The Jazz.com Blog
July 15, 2008 · 11 comments
One of the most surprising developments in the jazz world in recent years has been the declining influence of Charlie Parker. This shift has not been studied by jazz writers, as far as I can tell. But it is clearly one of the most significant changes of the last thirty years.
Charlie Parker at Birdland (1951), photo by Marcel Fleiss
The change is all the more remarkable since Parker was the dominant force in the jazz world during his lifetime, and his impact seemed hardly diminished in the aftermath of his death in 1955. His presence loomed so large that jazz fans held on to the phrase "Bird Lives" as a mantra and talisman long after the altoist's passing. Few things in the jazz world seemed more certain than the central place enjoyed by this exceptional artist.
When I was coming up, Bird was the cornerstone of a musical education for an aspiring jazz player. I was no different than many of my peers in this regard. I studied transcriptions of Parker's improvisations, and highlighted key passages. I made private tape recordings of his solos at half-speed—slowing them down so that I could hear what was happening more clearly—and listened to them over and over again. As a teenager, I not only listened to every studio recording, but I also tracked down all of the alternate takes (I found them in the archives of a local college library), and even listened to the incomplete takes. (You might be surprised by how many Bird studio performances ended within ten seconds. Parker clearly liked to have everything click into place right out of the starting gate.) Like the rest of my generation, I knew dozens of his compositions, and frequently called them at jam sessions.
And here is the kicker. I did all of this even though I had no desire to play in the style of Charlie Parker. My personal aesthetic vision took me in a different direction. Yet I felt that it was essential to study and assimilate Parker in order to develop my own sound. But inevitably (as always happens) bits of his musical thinking entered into my playing as a result of this period of study. I saw this as a natural development. You can't escape the pervasive influences of your time and place. The best you can hope for is to adapt them to your own personality and emotional temperament. As I saw it, coming to grips with Parker was a key step toward that goal, and part of what being a jazz musician in the modern day was all about.
I don't think this happens any more. Certainly not to the same extent it did three or four decades ago. I could name a half dozen jazz musicians who have more influence than Bird on the current crop of players.
Why do I believe that Parker's influence is on the wane? First and foremost, I need to point to the evidence that is literally on the record. I listen to new releases by jazz artists every day—I have probably listened to more than 300 new jazz CDs since the start of the year —and the evidence is overwhelming. The younger generation of improvisers has largely abandoned Bird and the bop vocabulary that was so pervasive just a few years ago. I don't hear Bird on the surface of this music, or under the surface, or even hiding off in corner. Bird has flown the coop. Newly minted jazz players are now looking elsewhere for inspiration.
Other role models from the past are far more dominant. Who are the historical figures with the most influence today? Based on my listening, I would highlight some of the musicians who played with Parker (Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis) or rose to fame shortly after his death (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans). Each of these artists appears to exert more influence than Charlie Parker on the current crop of jazz players. In an odd twist of history, several of the sidemen who accompanied Bird have seemingly nudged him aside in the pantheon of jazz greats.
Some of the most popular current role models are quite surprising—for example, Chet Baker, who led a marginal existence in the jazz world during his lifetime, but seems to exert a potent posthumous influence on European players. Others current-day icons are hardly unexpected—who can be surprised to hear the spirit of Sonny Rollins and Keith Jarrett in the work of the up-and-coming soloists. In some instance, a set of musical values espoused by a record label (Blue Note, ECM) is shaping the sensibilities of twenty-something improvisers. But the bottom line is that Bird is not a central figure in this process. He has lost much of the mesmerizing control he had once exerted over the jazz world.
You can hear this in how the younger players shape phrases. Or perhaps it might be better put: how they don't shape phrases. Bird's phrase-ology possessed a marked ebb and flow. He is often remembered for playing lots of notes, but the power of his solos also came from how he punctuated them with pauses, how he started and ended his phrases. Compare several typical 32 bar choruses by Parker with those by Coltrane, and pay attention to the rests and breaths. You will see a marked contrast. Today, the Coltrane-inspired approach reigns supreme. It is not uncommon to hear improvised phrases in which the listener hardly notices how they begin and end—since so much happens in between! By comparison, Bird seems almost succinct on his classic Savoy and Dial sides—perhaps not as conversational as, say, a Lester Young solo, but still with a degree of concision that one rarely hears nowadays.
Even more surprising is the gradual disappearance of Parker's distinctive approach to chromaticism. Parker had developed countless devices for bringing non-scalar notes into his phrases. He had his patented ways of incorporating flat fifths and sharp fifths, or for placing major sevenths against a minor seventh chord, and so on. This vocabulary was borrowed and ransacked by later generations, and for a time you couldn't go to a jam session without hearing everybody dipping into Bird's bag.
And now? A certain modal-flavored style of phrasing is much more popular, and although this approach also brings unusual and unexpected notes into the phrases, it does so in much different ways from bebop. Even more interesting: this modal style of phrasing is frequently used today by improvisers in non-modal songs. The saxophonist can be flying over a standard set of changes and launch into a modal pattern (which often sounds like it was carefully crafted in the practice room) that fits, more or less, with the underlying harmonies. And, even if it clashes a little with the chords, this is okay—since the conflict between the changes and the pattern adds an exotic flavor to the solo. Some soloists are quite skilled at deliberately setting up a "train collision" of this sort between a melodic pattern and a looming chord change, and have a host of ways of either avoiding or increasing the impact at the last moment.
This style of playing can be very exciting . . . but it sure ain't Bird! You will find none of these techniques in the music of Charlie Parker. Although Bird is viewed as the ultimate free spirit of his era, the man who broke all the rules, the fact remains that his own playing followed a strict and unyielding set of precepts, almost mathematical in their rigor. Many later developments—for example, the popular pattern-based approach, with lots of fourths thrown in for spice (hey, I sure hope the Woody Shaw estate is collecting royalties on these licks)—would have been anathema to Bird. Parker, for all his modernism, would take a blues note over a perfect fourth any day of the week.
Should we be concerned with this? I have no desire to go on a nostalgia kick—and I will be the first to admit that the current crop of jazz artists is, in many ways, the most skilled and best trained in the history of the music. Yet it should always be a cause of concern when a valuable body of knowledge from the past no longer finds devotees who will master it and pass it on to the next generation. What is happening in the jazz world is no different than a post-Einstein generation forgetting their Newtonian physics. Inevitably, neglecting the towering figures of our past will diminish our future.
To some extent, the jazz world is undergoing what Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift." One of Kuhn's most interesting findings, based on his study of scientific revolutions, is how slowly these transformations gain momentum. Paradigm shift is not an overnight affair. Usually one or two generations must elapse before it is completed. Perhaps this is what we are seeing now in the jazz world. Certainly it is sobering to consider that, in a music so frenetic and fast-paced, some regime changes happen so gradually that we often fail to understand their full implications until our world is already altered irrevocably.
For part two of "Is Bird Dead?" click here. In this next installment, I I explore some of the reasons for the these changes, and define the essence of the "new way" of improvising that appears to be on the rise.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.