Tom Harrell and Mark Turner on Charlie Parker


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 interview was conducted August 19, 2020 via Zoom.)

Ethan Iverson: Dewey Redman told me, “Charlie Parker sounds better every day.”

Tom Harrell: Okay!

Mark Turner: I can’t argue with that. Makes sense to me, for sure.

TH: Bird sounds contemporary. What can you say. His sound and his phrasing sounds so fresh. And Bud Powell too. It’s on such a high level of creativity. You can’t help but be awestruck and in a state of wonder.

MT: I feel the same way. I guess what “sounds better every day” also means for me is also that the more I understand about jazz, the better Charlie Parker and Bud Powell sound. My understanding of their contribution is more profound the more I learn about music.

Actually, there’s something I was reading the other day — strangely — about Arnold Schoenberg. There’s a pamphlet about Schoenberg in Los Angeles and his time there. A lot of what he had to say about music and how he taught music was really incredible, but the main thing was just the timeless and contemporary nature of his conception, which draws some kind of a continuous line that runs through any great master.

I found this also true for Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that whole school of people. They sound completely fresh all the time. It has everything in it. Their music is inspiring and also daunting.

TH: Schoenberg is amazing too, that contribution to contemporary art. The implications of what they all are doing is like the lifeblood for all musicians.

MT: Absolutely.

TH: A reason for existence.

When I listen to Bartók, he was close to the jazz idiom too. Thelonious Monk has a resemblance to Bartók, they share some ties. Bartók recorded with Benny Goodman. He wrote Contrasts for Benny Goodman, violinist Joseph Szigeti, and himself.

In a way, we’re dealing with a chromatic scale. The 12 notes. That ties in with Schoenberg. In jazz, we use the chromatic scale, but we also incorporate microtones, sometimes called the blues scale. Bartók used microtones in his sixth String Quartet.

Charlie Parker was into classical European classical music too. He liked Honegger and wanted to study with Edgard Varèse.

He could have done much more had he lived. Jaki Byard wrote a piece for Charlie Parker, “Far Cry,” that is about how Bird could have done more if his life hadn’t been cut short.

EI: Tom, Mark just used the word “daunting.”

TH: Yes, very true. Dealing with the greatest geniuses is daunting.

It’s also daunting to attempt to explain what these geniuses did in words. Speaking of music, Bill Evans said, “Words are the children of reason and, therefore, can’t explain it.”

Poets try to, but…

I like words, too, words are a good medium. Of course, there’s a lifestyle that goes along with jazz music — and a different lifestyle with European classical music — so the words tie-in with the lifestyles.

Talking about the music is important but it is very daunting. Still, it’s good to celebrate the music and its creators.

EI: I’d like to ask you both about an early occasion where you heard a Bird and got the word.

TH: My father gave me a copy of a Jazztone album, it was an anthology, and there were two tracks with Charlie Parker, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” as a leader and “Slam Slam Blues” with another group. They were both blues. When I heard “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” I tried to transcribe the melody that Charlie Parker composed. It was amazing and fresh. It still is. That was the first time I heard Charlie Parker, and it really turned me around.

MT: In high school I had a few Charlie Parker compilations, and then my parents got me the Dean Benedetti recordings on LP. God bless my parents!

I had this late ’40’s James Moody record that I really loved, and then there were these Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons tenor battles that my family listened to. Maybe just because I liked hearing people on the tenor first, I listened to Moody, Stitt, and Ammons on tenor more before realizing, “Hey, they are influenced by this guy Charlie Parker.” I sort of knew who Charlie Parker was, but I thought, well, let me explore this further. And so then I started seriously trying to find out who he was.

You said, “Heard Bird and got the word.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly. Maybe I didn’t get it. Maybe I won’t get it until my last breath. All I knew — then and now — is that it was amazing and far beyond me.

Tom, I have a question. The language of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fats Navarro seems to have really influenced you.

One of many things I love about Charlie Parker is kind of internal logic. It’s rhythmically beautiful and has the blues and the entire African Diaspora in it. It kind of has everything. An internal logic creates a focused power that’s unbelievable. (That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to check out this music, just for that.)

