CHARLIE PARKER CENTENNIAL
>>> 1) Charles McPherson and Steve Coleman
2) Tom Harrell and Mark Turner
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 interview was conducted August 19, 2020 via Zoom.)
Ethan Iverson: Dewey Redman told me, “Charlie Parker sounds better every day.”
Charles McPherson: That’s very true. I’ve always said, “The better I get, the better Bird gets.”
We think we know pretty much everything about Charlie Parker. Most of us have heard all of the studio records. But every now and then there will be some live performance that will come out that we haven’t heard before: If it turns out to be an occasion where Bird is healthy, inspired, and the band is good, then you will hear some stuff that will be surprising! Wow. There’s no end to this guy.
Steve Coleman: Charles, what always amazes me when I talk to you, Barry Harris, or Lou Donaldson — or another cat that’s older than me — about Bird — you’ve always spoken like he’s always been 100 years old!
CM: That’s exactly right. What he produced has no time on it, it’s just good. If there’s a certain level of greatness present, there’s no date on it. Not everybody from Bach’s age is still valid, but Bach himself is. Bird is like that. That’s why Bird is Bird.
SC: I’ve talked to so many people about Charlie Parker, and I’ve realized that most of the time we are not talking about the same thing. Sometimes it bugs me, to tell you the truth. It’s really hard to get into the weeds, to really talk about details, when you’re not really talking about the same thing.
CM: When you assess something, people give more value to certain things and less value to other things. The phenomenon of music includes rhythm, harmony, and melody. Bird’s art covers all three, but the way people rate those elements is subjective.
I give 10 points to Charlie Parker for his rhythm and phrasing. But some other people might give him only 3 points to his rhythm and phrasing. They regard the rhythm as less important because he played a lot of notes, because he’s fast as greased lightning and still clean as a whistle.
SC: Those people can’t get him 10 points on rhythm and phrasing because they don’t even have a language that can deal with that.
CM: That’s true! So now here you go: If a person does not have a healthy respect for the phenomenon of rhythm and why it’s important, then they aren’t going to give him 10 points because it doesn’t resonate in his or her consciousness.
SC: It’s not just Bird. They don’t have a language to discuss anybody’s rhythm. In these so-called jazz schools like Berklee, rhythm and phrasing is the last thing that’s taught.
The thing that’s first for you is last for them, right?
CM: Right. It might not even be last, it might not even be there at all.
SC: If you look, there’s a huge amount of language concerning harmony, a much smaller amount of language concerning melody…and no language at all on rhythm.
CM: There you go! There’s almost a topside imbalance of harmony.
SC: Yeah, no “almost” to it!
CM: The functionality of Western harmony can be taught, there’s nothing to it. It’s there, it’s mathematical.
SC: Harmony can exist in our minds without the temporal element. You can put something on paper, freeze it in a score and completely disregard the temporal element. You can debate the functionality of frozen harmony the same way as we could talk about the definition of a word.
CM: But everything is done in a dimensional reality. What, where, and — especially for this point about rhythm: When!
Some people use the “when” of music as a passive byproduct, rather than a motif of instigating creativity.
SC: Right, it’s a byproduct for them.
CM: It’s a byproduct, just something that happens. They think the creative process means “what” is the note, “what” is the change. The “when” is a passive thing.
But rhythm can be the jumpstart of the phrase, of the harmony, and of melodic sequence.
That makes a difference. Some modern players are very creative harmonically, somewhat creative melodically, and then the other part is just eighth notes.
SC: I had a conversation recently with a young saxophone player, and he asked me about what I thought about their music (he was playing with a bunch of guys in his age group). Of course, you try to give your opinion without insulting anybody, but at the same time I like to tell the truth, I don’t like to lie to anybody. And one thing I noticed about this guy and his compatriots, is that they sounded like typewriters, their phrasing was really straight. I had to try to tell him that without hurting his feelings too much.
Then we talked about Bird. I knew just from speaking to him that when we listen to Bird, we don’t hear the same thing.
But some of this is simply generational. The same thing must be happening with me vs. Lou Donaldson, Barry Harris — or Charles McPherson. We can’t hear Bird the same way, and we can’t make music the same way. There are going to be generational differences. “You’re doing the best you can with your music, I’m doing the best I can.” That’s the way it works.
I even hear a difference between Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, that’s not just based on how good they are, you know? I mean, there is something else there that’s different. As good as Clifford sounds, I prefer Fats. The thing that gets me is the linguistic part of the language that Bird and these guys are dealing with, that’s what really hits me. They sound like they’re talking to me, it actually sounds like it is as natural as conversation — whereas with some other guys, I don’t hear the conversational element to the playing.
