Charlie Parker: 52nd Street Theme #275, #238, #218, #214


52nd Street Theme #275, #238, #218, #214


Charlie Parker (alto sax)


The Complete Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker, Three Deuces and Onyx Club (Mosaic 129)

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Charlie Parker (alto sax), Miles Davis (trumpet), Tommy Potter (bass), Max Roach (drums), Duke Jordan (piano).

Composed by Thelonious Monk


Recorded: New York, July 1948


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

These various performances of Parker, recorded by saxophonist Dean Benedetti, demonstrate the combination of looseness and tightness of this particular band, which I consider Bird's most effective working band. I heard about these recordings before I knew they physically existed, and I even heard a few of them long before this box set came out, so it was a real pleasure to finally hear the entire collection. For economic reasons, Benedetti usually only recorded the solos of Parker and not the other musicians, so these recordings are quite fragmented. Furthermore the sound quality is frequently poor; these are not recordings that audiophiles will be writing home about. However, for musicians studying this music, this collection is a goldmine. I compare it to finding a new ancient tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in terms of the musical treasures it yields.

Example A: 52nd Street Theme #275

This version of Monk's composition was usually played as a break tune, a signal that the set is coming to a close. This take is really just a fragment (similar to a find in an archeological dig), but man, it swings hard! When Parker's sax solo enters after he speaks to the audience, the band settles into a serious groove, everybody responds to Yard, and the beat lays back to the extreme, giving the impression that the band is slowing down.

Bird’s solo on "52nd Street Theme #275"

It's clear that this groove emotionally hits those who are present, as can be heard by the various exclamations. This reaction from the people is what I love about live recordings in general—at least recordings done in the presence of responsive audiences. The steady rhythm of the rising spontaneous melody that Yard plays in the opening eight measures creates tension and is perfectly offset by the snaking melody of the second eight, with its dancing, shifting, clave-like patterns that begin in the 11th measure (at 0:42):

Rhythm of the clave-like pattern at measure 11 of "52nd Street Theme #275"

Again, this demonstrates the use of rhythms that reveal elements retained from West-African concepts.

Example B: 52nd Street Theme #238

This version is also very dynamic. I love the space that Bird utilizes in this very loose version. Right from the beginning, when Parker plays the augmentation of the melody, we know that he is on top of his game. He does not even bother to complete the melody, immediately launching into a spontaneous statement. The bridge is beautiful! Obviously Parker meant to play the melody here, but stumbles a little. But he sounds like Michael Jordan here, if you follow what I mean, by adjusting in midstream and turning his misstep into a beautiful melodic statement where antecedent and consequent are both preceded by the same rhythmic misstep (mm 1 and 5 below), which transform the original stutter into part of the form of the statement. As with many of Bird's conversations, the form of the statement is irregular but makes perfect rhythmic sense in terms of balance, one of the traits that distinguishes him from most of his musical colleagues. Also the many alternate tonal paths and delayed resolutions (6th, 7th and 9th measures of bridge) add to the hipness of the statement.

Bridge: 2-beat stutter - 6-beat antecedent, 3-beat stutter - 18 beat consequent of "52nd Street Theme #238"

Starting from the second eight of the first chorus of the solo we hear the kind of smooth melodic voice-leading that Parker popularized in this music.

2nd eight, Bridge and last eight of "52nd Street Theme #238"

These types of clear and precise statements were already present in the music of some spontaneous composers, such as tenor saxophonist Don Byas. However, it was through Parker's dynamic performances that most musicians were exposed to this concept, due in large part to Bird's unique phrasing and advanced rhythmic conception. Both Byas and Yard were from the Midwest and both had that Midwest sanctified rhythm thing happening. Byas was from Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Bird developed his musical skills in Kansas City, Missouri, although he was born in Kansas City, Kansas. The Midwest produced many great musicians. For example, Oscar Pettiford, was a fantastic bass player from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, who made tremendous contributions to this music, although these contributions are rarely acknowledged in proportion to their importance. Both Muskogee and Okmulgee are in the eastern part of Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas City metropolitan area, so this area of the country was a hotbed of activity during the 20s, 30s and 40s.

