now that I had a clue as to how to listen and what to listen for so I could hear and follow what he was doing. I listened again and again, and each time I heard more. It needed a quick ear - and an alert mind. It was challenging - but incredibly intriguing because of that.

What I realised - now I had learned to listen - was that two things were radically different from the older jazz.

One was that the notes Parker used in his his breaks, his phrases and his melodic lines were more 'adventurous' than in earlier jazz - he was, I learned from my bebop friends, using intervals that earlier improvisers did not, his music was more 'advanced'... but - having learned to listen, having started to attune my ear to this radically different style of music - it was intensely and amazingly musical and melodic, which before I had not been able to hear. My mind had not taken it on board. This was a remarkable realisation.

The second thing was his timing - far, far less predictable than earlier players, much more sophisticated, and yet swinging like mad... much of earlier jazz was to accompany dancing, so a steady beat and a reasonably predictable background was the norm - this new jazz was not for that at all, but for listeners... and listeners with a quick ear, who were wide awake....

Part of what Parker was doing, I realised, was playing the sort of sweeping arpeggios and scalar runs that technically brilliant pianists like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and classical pianists played, but which horn players had not before achieved - certainly not with his sophistication, breathtaking timing and melodic inventiveness.

One older saxophonist commented to Parker: "Kid, that horn ain't meant to sound that fast!"

That raises what was actually a third element at play. Black musicians felt - often with considerable justification - that music which they created was being copied by white musicians who had more and easier channels to commercial success open to them, merely due to not being black. This was America in the 1940s and 1950s, remember. So a new genre of music - often impossibly fast, with difficult rhythmic and harmonic complexity and sophistication - came into being, due to the prevailing political, economic and racial situation...

The next Parker tune I explored, I think, was "Ko Ko"... and so it went on... I could not get enough...

Actually it is a big jump between the "Embraceable You" and "Merry Go Round", if only due to speed of delivery of MGR. The dramatic and magnificent "Parker's Mood", and "Cool Blues", "KC Blues" "A Night in Tunisia" - with the breathtaking.' famous alto break' - would perhaps be better stepping stones to discover Parker.

If you - as I did - find Parker too overpowering, if you can't hear melody and just hear streams of notes, listening to his lyrical ballads and some of the slower blues numbers that I mentioned may give you a 'light bulb moment', too... here they are:

embraceable you

parker's mood

cool blues kc blues a night in tunisia merry go round ko ko

Peer preference and peer opinion encouraged me to listen to Parker all those years ago. It took a bit of time and the right tune to make the penny drop. Different things, different experiences trigger different responses and realisations...

If you already appreciate Parker it may be that how you arrived at that might help someone else to make that jump from puzzlement, or even dislike, to the opposite pole of realisation and digging his music like mad... if so, please share...

If your lightbulb moments was about another musician it would be best to start a separate thread... then people can zero in more easily on what they might feel that they are missing out on... a thread on Coltrane would be good...
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Great article with a personal perspective. Just shows that there are many levels of listening...
Good eye opener
Great post about a listening/listener's journey along an Artiste's way.
Very well written and much like my experience and opinion of Charlie Parker, one of my saxophone heroes. When you try to play like Parker or Coltrane, you realize just how talented and skilled they were.
I can't play Parker, but I can hear him. I came to him after a passions for Classical violin concertos (Mendelssohn, Bruch, Pagannini..) which I think attuned my ear.
Great article on Bird, thank you very much
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