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.