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Making sense of Parker and bebop...

kernewegor

Bon vivant, raconteur and twit
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1,736
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


View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srMZYVW0T4c
parker's mood

View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pVxWdnInWY
cool blues

View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubmw5jvRvZU
kc blues

View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2EEUbIroMs
a night in tunisia

View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du_N4M7f5KM
merry go round

View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okrNwE6GI70
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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kevgermany

ex Landrover Nut
Subscriber
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21,947
Someone recommended Charlie Parker with Strings to me. And there's a lot there that's accessible, even to a guy like me. I even enjoyed it! Now I need to listen to those others you've suggested.

But I'm not sure I'll bow to peer pressure over the bebop. Just too painful.
 

Jamesmac

Well-Known Member
Messages
1,874
A lot of jazzers at the time and probably still now, thought it was not the thing to do
( record with Strings) CP with Strings. One of my fav rec. I think it would be a great pity if he listened to the purists.
 

BigMartin

Well-Known Member
Messages
3,904
Someone recommended Charlie Parker with Strings to me. And there's a lot there that's accessible, even to a guy like me. I even enjoyed it! Now I need to listen to those others you've suggested.

But I'm not sure I'll bow to peer pressure over the bebop. Just too painful.
It's not a matter of bowing to anything. You just start to think "That's weird, how come I didn't used to like this?". Or not, as the case may be. But it's worth coming back to every few months or so just to make sure you still don't like it.
 

altissimo

Well-Known Member
Messages
3,354
the first time I remember hearing Charlie Parker was after the pub had shut, under the influence, at a friend's house - he put on a Charlie Parker record and I heard the sound of a man thinking out loud. The sheer delight, joie de vivre and dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin- ness took me by surprise and captivated me. I'd already heard Miles Davis and had read about him playing with Parker, but this was something else..
Trying to listen to Bird on a 'one note after the other' basis doesn't work for me, I hear the emotion and the interesting shapes and balletic leaps he makes in the air, casually tossing notes about like a juggler with perfect timing.. the freedom and 'I can do anything with this instrument' attitude and the emotional intelligence of it all...
I don't care about which notes he's playing over which chord or any of the rest of that analysis that's all been done after his death, none of it rings true.. Bird's on a different level to the rest of us that defies cold rationalisation - and he's aptly named, it is like watching a bird in flight, swooping and darting around.
 

kernewegor

Bon vivant, raconteur and twit
Messages
1,736
But I'm not sure I'll bow to peer pressure over the bebop.
It's not a matter of bowing to anything. You just start to think "That's weird, how come I didn't used to like this?". Or not, as the case may be. But it's worth coming back to every few months or so just to make sure you still don't like it.
Big Martin has it exactly right. It wasn't peer pressure. It was, as I stated, "Peer preference and peer opinion (which) encouraged me to listen to Parker all those years ago..." which is rather different. A couple of knowledgeable friends rated Parker extremely highly and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why... so I listened - and suddenly started hearing what I hadn't heard before.

Their opinions caused my to listen, sure, but I didn't 'like' Parker just to fit in with their opinions... that happened when I finally heard the music in his playing, and realised for myself how incredible it was.

Great! I think we should move this to a resource article.
I'm glad it's useful. Nou iff eye cud pley az wel az i rite...

Trying to listen to Bird on a 'one note after the other' basis doesn't work for me, I hear the emotion and the interesting shapes and balletic leaps he makes in the air, casually tossing notes about like a juggler with perfect timing..
Nor me.

I was hearing strings of notes which didn't make sense to me until I heard "Embraceable You" - and then I started to hear the emotion and shapes as you describe... and also how he moves through the changes. Juggling, as you say, captures it... changes of direction and perfect timing... which I felt in my gut...

I don't care about which notes he's playing over which chord or any of the rest of that analysis that's all been done after his death, none of it rings true..
This reminds me of Joshua Slocumb's dry observation that the lines of the "Spray" could stand any amount of analysis - having sailed her alone around the world he knew they were remarkable... and didn't need 'experts' to confirm it...

All the same, trying to figure out why things work is difficult to resist...
 

kernewegor

Bon vivant, raconteur and twit
Messages
1,736
A lot of jazzers at the time and probably still now, thought it was not the thing to do
( record with Strings) CP with Strings. One of my fav rec. I think it would be a great pity if he listened to the purists.
I always thought it was something which wouldn't work - I could never imagine a whole orchestra's worth of symphony violinists getting a handle on the rhythmic complexities of bebop.