I’ve listened to you from near and far; on records since high school, and now I’ve stood next to you on the bandstand.. From the people I know, you are one the few that seem to have an obvious connection to that language and that internal logic…but please tell me how you feel about it.

TH: Well, thank you for the great compliments. It’s great to play with you, too.

I hear what you’re saying about the construction and logic of bebop. One way to approach it is to go back even before bebop. Like in the late ‘30s, to Lester Young, Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge.

I knew bebop was a revolution, but Al Cohn told me, “Bebop was a logical evolution.” I hadn’t thought this way before, but it’s true. As far as the time feel, the rhythmic feel, it comes from Papa Jo Jones and the rhythm section with Count Basie, Freddie Green, and Walter Page. This was a Kansas City thing. Lester Young was with Basie there; when Thelonious Monk did his first tour he met Mary Lou Williams in Kansas City. Charlie Parker is from Kansas City.

Before New York became New York, there was Chicago and Kansas City and other great cities. Modern jazz kind of made New York more the center, but those other places were just as important.

That’s beautiful what you said about internal logic, it comes from intuition in a sense. I was also born in 1946, so I’ve been listening to this music since I was very young. My parents had jazz records, and there was jazz and big band music on the radio when I was a little kid, for jazz was still the popular music.

The phrasing is so important. I think one of the things about Charlie Parker was his innovation of phrasing. As you say, the way that he hooked up his phrases.

Sometimes it took me a minute to really appreciate what he was doing, because the phrases were asymmetrical. It might relate to Arnold Schoenberg and to 12-tone music, because of asymmetrical construction, the way a story writer would use flashbacks or a cinematographer would use a tape splice.

You can create a solo out of fragments, but it can still be totally logical and coherent. I mean, that’s the part that’s so elusive to explain!

Everything is in the construction of bebop: The blues. European classical music. References to popular songs. Those songs have words…well the licks have words, too. I’m still learning the words to some of the famous bebop and blues licks. “Bring enough clothes for three days” is one of the phrases Charlie Parker made famous, but I didn’t know the words until Bob Mover told me. I talked to Ray Drummond about that melody too. If you listen to ‘40s blues singers you can hear phrases and licks that became popular for the bebop instrumentalists.

The Tin Pan Alley songs are important too. Dexter Gordon would even recite the lyrics to the songs before playing, I just saw a video where he did that with “What’s New.” So that shows you that it’s always good to know the words to the songs, because then it is easier to hear the story the improviser is telling you.

Charles Mingus said he could always tell what woman Charlie Parker was thinking about by what he was playing. Music is a way of making love, too. It’s a serenade. I believe in romantic love, but maybe that’s corny to some people.

MT: It’s definitely not corny, it’s awesome!

TH: Music is everything. It has all levels of human experience. And Charlie Parker certainly lived a full life in a short span. Hampton Hawes said that Bird’s music was related to everything lived and experienced.

EI: Let me ask you two a few specific technical things. What about Charlie Parker and harmony?

TH: Whoa. I’ve always been searching for harmony.

Bebop made the flatted fifth very important. But actually that’s a natural sound: If you take the overtone series, and you keep going up to higher partials, you eventually arrive at a dominant seventh with a flatted fifth on top. So it’s very logical and natural.

You can see some of what Charlie Parker contributed harmonically just on his blues forms, with either a descending minor seventh pattern or a major seventh for the tonic. These were revolutionary ideas. I guess Lester Young played the major seventh on the blues too.

The changes to “Confirmation” invokes the church, maybe, the way it goes from F to A7 then D minor in the first three measures.

Charlie Parker talked about playing the upper partials on “Cherokee” at an uptown jam session. He said he could finally play what he what was hearing. When I read that quotation, that really opened me up, because you realize you have hear it first before you can play it. This inspires me to try to do something new myself. I think that’s the basic message of Charlie Parker, to be true to yourself, to try to play what you hear, and try to make your own contribution. Of course people criticized him for being different, but he had the courage to keep doing his own thing.

EI: Mark, what would you say about Charlie Parker and harmony?

MT: You can hear the harmony in everything he plays. He can play many notes, or he can play two notes, and you can hear the harmony. The flow is always there and clear, yet without being didactic about the way the melodies are being played. His lines flow in a very organic, natural and folkloric way, and the harmony is there.

