High Bebop

Bud Powell Anthology

1) Burning Down the House

2) High Bebop

3) The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of

4) Crossing the Channel

Bebop uses an ornamented, accented eighth-note line to thread chord changes. The more discontinuous the line the better, although it must retain its folkloric authenticity.

The performances of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell have the maximum amount of folklore and the greatest level of discontinuity. They are an elect of two: High Bebop.

The previous generation of Black jazz musicians played the popular music of the day. Despite the greater contributions of Black musicians to the idiom, that generation’s collaborations with whites were seldom on Black terms. Bebop staked out a different kind of intellectual and racial territory.

High Bebop lived in the penthouses of intellectual and physical achievement while still keeping one foot in the ghetto. This tension is sublime, and it may be why Bird and Bud didn’t care if you understood their excellence or not. They provided the excellence; it was up to you to find your way. The integrity of High Bebop is unimpeachable.

This unimpeachable integrity can feel like anger, although Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke reject that interpretation while talking to Al Fraser in To Be or Not to Bop. According to them, bebop was “love music,” not “fighting music.”

Who am I to correct Dizzy and Klook? Yet surely “love music” is not the whole story.

Fans of Sviatoslav Richter recognize the truth in Allen Wheelis’s famous analysis (from 1975’s How People Change, quoted in David Dubal’s The Art of the Piano):

Sviatoslav Richter strides out on the stage. His face is grim; there is anger in the set of his jaw, but not at the audience. This is a passion altogether his own, a force with which he protects what he is about to do. If it had words, it would say, “What I attempt is important and I go about it with utmost seriousness. I intend to create beauty and meaning, and everything everywhere threatens this endeavor: The coughs, the late-comers, the chatting women in the third row, and always those dangers within, distraction, confusion, loss of memory, weakness of hand, all are enemies of my endeavor. I call up this passion to oppose them, to protect my purpose.” Now he begins to play, and the anger I see in his bearing I hear in the voice of Beethoven. It knows nothing of meanness or spite; it is the passion of the doer who will not let his work be swept aside. It hurts no one, it asserts life, it is the force that generates form.

Wheelis could also be describing Charlie Parker or Bud Powell.

The only studio recording with both members of High Bebop is Bird’s date with Miles Davis, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach. While it produced four famous tunes, including “Cheryl” and “Donna Lee,” Bird doesn’t let Bud have much room. Bud is generally more impressive in other horn-led sessions from the Forties.

Everything else of High Bebop together is live. The most familiar is an all-star quintet at Massey Hall with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Roach. While of course it’s very good, it perhaps doesn’t deserve its rep as “the greatest jazz concert ever.” In particular, the common issue released on Charles Mingus’s Debut label is ruined by the overdubbed bass out of sync with the drums.

These days you can get versions without overdubbed bass. But even cleaned up, this set isn’t quite what it should be. Gillespie might the most inspired. Steve Coleman said, “… The musicians were distracted—they were running across the street between solos to check out the ongoing heavyweight championship fight in Chicago between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott.”

Powell does something unprecedented when comping on “All the Things You Are.” Both Jim McNeely and Paul Motian told me about his long march of quarter notes, which is unusual and surprisingly swinging but not really to my taste. However, one passage goes to the outer limits of harmonic possibility, and I suspect this is the moment that caught McNeely’s and Motian’s ear. Bud then awkwardly gets lost.

The Massey Hall concert is the first occasion Powell recorded on a well-tuned concert grand in a resonant hall. He doesn’t let that bother him, and gets his gritty sonority going despite this highfalutin’ state of affairs. One foot in the ghetto, always.

The best of High Bebop together was captured in dicey, lo-fi conditions. Pride of place goes to One Night at Birdland with Fats Navarro, Curly Russell, and Art Blakey. Many believe this is one of the greatest moments ever taped in the history of the music. The fidelity is atrocious and the date of recording perpetually in dispute. It’s almost as if this night just managed to slip through the maw, a barely legible document of an ancient race of gods.

We are forever indebted to Boris Rose for his bootleg services at Birdland. One Night At Birdland, Summit Meeting discussed below, and all the Powell ’53 trios come from his archive. (In other words, much of the best Powell.)