When you talk to me, you’re not talking in 4/4!
CM: That’s a very interesting point that you raise about the talking aspect, and also an interesting point about generational aspect.
The farther back you go, you discover that older musicians were more aware of words and how words impact the tune you’re playing. The older guys will be able to sing the lyrics of the standard they are playing.
They might not have wanted to be singers, but they could do it! They were very much aware their instrument is an extension of their voice. Today, those vocal qualities aren’t as important any more: it’s just a saxophone being played.
SC: Right, exactly.
CM: At the very beginning, before that instrument was there, all someone had was a voice, so the minute you pick it up, what are you going to do? You’re going to do like what your voice does and make your voice with this instrument. OK, the farther back you go, those instrumentalists are more in touch with those first principles, so they play more verbally,
SC: And but the further you go into the future, the more the machine takes over, the saxophone becomes a machine.
CM: Basically the humanity is losing. That’s why you use the term typewriter, because there’s is no humanity in a typewriter.
Even when you hear great piano players like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, you still hear “uh uh uh uh,” you hear them vocalizing the licks. It might not be beautiful pristine voice or maybe even in tune, but the larynx is involved with the creative process even though they’re not playing a wind instrument. This is what I’m talking about.
SC: Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about, too! There’s that great video of Bud playing with Niels-Henning. It’s later in his life. You look at the cat, he’s all slumped over the piano, he’s looking around the room.
CM: Yeah, Bud is definitely not looking at the piano.
SC: He has another connection to the instrument. It’s so natural what’s coming out of what he’s doing. I don’t get the feeling that it’s a piano. Of course it is a piano, but it’s the human part of it — it’s the talking part of it — that’s so killing.
EI: Charles, at one of our lessons you said a phrase that I wanted to toss out again. You said the harmony is there — the changes are there — but you don’t play the changes. That’s sort of what Bird sounds like to me: like the changes are there, but he’s actually not playing the changes.
CM: See, here we go with, “There’s a lot of ways to be a typewriter,” because a lot of people chase chord changes. But harmony and chord changes are just there as collateral. They tell you what group of notes might be valid for the moment, but they don’t tell you what’s the best note for the moment.
Your eyes can tell you right notes if you know harmony, but your ears — if you got some — will tell you the best notes out of the many right notes. It’s up to the melodic ear to eke out the greatest four or five notes for the moment. That’s when the phrasing and rhythm comes in.
And this is one of things that the younger children of the bebop guys did not really understand from the real founding fathers of bebop. The younger players could get wrapped up in treating complex chord changes as the greatest thing of all.
You gotta realize that the founding fathers of bebop — Bird, Dizzy, Monk, and the rest of those guys — they basically were just the younger swing musicians. They’re just the younger guard, they’re just a little bit younger than Harry Edison or Lester Young. Kenny Clarke is just a couple of years younger than Papa Jo Jones. They got all of the lessons from the great swing players, and the greatest of them were virtuosos. People like Don Byas, man, come on! Harmonically Don Byas is off the charts. The younger guys learned everything from people like Lester Young and Don Byas and had their own natural talent, and that’s how you get a Bird or a Dizzy.
But Bird and Dizzy played so well and so correctly that it was very easy for the younger players to start treating chord changes as the greatest thing of all. There’s a danger there because chords are not the “reason why.” Chords shouldn’t be the jumpstart of your creation. Your jumpstart of creation is your melodic ear and rhythm.
The chords are there, they’re like parts of speech. Nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, adverb phrases: they’re meaningless on their own, but they’re there to create sentences, paragraphs and stories. But parts of speech are not the reason for your creation. When you get ready to speak your thoughts and express your feelings, you’re not saying, well now let me use a noun or a verb or an adverb.
It’s the same when you play an A minor seven. An A minor seven has no dignity unto itself. It just is what it is. The A minor seven is just acting as part of speech, helping you express your emotion.
A lot of the players after bebop on became top heavy with the harmony. Now we have a bunch of players who will basically chase chord changes, that’s all it is. If they’re grammatically correct, they think they’re great, you know? And that’s part of it, of course. At least you’re in the ballpark if you outline the changes. But that ain’t the main event!
SC: I got a funny way of looking at that, because I look at all these things as paths. It’s all about where you’re trying to go. To use New York City as an example: If you’re on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and then you gotta go to Seventh Avenue and 49th Street, there’s a lot of ways you can get there; there’s a lot of streets you can go down. You can take a scenic route, stop off at an art gallery and meander for a while. Or you could go directly there. You could walk, run, or get in a taxi.
