Bird is the Word

CHARLIE PARKER CENTENNIAL

1) Charles McPherson and Steve Coleman

2) Tom Harrell and Mark Turner

3) John Scofield

4) Bertha Hope

5) Live Bird is the Best Bird (by Mark Stryker)

>>> 6) Bird is the Word (five famous solos and commentary)

7) Words about Bird (reception history, featuring Hampton Hawes)


(This is an advanced pedagogical post for my NEC and private students. The first educational PDF I produced was “Theory of Harmony.” Starting this semester, all my students will get also the PDF “Bird is the Word.”)


Five exemplary solos from Charlie Parker’s first two dates as a leader in late 1945 and early 1946, presented in order of difficulty:

“Moose the Mooche” is rhythm changes.

“Yardbird Suite” is based on “Rosetta,” or perhaps distantly related to “Lady Be Good.”

“Ornithology” is based on “How High the Moon.”

“Ko Ko” is based on “Cherokee.”

“Now’s the Time” is a blues.


These recordings changed the world and remain a primary text of jazz. Many important 50’s and 60’s era practitioners could have sung along with these five solos.

Bird showed the way. There is almost something a shade didactic about his short early studio performances. “Here. This is how you do it. Have fun!”

Even though these are famous and relatively “easy” Bird solos (the best of live Bird is far more extended and brilliant), their actual content remains elusive. Bird plays so fast that it is hard to learn his music in real time. Charles McPherson told me that neither he nor Barry Harris could learn all the notes of the solos. They would sing what they could of the solos…and also of course learn the tunes.

Bud Powell said that the way to learn bebop was to learn the tunes. 

If you haven’t memorized at least 10 common practice Charlie Parker compositions yet, go do that first. A recommended selection:

Moose the Mooche
Ornithology
Yardbird Suite
Confirmation
Now’s the Time
Billie’s Bounce
Scrapple From the Apple
Anthropology
Au Privave
Dewey Square


When the major anthology Charlie Parker Omnibook came out in 1978, musicians everywhere rejoiced. While no serious jazzer thought a casual transcription superseded the recording, at least there was now a strong starting point to learn more of what the heck Bird was playing. I interviewed the primary transcriber, Ken Sloane, for DTM

However, in the age of computer-assisted transcription, one can find places where the Omnibook doesn’t get it quite right. These “Bird is the Word” solos are all in the Omnibook, but I am confident my new “edition” is more accurate. Naturally, my PDF is still essentially worthless without being paired with the recordings. But one must start somewhere. I learned a lot from the Omnibook, and hope my students are intrigued by “Bird is the Word.”

If Bird is playing duples — either lines of eighth notes or lines of sixteenth notes — there is “swing” in the line. However, most beginning jazzers play with too much swing. Bird is straighter than an obvious 12/8 lope — although it is absolutely not straight. Even when he is playing fast, like on “Ko Ko,” there is swing in Bird’s line. 

There are no hard and fast rules, but it seems to be that the faster the tempo, the more swing is in the line, as compared to when it is slower, when Bird offers a straighter eighth fighting the 12/8. In both directions this creates rub, with small discrepancies grinding against each other for maximum vibe. 

This is very much some African-American know-how. Anyone who studies European music can play 12/8 or fast sixteenths, no problem. But African-Americans innovated a way to play even against the 12/8 or find the triplets in fast sixteenths. This kind of “basic ABCs” of rhythmic fluency is underrated in American academies.

There are a lot of triplets in Bird’s mid-tempo solos. Dizzy Gillespie, Barry Harris, and other masters declare that jazz is in 4 and 6 at the same time. That must mean that the triplet in 4/4 is very important, for with the triplet we can just step next door to be in 6/4 via a common 12/8.  In the Omnibook, there aren’t always enough triplets. Again, this kind of “basic ABCs” of rhythmic fluency is underrated in American academies.

Charles McPherson talks about “microbeats” in the interview with Steve Coleman. Part of what he’s talking about is the relationship between quick duples and triples. It’s very hard to notate, and truthfully there’s no reason to attempt to notate it correctly. Indeed, any serious practitioner would complain bitterly if you handed them a chart where jazz nuance was interpreted flawlessly in terms of absolute European notation. 

However, just because the rhythms are never written down, that doesn’t mean the rhythms aren’t specific. They are specific.

“Now’s the Time” is comes last in my pdf because it is the most elusive of these five solos rhythmically. It has the most triplets, and those triplets can work against the grain of the steady 4/4. A few double-time lines full of microbeat burst like fireworks against the blues background.

Of course, the rhythms need to be placed right. In general, Bird plays just a little behind the beat. We call this “laying back,” and seems to be connected to the blues.

Dramatic blues “shouts” or “cries” in any genre of American music happen slower than the accompanying tempo. Several moments on “Now’s the Time” are really late when compared to the band. (Live, whole paragraphs of Bird blues lazily soar above the accompanying rhythm section.)

Blues “shouts” are a slightly different topic than the basic feel of Bird’s line. Despite the breakneck speed of his phrases, Bird’s placement is generally just behind the beat. Just a little bit. Just a tiny, tiny bit. Talk about “microbeat!” 

There are occasions when Bird is a bit ahead as well, that’s only natural. But in general Bird floats above the drums as if he’s working against a friendly puff of air giving a little bit of extra friction. This is particularly noticeable when Bird begins a phrase; the first note of every fresh utterance is “set” against the time. 

This may sound paradoxical, not the least because Charlie Parker is clearly one of the most propulsive of musicians. How can one be propulsive and laid back at the same time? 

Accents might be a big puzzle piece. If the accents are strong in the line, then propulsion can still happen, even if the phrasing is a bit behind the beat.


There’s a definite possibility that the more one tries to reduce this kind of ecstatic effect to the written word, the more we wander further from the truth. This whole page is perhaps misguided; I can almost feel the weight of the older generations shaking their heads in disappointment at me.


To take this in a more practical direction: Singing is probably the best way to learn some of the placement and the accents. I’ve never been around a jazz master that couldn’t instantly sing with canonical bebop records. 

Anyone important in this music says things like, “Jazz is a language.” To learn this language, you need to access a little bit of literal speaking and singing voice for your own musicianship. Sing my recommended selection of 10 Charlie Parker compositions.

Moose the Mooche
Ornithology
Yardbird Suite
Confirmation
Now’s the Time
Billie’s Bounce
Scrapple From the Apple
Anthropology
Au Privave
Dewey Square

It is very hard to sing the pitches correctly, but truthfully the pitches are far less important than the rhythms and the accents. If you fake the pitches but can nail the rhythms and the accents, that’s perhaps good enough to get the language going. 

Playing along with the records is the next step. While I scuffle through the solos at full tempo above, I may have learned more playing along with Bird at half speed or 75% speed. The slower one goes, the more obvious the placement and the microbeats.

Some people play Charlie Parker phrases in their own improvisations. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the higher space might be to learn some Bird and then not quote his language literally. Lee Konitz could play “Yardbird Suite” and “Koko.” Mark Turner has learned many solos, including famous Charlie Parker solos. Neither Lee or Mark sound like Bird. 


(If you want the “Bird is the Word” PDF, sign up for Transitional Technology and email me. Sign up is free.)


(go on to part 7, “Words about Bird”)