On One Night at Birdland  Bird sounds disgusted with Bud. He plays atonal phrases over Bud on “The Street Beat” and “‘Round Midnight.” The pièce de résistance is the cutting-off of Bud’s sensational intro on “Ornithology.” Bud might just be too powerful and interesting for Bird here, prompting Bird to bring in the tune in the wrong place.

intro ornithogy

Admittedly, not everyone hears it this way. Steve Coleman wrote:

The first thing we hear is Bud’s meandering intro, very loose as always, which starts harmonically as far away from his D pedal as possible, sliding from Ab major to A minor to Gmaj into Bird’s opening statement of the melody.  Despite the impression of rubato, Bud is actually playing in time in the intro to the song.  It sounds to me like Bud was already playing when the recording was started, as the first sounds we hear are measure 3, beat 3 of an 8-measure intro.  At any rate, what we hear from Bud is 51/2 measures (22 beats) before Yard enters.

I admire Coleman’s thrilling article overall but firmly disagree with the analysis of the intro to “Ornithology.” My opinion — which is notated above, that the tape starts with Bud playing on “one” in A-flat — is backed up by the way Blakey has to crash in; i.e., Blakey is taken off guard when Bird starts the melody.

Bud then evens the score by messing up the form behind Bird’s solo.

The changes of “How High the Moon” remain difficult even for professionals, because it’s hard to remember whether you are in the first or second half, and thus whether you should play major or minor on bar 10. Pretty soon Bud seems to be in the wrong place. I don’t know for sure—it’s very hard to hear—near the end I think he’s even laying out in those bars. Bird plays some rather imprecise phrases, listening for what’s coming from the piano.

This is all speculative, of course!  Bud screwed up the form many times on many records, and Bird never did. Still, it is easy to imagine that Bud is intentionally jerking Bird’s chain as payback for Bird’s behavior at the start of the tune.

All the members of the quintet turn in some of their greatest performances in these dozen tracks, even Curly Russell. Art Blakey is simply ferocious. At times Blakey almost seems too loud, but that may be the result of the single microphone’s placement. Wynton Marsalis has suggested that Fats Navarro isn’t close enough to the mic on this date. Some regard Navarro as the greatest bebop trumpeter, even over Diz. All Navarro fans admire One Night at Birdland as an example of Fats hanging with Bird and Bud and not missing a step.

Here’s all three solos on “Ornithology.”

orniOrni 2Orni 3Orni 4Orni 5Orni 6Orni 7Orni 8

On “Out of Nowhere,” Bud thinks he is next after Navarro but Bird loftily assures him that this isn’t the case. Bird’s extraordinary opening phrases are unusually transparent and abstract.

Nowhere 1Nowhere 2Nowhere 3Nowhere 4Nowhere 5

Rhythm changes in A-flat is less common than Bb, Eb, F, or C. It is interesting to look at what Bud plays on “The Street Beat.” He seems to start with a few quotes, but maybe it is pure melodic invention. Again, it is shocking that Bird plays a few atonal phrases over Bud on the second bridge.

Street Beat 1Street Beat 2

I’d argue that the piano chorus on “‘Round Midnight” is the best this song has ever been played except by the composer. I also was very pleased that Kevin Sun went on to transcribe it in response to the original post.

Perhaps the climax of High Bebop together is “Move,” an astonishing  blast of heat, accuracy, spontaneity, and spiritual certainty. (Check out Russell behind Bud, pounding away high on his axe.)

Bird and Bud play the changes, of course. But it’s how they don’t play the changes that makes them High Bebop. Despite the tempo, their singing melodies honor rhythm, direction, and context ahead of harmony.

Harmony is easy. Anyone can learn to play the right notes of the chords at the right time. But High Bebop teaches us about a higher, subtler space. Charles McPherson told me in a lesson, “The harmony is there, so why play it?”

Move 1Move 2Move 3Move 4Move 5Move 6Move 7

This session is frequently called One Night at Birdland because for a long time that was the way to get it: an official Columbia issue with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern.  And that is a great title:  it was just one of many nights in the music’s heyday.

These days you can’t get that Columbia issue and the pitch was slightly wrong, anyway. The issue on the bootleg label RLR is speed-corrected.

