Tag Archives: Charlie Parker

Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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Archaically Unique and Revealingly Outdated: The Joys of Musical Primitivism

This is a continuation of an earlier post, which I hope will encourage further discussion. Comments are welcome, greatly appreciated and humbly requested…

The earliest examples of any musical style, whether it’s hot jazz, Baroque or Bill Haley, live and die by history. The historically-minded listeners comprising classical and jazz audiences readily admit that “early music” got things to where they are now, just like the Model T made the Lamborghini possible. Yet most of them don’t like to drive anything that’s too old. Despite classic music being much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.

Unlike machines (or medicine, the law and late-night comedians), music doesn’t do anything better or worse over time; it just approaches melody, harmony, rhythm, form and other musical considerations differently. For example when it comes to instrumental interplay and tonal organization, Beethoven wrote more intricate chamber works than his predecessors, and Mozart more circumspect operatic works than his contemporaries. Them Austrian boys’ music is “better” for those seeking complexity or dramatic depth.

Boccherini and Paisiello, writing before Beethoven’s innovations and without the blessing or mutation that created Mozart, concern themselves with melody and directness.  Using just the meager notes they know, they still manage to make music:

Boccerhini: Sextet, Op. 23 No. 1 in E flat, 1. Allegro (Ensemble 415):

Paisiello: “Mi Palpita Il Cor” from ‘Il Mondo della Luna’ (Gloria Banditelli):

Similarly, Charlie Parker’s rhythm section handles their job in a very satisfying and very sophisticated, very specific manner:

Parker’s band epitomizes a concept of jazz rhythm that can be traced back to the revolution in swing started by Count Basie’s All-American rhythm section, was developed and deconstructed following the bop era and which has influenced jazz through to the present. The texture is spacious and airy, with accents that both support and pull at a smooth, even and relaxed beat. The musicians also interact with and respond to soloists, varying their patterns to add color.

Parker’s group does light and interactive really well, but what if the listener is looking for something else? They could check out The Missourians for some jazz that’s really different:

Pianist Earl Prince, banjoist Morris White, tuba player Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey, like so many pre-swing rhythm sections, take their name very literally: they lay out the chords, bass line and ground rhythm, sticking to a punchy background role. Their goal is to create a stage of rhythm for the ensemble and soloists to play over, rather than an accompaniment that’s interesting in and of itself. Musicians who continue to play and find inspiration in this approach explain that supporting the band is the interesting part; locking into a groove and keeping it going for their partners is how they express themselves. That particular groove is not the smooth swing normally associated with jazz. Instead, it’s intense and earthy, based on a very uneven beat, with a chunky feel that give the listener something to bob their head to (sort of like late twenties funk).

In other words, The Missourians have a unique approach to rhythm, just as unique as the Parker rhythm section, or the Basie rhythm section, or the rhythm sections backing Bix Beiderbecke, Albert Ayler or Vijay Iyer. The Missourians’ approach only seems simple, “outdated” or “corny” when judged against a later standard, the equivalent of driving a Model T and expecting a V12 to kick in.

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Fat Girls, Brownies and Moldy Figs

The three of you that read this blog regularly (hi Mom!) might be surprised to hear that this writer also appreciates a new and wild style of jazz called “bebop, rebop, Chinese music” or simply “bop.”  It’s tempting to count decades, but the truth is that bop has remained perennially “modern” since it first emerged in the late forties.

For even the most casual listener, “jazz” is often defined by the sound of small groups featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane among other bop deities, and the recordings on Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic and other musician-friendly labels of the fifties and early sixties.  The brains, balls and imagination of these players and this style almost make you forget about other approaches to jazz.


Listening to trumpeter Clifford Brown with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, his technique easily surpasses most players from the pre-WWII soundscape.  Brown tosses out long lines peppered with harmonic twists and rhythmic accents.  The tempos start at blistering and only go up from there. “Powell’s Prances,” “Kiss and Run” and the only modestly more laidback “Flossie Lou” all feature Brown breaking out of predictable two and four bar phrasing, leaping up to crackling high notes and apparently growing a third lung to pull off his flights.  Yet “Gertrude’s Bounce” impresses the most because Brown keeps its lighthearted sleigh bell swing even as he hangs fire. Brown is playing at a superhuman level of speed, power, precision and creativity while having a ball; this is just what he does naturally:

Perhaps even more astounding is how naturally Brown’s lithe yet warm tone comes through in everything he plays.  It can be hard to hear that tone at such high speeds and with so many notes, but it makes every other aspect of Brown’s technique that much more rewarding.  It’s also instantly recognizable, the same way Sidney Bechet or Bubber Miley’s tone could be picked out even before they spun a bluesy Rococo line, or growled out some gutbucket poetry.

Fats Navarro, Photo by Herman Leonard

The same goes for Brown’s inspiration, Fats Navarro, who relied less upon long, rapid-fire lines than his protégé (even if he demonstrated at dramatic points in his solos that he could pull them off too!).   Navarro’s pensive, angular improvisations with Tadd Dameron’s band are always built off a resplendent surface that could easily lead the brass section in a big band, or maybe a philharmonic.  Just like Bechet, Miley, Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison or other greats from jazz’s early days, for “Fat Girl” and “Brownie” it all started with tone.

“Fat Girl.” “Brownie.” “Bubber.” “Wild Bill.” Don’t forget “Mezz,” “Bird,” “Satch” or “Dizzy.” The nicknames highlight the continuity of spirit, if not style, between jazz pre and post-bop.  Alongside the clear sense of self in their tone, there’s a sense of humor in how their colleagues identified them.  Even bop’s conservatory-trained firebrands learned to play jazz in the club, the same place earlier generation learned to play, as well as drink, smoke, etc.

Even for a moldy fig like me, it’s easy to appreciate bop, not to mention simply enjoy the hell out of it. Aside from its sheer visceral and creative drive, the best bop has plenty in common with all the “ancient” jazz that preceded it, though it’s helpful to appreciate their differences.

I wonder how Navarro would have handled Bubber Miley’s part on “Black and Tan Fantasy…”

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