Why Bird Still Lives


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Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker has been discussed over and over, at least until recently. The Wynton-Crouch Clique has successfully, and I think, usefully, revived discussion and analysis of pre-bop geniuses Armstrong and Ellington. And on the post- bop side, you find lively exchanges regarding Miles and Coltrane. I don't think we should wait until Bird's centennial in 2020 to take a fresh look at his music. My contention is that the jazz world has yet to fully come to grips with Parker's rhythmic innovations. I view Parker's contributions as:
  • harmonic
  • technical
  • emotive
  • rhythmic
Harmonically, Bird and Diz expanded on the chordal explorations of Hawkins, Byas, and Tatum to increase the available note choices for the improviser. These harmonic discoveries are now the lingua franca of jazz, and are even considered cliché in many quarters. Jazz has expanded on bebop harmony many times over. In terms of technique, Bird and Diz introduced astounding levels of velocity technique to jazz. For better or worse, speed is a prerequisite for playing jazz. But for Bird, speed was never, ever its own reward. For Bird, technical advances were a means for increased self-expression. Bird and the boppers opened the door for the expression of increasingly complex, even neurotic, emotions.

So what's the big deal? By now, jazz has been there, done that. But check out Bird's approach to rhythm. Here is where we still have much to learn from Charlie Parker. Bird drew from the legato accenting of Lester Young, developing an approach in which, instead of evenly stressed, behind the beat accents, Bird dared to accent behind the beat, between beats, using articulation and phrasing that were unpredictable and wildly inventive.

Nearly any one of Parker's solos demonstrates the liberties he took with time, but I'd suggest a listen to "Chi Chi", the master take, as a representative example. Here, Bird uses triplet figures, both on upbeats and downbeats, to vary the rhythm. (An eighth note on the third beat of a measure followed by an eighth-note triplet was a common Parker device, and he'd do this on upbeats or downbeats, or anywhere in-between, for that matter).

The subtlety of Parker's accents and displacements has not been picked up by subsequent generations of jazz musicians. Miles, Monk, and Rollins accomplished much through the use of space and silence, but even as complex an improviser as Coltrane started many of his phrases on the downbeat. Dizzy and Bud Powell understood Bird's time, but I contend that fully digesting Bird's unprecedented approach to rhythm is something yet to be done. Charlie Parker still has much to teach us. In short, Bird still lives.

Discuss Charlie Parker and his music on the AAJ Bulletin Board .

Photo Credit
The Bob Parent Archive

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