However... I heard a short scrap of CP with Strings on youtube recently and I didn't break out in a rash.

I made a note at the time to follow it up and see how it grabs me... after all, either Bird badly needed the dough or he thought it could work...
 

Jamesmac

Well-Known Member
Messages
1,874
I always thought it was something which wouldn't work - I could never imagine a whole orchestra's worth of symphony violinists getting a handle on the rhythmic complexities of bebop.

However... I heard a short scrap of CP with Strings on youtube recently and I didn't break out in a rash.

I made a note at the time to follow it up and see how it grabs me... after all, either Bird badly needed the dough or he thought it could work...
Probably a bit of both. Did you know the Oboe player was none other than. Mitch Miller. The sing along with Mitch guy:)
 

altissimo

Well-Known Member
Messages
3,354
either Bird badly needed the dough or he thought it could work...
more the latter, Bird had a genuine desire to work with an orchestra, he wanted to do something different from the standard bebop quintet and after all, the beboppers listened to Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith for inspiration.
'Bird With Strings' falls short of those ambitions, the arrangements aren't really good enough, but I think Bird liked it and played live with strings several times, but ultimately felt a bit restricted by the arrangements - the band couldn't stretch out for another few choruses if he felt like taking a longer solo, like a regular jazz band could.
Still, it's worth a listen, if only for the sax playing...

personally, I prefer this -
http://youtu.be/dj6AZKjAFu8

http://youtu.be/7bm2fkRILNE
 
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kernewegor

Bon vivant, raconteur and twit
Messages
1,736
Bird had a genuine desire to work with an orchestra, he wanted to do something different to the standard bebop quintet and after all, the beboppers listened to Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith for inspiration.
He wanted to go to Paris and study with Edgard Varèse, in particular, but death intervened. There is a fascinating interview on youtube with Paul Desmond in which he mentions this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3W8Ff_4oFg
 

kernewegor

Bon vivant, raconteur and twit
Messages
1,736
Here is a recording of Bird and Pres, inter alia, playing "Embraceable You" in the 1949 'Jazz at the Philharmonic' promoted by Norman Grantz.

It is interesting and instructive to hear this and compare it with Parker's 1947 studio recording (link in original post).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9cZF2dOZPM
 

kevgermany

ex Landrover Nut
Subscriber
Messages
21,947
It's not rejection from me. But you have to understand that if I don't like something musical, it is physically painful for me. I walked, nearly ran, out of a concert a couple of weeks ago because the loud dischordant piano playing made me want to get on stage and slam the lid on the thumper's hands.

But there's hope. I came around from hating everything Stravinsky to enjoying Rites of Spring. But I'd still rather listen to Grieg, Beethoven, Mendelssohn. Or good blues.
 

Alc.

Senior Member
Messages
737
I heard Charlie Parker many years ago and was, of course, very impressed. Certainly his vinyl still line my shelves. The flow and power was overwhelming. Later I wanted more of the intended melody and less of the nervous improv. I guess what I mean to say is his improv was so much more than I could understand that I wanted to hear what the composer had really intended. But then I am old and have been putting my reeds in my ears rather than my cracked mouthpieces. I wonder what Matty Mattlock could have done with a sax; or Benny?
 

BigMartin

Well-Known Member
Messages
3,904
But there's hope. I came around from hating everything Stravinsky to enjoying Rites of Spring. But I'd still rather listen to Grieg, Beethoven, Mendelssohn. Or good blues.
Have you tried the Symphony in C (I tried to add a YouTube Link but either my browser or the site is playing up)?
 

Andy Geiger

Member
Messages
47
What is striking to me about Charlie Parker is his incredible facility, speed and nimbleness technically. It is dazzling. It is not especially complex harmonically. He ran chord tones within the changes, using upper extensions. He used "enclosures" approaching chord tones from half-tone away, for example: C/Bb/B if approaching the 3 in the key of G. I practice using the Charlie Parker Omnibook, playing on his solos. Slow them down, play them at a medium or even a ballad tempo, and you will see and hear his genius, because they are beautiful. Play ORNITHOLOGY and you will get a whole new appreciation of HOW HIGH THE MOON. Also, listen to the brilliant tenor playing of Wardell Gray and the trumpet man Fats Navarro and you'll hear that Charlie wasn't alone in his adventure.
 
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