Top 50 JAzz Blog

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Codification and the "Great Man"




Gracias to key respondent R.C. for posting significant historical markers...


The adage is: "Talent imitates, genius steals," but in jazz, the line between the two is not so clear cut. A note here, a note there...Copping solos is what jazz musicians have always done to learn their craft. Freddie Keppard was notorious, of course, for covering his valves with a handkerchief when he played so other trumpet players couldn't steal his stuff and for the same reason, he passed on being the first self-declared jass musician to record (note: all such myths are subject to verification by Chief Inquisitor R.C.).


This brings us to the question of the "Great Man;" a controversy that the Art World has gotten so much mileage out of, probably since Berenson. To wit: what springs full-blown from the mind of the genius and what is simply reconsideration and reconstruction of existing materials? Or, as we might say here, what is codification/building block, what is new?


If you want to do Great Man in jazz, three names stand out: Louis, Bird and Trane. By consensus, they were responsible for the largest tectonic shifts in the music. Louis' case is too complicated for me-too near the roots of it all-and his career spanned most of a century. Trane's case is so interlocked with psycho-spiritual considerations, that discerning what is cultural context and what is Coltrane is also too daunting. This leaves Bird, a good choice because the changes he wrought, although resonating beyond the music, are more easily parsed out.


If you're looking for Bird's credentials, Mingus wrote a song- "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats." He also said he thought alto players should pay Bird royalties. Now, Mingus-never a man to be trifled with-also had big problems with the influence that Bird's drug habit had on jazz. However, it's _influence_ we're talking about here. Not _good_ influence. Parker famously advised young musicians not to take up the habit, and if any aspiring shrink out there wants to take a crack at that infra-psychic knot, go ahead. Many have tried. As far as I'm concerned, drugs circumscribed all aspects of Bird's life (except opportunities to scuffle). Is it ironic that such circumscription may be in some inverse proportion to the durability of the Bird mythology? No. Given America's lust for "romantic" paradigms, I think it's fair to say that the ill-fated quality of his life did nothing to diminish his stature as a Great Man.


The trope on Bird's major musical contribution is that he extended the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic language of jazz. (c,f,. the famous rib joint story about him recognizing the usefulness of upper partials-9th's, 11th's, 13th's). My contention is that Bird arguably implemented this (change in) language better than anyone else, but that in fact, it was a language that was already basically in use. His speed-of execution and thought-and his technique-32nd notes became the lingua franca-give the impression of stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, but there was a small but intrepid squadron already out in the field, sweeping for mines.


The only way to get into this is to compare Bird's playing with that of his comrade Dizzy G. and, for broader context, with others who changed the music circa 1940-Monk, Bud, Byas, C. Christian, Prez. I will gather my meager forces and expose my analysis in the next thrilling episode.

9 comments:

rob chalfen said...

George Baquet, Bill Johnson & other members of the Original Creole Band aver that it was more financial than musical rip off Keppard feared - when he found out that Victor wouldn't pay for the demo session, he bailed on the deal. Then he further dissed the A&R guy, demanding the same royalties they paid Caruso! The handkerchief story is apocryphal and also attributed to Bolden.

rob chalfen said...

An instructive exercise in the roots of Bird question is to play Pres' solos on the Jones/Smith Inc dates at x50% and x100% speed. Voila!

Z.R. said...

You gotta wonder about the generation of the handkerchief story. What's behind it? Was such knowledge esoteric enough or powerful enough to be considered priesthood stuff?

The whole area of listening at different speeds is something we should make a point of exploring pseudo-scientifically. When you change octaves, not only can you do alto/tenor/baritone comparisons, you can also get into trombone/trumpet

rob chalfen said...

Covering valves to disguise fingering wouldn't slow down too much any trumpet player with a good ear intent on copping licks. New Orleans musicians were highly competitive, and skills kept sharp.

Armstrong: what key is it in?
King Oliver: what key!? you're a musician, ain't you?

Z.R. said...

of course, before wide recording dissemination, you couldn't play a solo over and over... I like the Druidic symbology of the handkerchief

Bruno Leicht said...

Defintely more than only these three (Pops, Bird & Trane) stand out, when "greatness" (in music) is the topic:

Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman, for being the "greatest" composers in jazz; and Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano for being the most influential pianists, and instrumental virtuosos (Lennie counts as composer too) who left thousands of "copycats" and followers.

Z.R. said...

Bruno-thanks for the input. No argument concerning the greatness of those on your list. However: Ellington's influence is not as an improviser, but as arranger/ composer/cat wrangler. Monk's influence was felt, but the waves he made did not ripple out as deeply as did those of Louis, Bird and Trane. Ditto for Ornette and Bud. Because of his teaching, a better case could be made for the wider influence of Tristano, but still... Tatum was almost sui generus. However, there are certainly parallels in his playing to what Bird did-bridged swing and bop, raised the virtuosity bar-including increasing tempi, while managing to integrate the stride of his forefathers...

Bruno Leicht said...

Okay, if you would refer to only improvisation which makes a jazz musician influential or not, you wouldn't find many pianists on the Monk-track, but on Bill Evans' or McCoy Tyner's who both learned their language from Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano (disregarding Bill's classical training and knowledge).

Bird had a photographic memory; that's why we won't find many sheets of handwritten music, coming from him. He had it all inside. It's amazing when listening to some of his live recordings, while having in mind that he arrived from nowhere at some club, and play there with a big band, or in whatever the setting was, without any rehearsals.

The recordings are there: "Bird with the Herd", and "One Night in Washington". No other jazz musician was capable of doing this, but Bird. I would even claim that his playing (not his attitude) saved Massey Hall which could have easily ended in a catastrophe, if there wouldn't have been Bird and his musical reliability. As we know today, was it not Dizzy with his clownesque interludes who made that a memorable event.

Z.R. said...

But you see, that's part of the myth of Bird (more on that in my next posting). I'm not convinced he was the only one who could just walk in and cut it-although he may have been the only one who could wake up from The Nod and start blowing immediately... There are numerous stories of jazz musicians hearing something once and knowing it, or reading a chart once and knowing it. This is the level of talent you need to walk in and deal with any situation.

As far as Tyner, a case could certainly be made that he changed the language. He started with bop/post bop, but after he got done, pianists had to know much more about the use of pentatonics, pedal tones and modes.