We say, “changes,” and I take the word changes literally, meaning the differences in the state between one place and another. That may be a qualitative difference, it may be a temporal difference, it’s a lot of different things.
When you look at Bird, what you don’t have is somebody who sat there and wrote down some chords for you that will give you like a map for what they were thinking when they created it!
People can talk about blues changes or rhythm changes, but they’re talking about very general maps. They’re not talking about the music at all. Different people have different understandings. Rhythm changes for McCoy Tyner sounds very different than for Hank Jones.
The “what” that Bud Powell plays on rhythm changes has more to do with Bud than it does with the map. It has more to do with his language and how he gets from place to place.
Dizzy says something very interesting about Bird. He said something like, “We had the harmony, but what Bird brought to the table was the rhythm and how you got from note to note.”
I noticed that out of all those musicians that you are calling bebop (I don’t call it bebop but what you’re calling bebop) — Thelonious Monk didn’t do that. Monk never played like Bird.
CM: No, definitely not.
SC: He was the cat that sort of stayed where he was, in terms of what Dizzy’s talking about, how you get from place to place with the rhythm and phrasing.
CM: Monk is older than Charlie Parker, I think he’s Dizzy’s age.
SC: Almost exactly, their birthdays are really close.
CM: If you listen to Monk’s rhythm, Monk plays his eighth notes more like the Harlem pianists, James P. Johnson and that crew. He doesn’t swing the eighth notes the same as Bird and Dizzy, and Monk’s syncopation thing is a little bit different.
Monk syncopated, though! That might be the one thing they have in common, because Monk’s stuff like “Evidence” is big time syncopation, and it sounds like the kind of syncopation that Charlie Parker would do…[Charles sings “Moose the Mooche” in a heavily accented manner.]
SC: …Bird fills it in.
CM: Monk has the syncopation, but he’s still more on the beat, he’s an older-style player, to tell you the truth. But his harmony is different! He’s got the rhythm of James P. Johnson and the harmony of Igor Stravinsky or Hindemith or somebody. Monk is a very interesting figure.
EI: Is the syncopation related to Afro-Cuban music?
CM: Absolutely. It’s from the same wellspring, it comes from the same source.
Syncopation occurs with everybody’s music, there’s a little syncopation in Western music, there’s more syncopation in Indian music. Syncopation is not totally African, you can hear it in other places. What separates jazz and Afro-Cuban from other things is how it’s a lot more syncopated, with a lot more things on the upbeat.
SC: The big thing in the music of the African Diaspora is the marriage — I call it a marriage anyway — the marriage between binary and ternary. It’s put together in a way that you don’t hear in Indian music, you don’t hear in Far East Asian music, and you definitely don’t hear it in European music. Everybody has a sense of ternary and binary, but not everybody has the way it’s married in the African Diasporic musics.
The way Charles was just singing “Moose the Mooche” a moment ago had that marriage. But for many people, that marriage is just not there. As we move forward in time, it almost feels like the ternary is being deleted. It’s more of this straight line, it doesn’t have the same proportions, and for me, it doesn’t feel the same.
Charles, we talked about this once. You mentioned something to me, you said, “Sonny Stitt plays more like Arthur Taylor, and Bird plays more like Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones.” You remember that?
CM: Yes! Exactly.
SC: I think I can give you an example of what you’re talking about, because of Art Taylor’s intro on “Countdown,” you know what i’m talking about, Ethan?
EI: You mean he’s a bit square?
SC: This is not to put down anybody, but we’re trying to get into the weeds here. Oh, have you guys heard Monk in the studio going off on Arthur Taylor?
EI: He’s trying to teach him a drum part on “Light Blue.”
SC: Ah, but here’s the thing though, Monk got the drum part from Arthur Taylor to begin with! Arthur Taylor was fooling around on the drums and Monk heard one of the phrases that he played— but see, the phrase wasn’t in context, it was just one of those warm up drum things that people do. Monk heard that and he said, we could use that in what we’re trying to do! Right then and there. But as soon as Arthur Taylor tried to put that together with the tune, he couldn’t do it, you know? Because he had a certain concept of how he played drums to songs. This was very instructive because you got a kind of insight to how Monk was thinking that you don’t necessarily get. That was like being a kid in a candy store for me, being a fly on the wall while these guys are talking to each other
EI: Maybe for Elvin or Roy Haynes, each phrase is comfortable without a context, for they always just play a complete piece of their language. Whereas with Art Taylor — who’s of course very, very great — he’s really in the middle of the music in a way that is less abstract. The corners are rounded off and the speech pattern is a little regulated.
