The Jazz.com Blog
July 24, 2008 · 8 comments
In the first part of this article, I described my surprise at how seldom I discern the influence of Charlie Parker in the work of the younger generation of jazz musicians. I called attention to the changes in how phrases are shaped by improvisers today, as well as to the different techniques employed in incorporating chromatic "color tones" into their melodic lines. In these, and other improvisational elements, we can hear a dramatic loosening of the almost mesmerizing hold that Bird once exerted on aspiring jazz artists.
Also, it is hard not to notice a pervasive modal mind-set today, even when (and this is the surprising part) the songs themselves aren't modal. The distinctive interval leaps and patterns that came out of modal playing now impose themselves on chord-based improvisation. When I listen to the CDs of up-and-coming performers -- and so far this year I have already checked out several hundred -- I hear more Brecker than Bird in the solos, certainly more 'Trane and Wayne; more hard bop than bebop. I hear more Metheny and Monk and Mingus in the overall conception of the performance; also more Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Bird appears, now and again, in a cameo role, but what a come-down for an artist who once put his stamp on every aspect of modern jazz.
Artwork by Martel Chapman
'Tain't nothin' wrong with any of this. But it is a dramatic departure from the mindset of the previous generation. And one that has hardly been discussed by critics. Bebop was once the language of modern jazz. Now it is more like Latin or ancient Greek, a language that may survive and even have adherents. But it is no longer the vernacular tongue.
Of course, there are other aspects of Parker's legacy that are disappearing. I find that many improvisers today have a tendency to play their notes with perfect evenness, hitting each one dead center in the middle, almost as if a jazz solo were a scale or technical exercise. I have even started calling this (for want of a better name) the "new way of phrasing." If one wants to measure its dissemination on a map, one might find a tell-tale pattern that traces its major lines of influence back to a hypothesized epicenter in Boston, at a place called Berklee. (But that is a story for a different day.)
Needless to say, this absolutely clean-&-even-&-precise way of soloing has little to do with Bird's legacy. Everything he played had an ebb and flow, and articulation points within the phrase that made them more supple, more organic. This aspect of Parker's style was part of his inheritance from Kansas City jazz and Lester Young. (Of course, Kansas City jazz is even more passé than bebop, although I daresay many younger players might be surprised by how much they could learn from a summer immersion program in Basic Basie-ology.)
A metaphor I find useful here is the contrast between digital and analog. When I was growing up, my house—in fact, all houses— had very few on-off buttons. Except for the light switch and the power button on a few (very few) appliances, everything was controlled by dials, by gradations, by infinitely divisible continuums. Today my house must have hundreds of buttons. Everything is either on or off, with no gradations or gray areas. This is what I hear in the "new way of phrasing." The note is either on or off, and don't mess with "Mister In-Between."
We have come a long way from "analog-type" improvisers, such as Ben Webster and King Oliver, who would have rejected an even, clearly defined, on-or-off style of note production. They probably would have seen it as antithetical to the essence of jazz. And you didn't just find this approach in Kansas City or New Orleans. One of the great joys of avant garde players of a post-Ayler bent was this assertion of the primacy of sound over notes, analog over digital. But the influence of Ayler and his followers also seems to be on the wane. Instead, the new, digital manner of solo construction is in the ascendancy. (Interesting exception from the current jazz scene . . . Wynton Marsalis, who started out as a young man in the digital camp -- listen to his note-perfect work with Blakey and on the early Columbia albums -- has now completely embraced the analog, hundred-ways-to-play-a-single-note philosophy.)
One dramatic result of this shift is the 'Death' of Bird. Finally, more than a half-century after his passing, the influence of the legendary altoist is winding down. When I hear a CD by younger players who explicitly draw on Parker's sax vocabulary (such as the recent release by the Stein Brothers), it stands out from the crowd. Whereas only a few years ago, this type of approach would hardly have been noteworthy.
Of course, the question remains: Why? My answer may surprise many. I tend to think that technology is the key driver here. And not just the analog-to-digital switch in our households. Parker, like so many jazz artists who recorded before the rise of high-fidelity stereo sound, is losing out because of the poor sonic quality of his legacy.
You are skeptical? So was I, until recently. I have always loved the old jazz recordings, and never let poor sound quality prevent me from appreciating the grandeur of the music. But I find increasingly, when talking to jazz fans, that there is dividing line in their knowledge of the history of the music—and it comes somewhere around 1956 when the sound quality of recordings began to match that of live music. Jazz fans today are very aware of the music from the late 1950s onward, but have nowhere the same familiarity with jazz recordings from the 1930s and 1940s.
I cannot avoid concluding that a huge number of jazz fans are influenced by sound quality when they choose CDs for listening and study. Even the younger generation of jazz critics seem to be following the same pattern. Once you get to the late 1950s, everybody is on familiar, comfortable ground, but only a small number of people in Generations X and Y have more than the most superficial knowledge of earlier jazz.
In a situation such as this, Charlie Parker is bound to lose out. He died in 1955 right before the next leap forward in recording technology. I suspect that, if he had lived another decade, he would be much more influential now. Not because Bird's playing would have improved — I find that hard to believe — but simply because the recordings would be more pleasing to modern ears. Audiences in the new millennium want their CDs to sound as good as a live concert.
These issues may help explain why I have been so interested in technologies, such as the work of Zenph Studios, that promise to restore this pristine sound quality to old performances. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need technological breakthroughs in order to preserve interest in the early jazz tradition. But we do not live in a perfect world, and based on what I see on the jazz scene, we run a risk of forgetting much of our music's heritage. Bird loses out in this equation, as do a host of others who passed away right before the big leap forward in recording technology -- towering figures such as Clifford Brown and Art Tatum and Fats Navarro, whose music is nowhere near as well known as even second-tier artists from later decades.
Stay tuned for future commentary on this subject. Also look for a series of blog articles, starting next week, on one exception to the pattern noted above . . . an old jazz tradition that seems to attracting large numbers of young fans.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.