Bird – in Context

August 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Charlie Parker was born 93 years ago today.

The conventional story is that in the 1940s, Parker and a handful of other musicians revolutionized jazz, with bebop taking precedence over swing.  The kernel of truth in that version is that Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, and others really were playing different notes and with a different sound.  “Go up to Minton’s and listen to how this kid plays Cherokee,” musicians would tell one another. And swing bandleader Cab Calloway told Dizzy to “Stop playing that Chinese music in my band.” 

But the Great Man version of history – great musicians getting together to create a new music – leaves out the economic, social, and technological context. For example, the 1942 musicians’ union strike primarily against the major record companies (RCA, Capital, Decca, and a few others) allowed smaller labels into the game.  Those labels recorded small groups, not the big bands. So we get Bird’s legendary quintet and sextet sessions for Dial. 

Even the idea of the jazz-musician-as-artist (or even genius) owes much to the decline of big bands.  Big bands are the medium of the leader (also of the composers and the arrangers, but they remain largely anonymous). The musicians are more or less interchangeable. But in small groups, it’s all about the soloists. The melody is merely something the horns play in unison at the beginning and end, just to let listeners know what the tune is. Far more important are the many choruses of solos in between. Most people who listened to Duke Ellington didn’t know or care who the trumpeters were. But if you’re listening to Charlie Parker, you really want to know whether the trumpeter is Dizzy or Miles.* 

Also, what seems like revolutionary change often incorporates conventional ideas. Here’s Parker’s 1953 recording of “Confirmation,” probably his best (and best-known) composition.**

The chord changes for first four bars are the substitute changes Parker often used for his solos on the blues – they’re sometimes known as “Bird changes.”  But they are just a logical way to get from F in the first measure of the blues to Bb in the measure five. 

F  | E-7 A7 | D-7 G7 | C-7 F7 | Bb . . .                   

Even this chord sequence is not completely new with Parker.  Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren used the same changes a few years earlier in  “There Will Never Be Another You.”

 * I think that Marc Myers covers this territory and more in his recent book Why Jazz Happened, but I have not yet read it

**To see Bird’s solo go by in real time note by note, see this animation, which for some reason is written in the key of G, not F – which is fine if you’re playing along on trumpet or tenor sax.

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