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September 09, 2008

Charlie Parker I: "Hot House"

By: Bernard Chazelle

America has produced many geniuses, none greater than Charlie (Bird) Parker. Nobody plays bebop today, just as no one speaks Latin, but Bird and his associates wrote the grammar of modern jazz. What you hear today in any jazz club is what bebop begat, its progeny.

Downbeat Magazine, a prominent jazz publication with a long, storied, racist tradition, awarded Bird and Dizzy Gillespie their annual trophies for 1951.

"You boys got anything more to say?"

Funny the "boys" have yet to utter a single word when they are asked if they have more to say. Ain't too sure how people talked in the 50s but I bet Isaac Stern was never addressed as "You boy" by a conductor at Carnegie Hall. This relentless lack of respect literally killed Charlie Parker, who shared with the likes of Mozart and Proust the inner certainty that he was a genius, yet one never satisfied with his work. Like Mozart, he was blessed with a phenomenal musical memory. He would read a long, complex score only once and memorize every chord change. The only musician on earth Charlie Parker could not outplay was his idol and mentor, Art Tatum.

"Hot House" is based on a Cole Porter chord progression. (Many bebop tunes were inspired by Broadway musicals.) It adheres to the classical format of the genre. First, you've got the unison head (0:50-1:28): a signature bebop device that (IMHO) must have been invented to dull your mind before the amazing solo hits you on the head! (Mozart himself was no stranger to these borderline-manipulative games of contrast.) Note how the pianist, Dick Hyman, completes Diz's unresolved ending at 2:50. That's a beautiful jazz tradition that you rarely (never?) see in classical music.

Beginning at 3:30, the drummer and the horns "trade fours" (ie, they all take turns playing 4 bars). Jazz was always terribly competitive. Ruthlessly so. Bird, no precocious prodigy, paid his dues the hard way. Basie's drummer, Jo Jones, nearly decapitated him after he'd screwed up a double-timing transition. "I'll be back," muttered Bird to himself, "I'll teach these cats." He did. As they say in the Midwest, if you can make it in Kansas City, you can make it anywhere.

Behind the magic chemistry between Bird and Diz lay an intense rivalry. Next to the self-indulgent, irresponsible genius that was Bird, Dizzy Gillespie was the calm, mature leader (as well as a nonpareil virtuoso). Trading fours in bebop was always understood as a dialogue... or a wrestling match. Pay attention closely and you'll see how each musician responds to the previous one, or even to the one before that. There is a hot unmoderated debate going on, of the kind you won't see in this election season.

The drummer, Charlie Smith, borrows techniques pioneered by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. He uses the ride and hi-hat (the cymbaly thingies) to mark the tempo while the bass drum is used for accents (eg, dropping "bombs") and his snare (the little table in front of him) "chatters" along. Bebop's use of chord substitutions was a radical departure from the swing era, but never forget that the true revolution in bebop was rhythmic, not harmonic.

Around the time this video was recorded, Bird's daughter, Pree, was born. Two years later, she was dead of pneumonia. Her death sent him into a tailspin from which he never recovered. One botched suicide attempt and many shots of Scotch and heroin later, Charlie Parker died at the New York home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (an amazing woman I hope to blog about some day). He was 34.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at September 9, 2008 06:37 PM

I "discovered" tinyrevolution through a commenter at Glenn Greenwald's blog just a few days ago and have been enjoying getting caught up with reading here. Thank you, Mr. Chazelle, for this post. What a treat!

Posted by: Gwen at September 9, 2008 08:18 PM

incredible playing all around. thanks.

Posted by: Guest at September 9, 2008 08:43 PM

I guess, I will not understand 'Theory of Music' but the sound of music really gets me. I had watched "The Bird"--great movie and music. Thanks for posting the REAL Bird and his music. Great listening!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 9, 2008 09:12 PM

Great post Bernard, always enjoy reading about or listening to Parker. Did you notice that Parker kept moving his left hand up to near the base of the neck? Probably having trouble with his octave key, and yes Parker changed everything for those who followed in his footsteps and in fact he raised the bar or at least in my opinion. Parker was actually a very “inside” player (inside the key) and chord tones feature prominently in his lines which provide the framework he builds his solos on. So you are absolutely correct it was the rhythm that was important, it was Parkers phrasing sense that was important not the chord extensions.

Yes the unison playing of the melody chorus (the head) is a signature of Be-bop probably for contrast as you say but also to emphasize the melody. It should be noted that the predominant note length is the eighth note, long sinuous lines of eighth notes with double time being sixteenth notes but that oversimplifies the music greatly. If you listen carefully to the head notice the superb phrasing, it’s the last thing most Jazz musicians learn how to do correctly. That holds true for playing the head as well as in the solo choruses.

By the way it was Parker’s birthday not too long ago.

Posted by: rob payne at September 9, 2008 10:52 PM

Rob: great insights, thanks! Didn't realize about the birthday (damn). Happy b'day Bird!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at September 10, 2008 12:34 AM

I've checked this out a few times now, and it's gotten better every time. That doesn't happen too often - last time I can remember was the first time I heard "Giant Steps" - I listened to it every day for like 3 months, and it just got more mind-blowing each time (the same thing happened with Coltrane's "Out Of This World").

I think it's the adroitness of their playing that's killing me here. They're just *so frickin good*.

Posted by: Guest at September 10, 2008 09:56 PM

Prof Chazelle: I wanted to hear the music again but the video clip is blank! May we have it back? Thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 10, 2008 10:48 PM

I beg your pardon, Prof Chazelle. I should have said, please may we have it back? Thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 10, 2008 10:59 PM