The slickness of the rhythmic concept in this example is striking. There are several clave-like rhythms where Parker plays in groups of 3 pitches, which tends to produce shifting rhythmic patterns. Overall Bird had a very rhythmic conception, even in his formative years, and it was this conception that most contributed to the change in the direction of the music during that time. Consider this statement by Dizzy Gillespie:

I guess Charlie Parker and I had a meeting of the minds, because both of us inspired each other. There were so many things that Charlie Parker did well, it's hard to say exactly how he influenced me. I know he had nothing to do with my playing the trumpet, and I think I was a little more advanced, harmonically, than he was. But rhythmically he was quite advanced, with setting up the phrase and how you got from one note to the other. How you get from one note to the other really makes the difference. Charlie Parker heard rhythm and rhythmic patterns differently, and after we had started playing, together, I began to play, rhythmically, more like him. In that sense he influenced me, and all of us, because what makes the style is not what you play but how you play it. (From Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz 1945-65)

I would like to emphasize here that Charlie Parker's rhythmic contribution amounts to more than just phrasing. Usually people write about triplets, so-called pick-up notes, etc. These perspectives reveal more about the musicologist's academic background than they do about Parker's sensibilities. Rhythm was something that was constantly stressed in the African-American communities; as Dizzy mentions, it was associated with the way and the how something was done. In my opinion, not only was Bird's phrasing important, but also his placement of entire musical sentences and how they balanced each other.

Example C: 52nd Street Theme #218

What I like about this version of "52nd Street Theme" is the form of the first chorus, which sets up the rest of the performance, and this partly illustrates what Dizzy was referring to in his quote. This is a true example of spontaneous composition and how the micro-forms can be very complex. One cannot underestimate the power of developed intuition and insight, when coupled with preparation, logic and talent—and Yard's performance is a clear example of this.

At first listening, the phrases may seem to sound very symmetrical and smooth, yet a cursory observation reveals what at first appear to be random starting and stopping points with no clear balancing points. A more detailed examination exposes a sophisticated natural symmetry. The first antecedent is approximately 3 measures long, answered by what feels like a 5-measure consequent. This division of an approximately 8-measure space into 3 and 5 measures is something that has been discussed throughout history as being related to the proportion of the Golden Mean. Much has been written about this kind of balance on the Internet and in books, so I will not go over it in detail here. However, the linguistic quality is the result of rhythm and melody, and the timing of the phrases and their contour contribute to the effectiveness of the music.

The opening phrase is cryptic in the sense that it creates a lot of motion within a compact contour. There is a lot of doubling back (what we used to call going back for more) that is reminiscent of one of former NBA basketball player's Tim Hardaway's killer crossover moves, and Yard is truly breaking ankles here. The answer in measure 3 contains its own paraphrase, with the phrase in Gbmaj being woven into its answer in Fmaj (a 5-5-4 balance in terms of 8th note pulses) before mutating into another ankle breaking phrase from which Parker eventually achieves escape velocity. The next phrase feels perfectly centered within the second 8 measures, being contained in the internal 4 measures of the 8, however in reality it is shifted forward in time by one beat.

The question-and-answer in the bridge has that same kind of Golden Mean balance, i.e., a 3-5 measure grouping to the phrases. After one of those preacher-like exclamations to begin the last 8, the final phrase has a beautiful and subtle voice-leading device where Bird plays a ghosted Eb (3rd measure after the bridge) which announces a more complex sentence. This phrase also seems to wake Max up, as he becomes much more responsive at this point.

Here Parker's melodic choices are brilliant, seamlessly alternating between diatonicism, voice-leading chromaticism that is very carefully placed, and pentatony. As for the phrasing, Bird's sentences have the quality of someone speaking with a southern accent. If you listen carefully, there is a slight drawl to the phrases, a slightly behind-the-beat drag similar to the way people talk in the south, or in the hood.

1st chorus of "52nd Street Theme #218"

Example D: 52nd Street Theme #214

This version begins in progress, near the end of the 5th measure, but who knows how long Bird had already been playing. I paid a lot of attention to this version of "52nd Street Theme," as it is very intricate with a lot of great interaction. However, I will only briefly comment on each section.

The first chorus has Parker's typical conversation-like phrases. One thing that stands out is the repeated five-note figure that occurs beginning on the 4th beat of the 4th measure of the bridge (0:13 into the performance). What is intriguing is the rhythm, where there is diminution in the amount of time between the phrases. The first phrase begins on the 4th beat of the 4th measure and ends on the 2nd beat of the 5th measure. This is repeated 2 beats later, beginning on the 4th beat of the 5th measure and ending on the 2nd beat of the 6th. Then, as the phase shifts in tonality from the secondary dominant to the dominant, Bird immediately begins the phrase again, this time starting on the 3rd beat of the 6th measure and ending on the 1st beat of the 7th measure. Passages like this always made me feel that Parker was keenly aware of not only melodic target points, but rhythmic target points also, always balancing the starting and ending points so that the phrases, even when seemingly starting in strange places, always fall exactly in balanced proportions. In other words, Bird was very attentive to melodic and rhythmic forms, but as Dizzy mentioned, the real deal is the placement of the phrases.