CM: A lot of it has to do with a term I use, “microbeat.” You got the main beat, 4/4 beat, four to the bar. But you also have the area between each beat. If we slice it into eighth notes, it’s the “ands” of things. If you slice it even more, it’s the “uh and,” and the more you slice it, you end up with many, many slices. A measure of 4/4 is one big beat, four slices of that beat is the quarter note, then you can slice that into thirds, fourths, eight, you can slice it until you can’t slice no more, you can slice forever.
Many people start on one of the bigger beats, one of the bigger slices, play a wonderful phrase, they get from point A to point B in a good fashion, and end on another big beat. It’s fine, and you can’t say they can’t play. I mean, if they’re doing things right, that works also.
But some people — certainly Bird — start on one of the micros, one of the little small beats, and they’re able to start the phrase there, not only maintain their equilibrium through the bar or several bars, and then come out correctly right down the pike! Without losing the time, and of course everything else important being adhered to.
Everybody can’t do time and space that way. I was working with a good drummer who is usually a bit straighter, but then he came up on this real syncopated configuration. When he did that, I said, “YEAH!” He looked up at me with a big smile on his face, and he said, “Oh, you like that kind of shit, huh?” I said, “Yeah!” and then his smile turned into like a very sad look on his face, and he said, “I can’t play like that all the time.”
When he said that, I didn’t bother him no more, because I knew exactly what he meant, he just accidentally came up on it, you know?
So you got two ways to get down to the pike. You can get down to he straight line and if you make the basket, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But if you can still make the basket by walking the tightrope and looking like you’re going to fall all the time — but you never do fall — then that’s another level of being exciting. That requires a different way of thinking about time and space.
I mean it’s all good. I did a gig with Milt Jackson, who’s wonderful, what are you going to say about Milt Jackson? But the drummer was kind of like Elvin or Roy Haynes, playing syncopated and with microbeats, and that kind of way of subdividing the beat did not make Milt Jackson happy.
There’s some very civilized bebop, but then there’s some uncivilized bebop, which one do you like? I mean, Hank Jones was not crazy about his brother, Elvin, alright? Maybe it all boils down to, “Do you like Bird at St. Nick’s?” You know what I’m saying? There you go.
SC: Charles, we spoke once about Bird on “52nd Street Theme” where he does this slick thing where he starts the next tonality like three or four beats before it happens.
CM: Oh, yeah!
SC: It creates a certain tension. He’s like on a parallel street or something, and then he tumbles out of it and meets them a certain way. Bird does a lot of stuff like that, that I don’t hear with Stitt or Cannonball and these other guys, you know what I’m saying?
CM: Oh, I definitely do.
I think part of the difference between Bird and the rest is how Bird played three against four, where triplets are very much a part of it. That makes the 4/4 rounder. Sonny Stitt, as great as he is, he’s really thinking 4/4.
Lou Donaldson told me something about that. Lou said, “We could copy Bird’s notes, but we had trouble trying to copy Bird’s rhythm, we couldn’t really get that. Then when we heard Sonny Stitt, everybody said, ‘ah, ok, I got it. This is the best you’re going to do if you’re going to try to copy Charlie Parker. If you’re trying to get that other thing — unless you really have that naturally yourself — you ain’t going to be able to, you can’t even write that down.”
Lou meant that Sonny Stitt would round it off, and therefore was easier to emulate — and also that if Stitt couldn’t quite get it, probably nobody else could, either.
You remember Supersax and them cats that were doing the Bird solos? Them cats sounded good, and they were pretty much able to do most of it, but there were certain rhythmic nuances they couldn’t quite get. You can’t even write it down.
Even “Ko Ko” is not square. [Charles sings the opening melody to “Ko Ko.”] That’s not just syncopated, it’s all over the place.
EI: While I’ve got you both here: Are there harmonies to the first horn melody of “Ko Ko?”
SC: I hear it as being tonal, I hear is directionality in it, the way dominant progressions have directionality.
When you reverse engineer something that’s just melody, two different people are going to come up with two different chord progression, that’ll happen with anything. If you take a Sonny Rollins solo on rhythm changes and — if you don’t know anything about what the rhythm section played, if you’re just taking that solo — I’m going to come up with one set of changes, you’re going to come up with another, somebody’s going to come up with another, some people might just write a very basic thing — but he’s never playing the very basic thing, he’s always playing something else. What paths, what streets, is he going down?