He always knows the right note to play; it can be just two notes or even letting a bar of space go by. The flow with the harmony is perfect. There is so much complexity and simplicity, all in one.

He can translate the harmony into as many or as few notes as he wants and place them anywhere he wants.

EI: Speaking of placement: What about Charlie Parker and rhythm?

MT: That’s what I would say next. You can’t really separate them. They go hand in hand. That’s why the harmony sounds so great: It’s because the rhythm and the placement is there. Without rhythm, then the harmony wouldn’t work, and vice versa.

TH: Yeah, that’s very true.

MT: A great drummer also plays the harmony. Clearly, like other great musicians of his time, Charlie Parker knew that. He played that way. If you take away the pitches of his notes and just look at the rhythms, they sound like a drummer. You could just tap them out with your hands and it is a complete statement. Hyland Harris told me that his teacher Bob Gullotti told him to learn Bird solos at the drum set, starting with just the snare, then orchestrating the solo, then playing time with the solo. I think that says a lot.

TH: When you listen to any good quartet or quintet performance with Charlie Parker, there’s a relationship between the horn soloists and the drummer. That was part of the new complexity of bebop, the integration of the drums. It’s very important. Interplay and interactive drumming becomes more and more ascendant, like the vibe of the live at Birdland record with Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curly Russell, and Art Blakey.

MT: Yeah. Woo! I love that record. That’s so killing! Unbelievable!

TH: It’s pure love. It’s hard for me to explain the beauty of the interaction in words. Yeah.

EI: We mentioned harmony and rhythm. What about Charlie Parker and the blues?

TH: Yeah, I mean, total blues. In Kansas City he played with Jay McShann, and also different blues singers: Al Hibbler, Walter Brown. The Kansas City tradition is total blues.

Ornette Coleman said that when he was coming up in Texas, there was no separation between R&B and jazz. They didn’t think of them as different genres.

And you don’t have to. I was listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at Newport ’57 playing “School Days” with a beautiful Billy Mitchell tenor solo. You could hear the link with R&B. I was lucky to hear local R&B when I was growing up too. Willis Jackson was on the radio. Later when I heard Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” I realized the bass line sort of comes from Afro-Cuban jazz and “Manteca.”

In the Ned Sublette book about Cuba, he discusses the history of the 3 + 3 + 2 bass line. That bass line was incorporated into Charlie Parker’s music, in “Barbados” and other places like “Bongo Bop.” There an influence of Cuba on this music, and Afro-Cuban jazz was solidified by Dizzy Gillespie in the big band with Chano Pozo. Bird played with Machito, too. There’s so all the different influences from different regions. Kansas City and Cuba. Dizzy was from South Carolina. That all came together uptown in New York, at Minton’s.

Their music still sounds contemporary because it is a universal feel.

EI: Mark, what would you say about Charlie Parker and the blues?

MT: From my point of view, one thing that’s amazing is just the seamlessness of it. His use of the blues is unified with all the other elements that he brought to the music.

You know, the blues is also sophisticated. In the schools, some things like odd-meter rhythm and harmony are considered to be more worthy of study and practice than the blues, that the blues is somehow less complex, but that’s not true.

Bird’s way with the blues has the same amount of complexity and profundity as any other element of his language. Like other musicians of his day, his use of the blues would never sound contrived or anything like that. It just sounds part of the whole language and as it should be.

The intellectual level never goes down when Bird deals out the blues. If anything, I would say that blues adds heft and complexity to the other advanced elements in play. The blues makes his music more credible, erudite, profound, and rooted.

It’s almost like if the blues weren’t there, then it wouldn’t be Bird. The blues has to be there. It’s what makes all the other things cohere. It’s like the Holy Ghost.

EI: Do you think Charlie Parker is recognized enough in American society?

MT: No!

TH: Lennie Tristano said that if Charlie Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws, he could sue every musician on the planet.

MT: [laughs] That’s certainly true.

TH: Everything changed after Charlie Parker, not just the jazz musicians, but everything else, including television and film.

The great jazz musicians were not always acknowledged for their greatness by the general public. To find out the reasons for this neglect, we probably need to ask the social scientists.

(go on to part three, John Scofield)