The second chorus begins with an aborted attempt by Parker to play a typical lick of his that comes from clarinetist Alphonse Picou's variation on the 1901 Porter Steele march "High Society," a phrase that Bird frequently quoted (for example at the start of the second chorus to his famous 1945 "Ko-Ko" performance). It is clear that when playing this phrase Parker's G# key sticks on his saxophone—the bane of all saxophone players. However, Parker quickly unsticks the key, changes directions in midstream, and continues with a flawless execution of his improvisational statement. Two clues help me draw this conclusion. First, he succeeds in playing G# nine beats later in an immediately succeeding phrase (keep in mind this tempo is blazing). Second, while watching the video of the 1952 broadcast of Bird and Diz playing "Hot House," I noticed that Bird had an ability to very rapidly fix problems with his horn, when just before the bridge during the melody he unsticks his octave key, again in mid-flight. When I was first learning this music, I saw many other musicians do this kind of thing, notably the great Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman.

The start of the second 8 also begins with an aborted quote. I'm not sure of the source of the quote (it sounds to me like it's from an etude book), but I have heard Parker play it many times, for example, in performing his blues called "Chi Chi" and in other songs—so I know it should move something like this:

However Yard stumbles a bit and it comes out like this, including the spontaneous recovery, again a demonstration of how fast his mind worked:

Max's response to the phrase in the last eight is again one of those funky dialogs. Max sets up this hip transition with the single snare hit right after Parker's repeated blues exclamation, then two snare drum hits in between Yard's phrases, followed by one of those funky ratios, this time 4 against 6, that is Max's bass drum playing the 4 against the cut time 6 of the beat, again timed to end on the measure before the top. I tend to think of this kind of playing as targeting, a technique where you calculate (using either feel, logic or both) the destination point in time where you want to resolve your rhythm, a kind of rhythmic voice-leading. I alluded to Bird doing something similar above. I also dig the spontaneous counterpoint commentary of one of the listeners during this phrase, which seems to go with what Yard and Max are doing.

The next four choruses keep up the heat, and there is a lot to learn from the various techniques. Some highlights are Bird playing in layers of phrases in 3-beat groupings (0:53), the contrasts of light-to-dark-to-light beginning with the secondary dominant in the bridge at 1:04, the extreme cramming in the bridge at 1:26, the modulating descending octatonic figures (i.e. diminished) at 1:44 (which function as cycles of dominant progressions), the diminution effect in the consequent phrase at 2:12 (somebody in the audience dug it also), the extremely melodic phrase at 2:15, and finally the funky way that Max sets up the fours between Bird and Miles—which Max continues leading into and throughout the fours. The way Max Roach shifts to the hi-hat moving into the fours, and intensifies his interactions with the horn players, also demonstrates his compositional approach to playing spontaneously.

The fours are off the hook, brilliant, beginning with Parker's ultra-melodic opening. The phrase he plays at 2:46 is unusual even by Bird's standards, as it begins in a very dark dominant tonality, progresses to a bright, dominant sound, then anticipates the move to the subdominant with the last tritone. The energy that this phrase generates is resumed at 2:52 (after Miles' statement) with a pair of brilliantly placed ascending tritone progressions, unusual in their rhythm and tonal progression. The rhythm is similar to the 4-against-3 patterns that Max has been executing, where the basic pulse of the song is seen though a different perspective (that of 3 against Bird's 4). And although the tonal implications are too difficult to fully explain here, these 8 tones—Bb-E-Bb-E progressing to B-F-B-F-functionally serve to reverse the normal tonal gravity by approaching the dominant tonality (the G7 matrix) from a 5th below instead of from the normal 5th above. There exists an entire theory based on polarity that can explain this kind of movement (see my website), but here it is enough to say that the naked expression of these tritones permits an ambiguous interpretation. The Bb-E-Bb-E tritone could be seen to be the functional equivalent of the tonal spectrum represented in part by C7, F#7, Gmin6, Dbmin6 (any or all of these dominant chords, and yes, I consider a minor 6th chord as potentially having a dominant function). Likewise the B-F-B-F tritone could be functionally seen as G7, C#7, Dmin6, Abmin6; therefore, the progression represents the fairly dark transition of tonalities in progressions of ascending 5ths, which I associate with lunar energies.

This tritone phrase is a continuation of the tritone ending of Bird's previous phrase. To my ears, Miles does not seem prepared to respond to this statement. Bird is playing in a rapid stream of consciousness manner, where each idea picks up from the last, interspersed with Miles' responses. At 2:59, Yard continues this dark-to-light sound, giving us the third consecutive statement where he appears to be tonally emerging from a dungeon, and it becomes clear that he is on a roll. Even his entrance into the bridge is a continuation of this approach, as he approaches from the dark side, 7 flats or the mode of Gb Mixolydian, and, after a snaking Gdim turn, emerges into the sunlight of F major. This gives us his 4th consecutive lunar progression. Parker ends with a phrase that is a functional reprise of the descending octatonic figures earlier in the performance; however this sentence ends with a rocking melodic progression functioning as dominant-subdominant-dominant. Obviously he was at his creative peak this night.

Reviewer: Steve Coleman


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