RLR also does a nice job packaging High Bebop’s quintet with Gillespie, Potter and Roy Haynes a year later, which used to be on Columbia as Summit Meeting at Birdland. In terms of Gillespie meeting High Bebop, Summit Meeting is much better than Massey Hall.

Bird’s diabolical solo on “Anthropology” is in the Omnibook. Bud’s is just as good. Roy Haynes is on fire.

AnthroAnthro 2

Bud gets a bit more space on the blues. It’s very hard to be this funky this fast. Bud is like a country blues guitarist sped up to inhuman velocity.

Blue Boogie 1Blue boogie 2

Bird may be cutting off Bud here, or perhaps there was a cue from the radio to finish. However, Bird definitely cuts off Bud on “A Night in Tunisia.” The playing field of High Bebop was rough! It’s a shame there are only four tracks from this terrific session.

There are just a few more odds and ends of Bird and Bud together. A quartet “Dance of the Infidels” from some time in 1953 is the only recording of Bird playing a Bud composition. Sometimes too much is made of Bird’s quotes, but surely “The Song is You” is referring to the pianist and the tune they are playing together. While Bird’s rhythmic feel and sonic projection are just as magnificent as always, Bud tries hard to outdo himself (and Bird?) in terms of creating new lines. When transcribing, the alto solo almost wrote itself, but the pianist gave me some trouble.

Max Roach is giving us a lot of loud, dark, mysterious stuff. Note how these live bootlegs give a much better impression of how Max, Roy, and Blakey were playing in the early Fifties than most of their studio records from that era.

Dance 1Dance 2Dance 3Dance 4Dance 5

A terrific CD for fans of this era is Allan Eager’s In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. The music is soulful and the extensive booklet is a labor of love. (Some of the wild stories prove that the white beboppers were just as crazy as the black cats.) There’s a couple of tracks of High Bebop confab, including Powell’s best recorded chorus on “All the Things You Are.”  (“High” bebop is right: everyone seems awfully relaxed here.)

All the things Bud

Right after Massey Hall are wonderful Birdland performances of “Moose the Mooche” and “Cheryl” in a quintet with Mingus, Art Taylor, and Candido. This might be the only time Bird played “Moose” in unison with a pianist. However, the fidelity is really bad, a problem rather exacerbated by the conga, so I passed on transcribing Bud’s solos.

There are few tantalizing tracks of Bud playing with Bird at the Open Door a couple months later, but somehow Bud’s solos were deemed not worthy by the bootlegger.

In late ’57 and early ’58, almost two years after Bird died, Bud recorded Bud Plays Bird. Compared to most of Powell’s studio work of the previous few years it shines like a beacon.

According to Francis Paudras, Powell told another pianist that the way to acquire bebop skills was simply to learn the tunes.

But what does “learn the tunes” mean? Powell shows us on this extraordinary album. Every head is full of astonishing rhythmic and dynamic detail. Has any other pianist ever come close to articulating this way?

Just as with the Boris Rose recordings, this final statement from the combined forces of of High Bebop barely made it through. It was finally discovered and released in 1996.

Bud Plays Bird is a seriously unappreciated album. Admittedly, it’s neither Duvivier or Taylor’s finest hour, but maybe they are tired of trying to follow Powell around at this point, a thankless task they have been at since 1953.

Perhaps Bud Plays Bird’s ultimate purpose is to provoke musicological investigation. How did Powell know what to play in the first 25 seconds of “Koko?” It’s completely correct, but how did he learn it and when? (Duvivier is lost.) The cover shot has some sheet music on the piano—what is that sheet music?

And then there is “Scrapple in the Apple” and “Dewey Square,” grinding away in dark C major, several steps lower then their usual keys of F and E-flat. The rhythmic feel is untouchable, but who ever played either of these pieces in C?  It’s entirely bizarre, especially since Bud played in F and E-flat more often than in C. Bud isn’t exactly nailing the notes Bird wrote, either.

It’s like Bud heard the original 78s once or twice when he was young, then confidently reproduces what he thinks he can remember perfectly.  (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”)

As composers, the members of High Bebop are hard to compare. Bird’s heads are immortal, but there is only one original progression, “Confirmation.” Bud didn’t write as many truly great heads, but his compositional voice was more diverse:

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