16 January 2006

The beauty of Charlie Parker's music

By Tapani Lausti

Brian Priestley, Chasin' the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker. Equinox 2005.

For someone like me who was stunned by Charlie Parker's music in the 1950s, this book makes splendid reading. In those youthful years, I was aware of having come across something monumental, although I was aware that jazz had lower status than classical music. Over the years I have, however, come to understand the importance of Parker's legacy in musical history. And on the level of pure enjoyment, Parker's solos, which I have been listening to for almost five decades, have not lost their power to fascinate.

Brian Priestley deals with the question of musical "seriousness". He says boldly that Parker is "comparable in stature and influence" with Mozart and Beethoven. (p. 3) And it wasn't that Parker was not aware of classical music. Priestley recounts that Parker himself had a "liking for Bach, Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich". He often named "particular works such as Milhaud's Protée or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire". (p. 73) The tenor saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter heard a concert in which Parker "real quickly (...) did the little phrase from L'Histoire du Soldat and the other one from Petrouchka, put it in his solo and keep (sic) going around". (p. 74)

Parker in fact would have liked to study in Paris with the composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He had become deeply interested in European music. However, Parker was a prisoner of his race. Priestley quotes pianist Duke Jordan who has said that Parker "knew the limitations of his success and felt annoyed that he was confined to just playing nightclubs. He was also bugged by the fact that, being a Negro, he could go just so far and no farther." (p. 71)

Be that as may, Parker's legacy is enough of an achievement. Duke Ellington is quoted as saying: "There are countless records and performances by innumerable artists in which you hear a certain phrase, and you immediately see Charlie's picture in your mind's eye." (p. 106) It seems that Ellington at one stage wanted Parker to play in his orchestra.

The rhythmic aspect of Parker's playing was difficult for many people who started to take notice of bebop, and it can still be difficult for people who experience jazz as somehow chaotic. Priestley explains the question in this way: "In fact, it is the absolute primacy of rhythmic variety in his playing which is now totally accepted — in theory, at any rate — as being one of his key achievements."

And further: "Parker's comparatively 'hard' approach produced a consistent level of rhythmic tautness by playing continually just a fraction behind the beat, and maintaining the same relationship to the stated pulse of a rhythm-section unless, very occasionally, he allowed a phrase to fall much further behind for effect. In addition, there was a constant tendency to push just a little harder on between-the-beat eighth-notes (sometimes described as the 'and,' as in '1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and'), despite all the cross-accents he introduces."

Priestley goes on to explain that it "was undoubtedly these accents that threw the first generation of listeners, who found their sense of rhythm dislocated by his playing, and similarly the first generation of musicians who learned to play with him." (p. 111)

In a couple of examples Priestley captures well the exciting interplay between Parker and the rhythm section: "The Ornithology reference in the 1953 Now's The Time (...) could be interpreted as a humorous, or even slightly defensive, reaction to the driving beat that [drummer] Max Roach is laying down, before Charlie backs off and digs in along with him — or maybe it is not this at all, but it's undoubtedly a reaction to something that's going on in the moment."

Another example: "When commentators refer to the 'tension' surrounding his recordings with [pianist] Bud Powell in May 1947 (usually described as a negative factor) or to the 'tension' surrounding his live sets with Powell in May 1950 (usually described as a positive), what they hear are details of tone and timing in Charlie's playing provoked by Powell's playing. In other words, his exciting accompaniments are as pushy as Roach's in the previous example." (p. 114)

As to harmony, Priestley has this to say: "His use of harmony was extremely sophisticated, but what distinguished his mature style was the ability to take any principle of chord complication, whether derived from [pianist Art] Tatum, [pianist and bandleader Duke] Ellington, [trumpetist Dizzy] Gillespie or [tenor saxophonist Lester] Young, and make it work in a totally non-programmed and non-schematic way. Put more succinctly, the polyrhythmic approach was fundamental but the polyharmonies were less so." (p. 116)

Over the decades, Charlie Parker's music has for me been a source of joy, relaxation and even meditation. It is exciting to read analyses of his music but in the end it need not to be understood technically but can be enjoyed intuitively. It works with your heartbeat, not against it, as with so much of the music you hear these days.

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