Charles, do you hear a tonality there in “Ko Ko?”
CM: If I were going to give the first part some kind of tonality, I’d say it’s some kind of Eb dominant 7 with a raised 11 (or flatted five, whatever you want to call it).
SC: What would you say, Ethan?
EI: I know why you’re saying that, Charles. I think for me, the opening note is so strong, that I hear more of a G minor structure.
CM: G minor with a flatted five?
EI: Yeah. It’s the same pitches, of course.
SC: I’m hearing a Bb minor 6th.
EI: Ah, ok. Great! I love that. Maybe you just changed my mind.
SC: It’s same thing, it’s all the same.
CM: It’s a melodic minor, going up.
SC: I think it resolves when it gets to the D. Then for the improvised phrase, Bird’s usually starting in C minor, but Dizzy’s not.
EI: What is Dizzy doing?
SC: He’s doing his thing. Everybody’s got certain kinds of shapes that they play, and Dizzy’s got his Dizzy stuff, you know what I’m saying?
CM: I think Dizzy’s just doing something chromatic, playing some atonal stuff, he’s filling space or something.
SC: But Bird is playing progressions.
CM: Yeah. Bird seemed to have a definite thing in mind.
SC: I got something that I call the the “pendulum.” There’s this sort of rocking back and forth between the tonic and the dominant. In his break on “Ko Ko” you can kind of hear that.
On “Mango Mangue” the Cuban cats are not playing dominant progressions, they maybe might be playing a chant. But Bird’s playing the pendulum all through that.
CM: Oh, yeah!
SC: He’s rocking back and forth, he’s going into dominant stuff, sometimes he goes into some subdominant stuff, he’s doing all kind of things, and then he comes back. Like I said I call it the pendulum, and I even think Trane was doing the pendulum later like on “Impressions.” Some people say, “Oh, ‘Impressions’ is dorian!” but I don’t hear that. I never heard it like that. Trane moves back and forth.
How did these guys learn to play progressions within what would normally be a modal kind of situation, you know? I think that comes from the blues, that’s my personal impression.
CM: There’s no doubt about it, Steve. When you get a chance, just put on John Coltrane with Johnny Hodges. It used to be hard to find but now it’s on YouTube. It’s a live gig somewhere in the club: you can hear the people, everybody’s drunk, it’s great. Johnny Hodges’s music is mostly some kind of blues. In fact, his “Castle Rock” was a R&B hit. Check it out. A lot of people have not heard Trane in this way. When they think or talk about Trane, they know nothing about Trane’s blues stuff.
SC: OK, say no more, we’ll check it out!
CM: He’s right there with those cats, playing the same kind of vibe that they are — but you can tell he can just play them changes a little bit better, because he’s got more Charlie Parker about him.
SC: Yeah, he’s a child of Bird.
CM: Trane is born 1926, Bird in 1920, that’s six years man! A younger brother of Bird.
SC: So would you say Sonny Rollins is his younger brother also?
CM: Hell yeah. Miles Davis also. OK then!
EI: Last question: Do you think Charlie Parker is respected enough in American society?
CM: Go ahead, Steve.
SC: Hell no! Respected?
CM: The answer is, “No.”
SC: And the longer answer is, “Hell no!”
CM: [chuckles] Is that enough?
SC: Come on. Respected? I don’t know if he was even respected in his time. Maybe there were some insiders who knew, but when you talk about American society as a whole?
CM: Hell no. Of course not.
SC: Today, even from the cats who listen to what we call jazz, the answer is still no. Because most people are listening to what’s popular in any given time. if you open a Downbeat, the polls are like a college popularity contest. Since most of the people who listen to this stuff are in music schools, they vote for musicians who sound like the music made in the schools, except the professionals are a little better than the students.
I don’t think the younger people are thinking about Bird much.
CM: I’m just going to be elitist about it.
If you’re smart enough to appreciate why Bird is great, you are a member of a very select club. It’s like being a member of a secret society. Hell, I’m arrogant about it. If you don’t know, then, you don’t know… but I’m glad I know!
And it’s always been like that, Steve’s right. Even though Bird captured a lot of the younger musicians who said, “Oh man, Charlie Parker!”… most of them didn’t really get it, either.
I hate to say it, but anything that’s truly wonderful for all the right reasons is never totally embraced by the herd instinct.
SC: Yeah. If everybody dug it, it wouldn’t be special.
CM: Maybe I’ll end with this: “You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”
(go on to part two, Tom Harrell and Mark Turner)