The Heirs of Charlie Parker
“Bird would have understood”, is a quote attributed to Ornette Coleman when he faced hostile critics of his music early in his career.
It is obviously impossible to check the validity of this statement, as Parker died at the young age of 35, a few years before Coleman started to record. But it should be asked whether Coleman, Coltrane, Dolphy, Ayler, Sun Ra, Archie Schepp, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and their partners in the so called “Free Jazz” or avant-garde movement in black music, continued the tradition of Parker or broke away from it.
There were a few major elements to the musical revolution began by Parker. One was rhythmic, and is generally described as a move from quarter / eighth notes based lines, to eighth / sixteenth notes the basis for the melody line.
The second change is said to be in the reliance on the harmony of the tune as the basis for improvisation, rather than reliance on the melody. This seems somewhat inaccurate, as the harmony and melody are closely related, and presenting them as two wholly different things does not seem to be correct. What I believe to be closer to reality is that Parker initiated a greater awareness of harmony, and of the possibilities that such awareness offer the Jazz musician. He is in fact quoted saying that he found out that playing the higher intervals of the chords (the 7th, 9th, 11th, etc) bring to the music something he heard in his mind, and wanted to play. So it wasn’t a move from harmony to melody, but a more sophisticated approach to harmony that found expression in the melody.
A third change is in unusual phrasing of the melody, expressed in sudden breaks and unexpected accents. This I believe to be one of the most neglected aspects of his music, and while many have imitated his playing, I have yet to hear a good imitation of this aspect of his playing.
What is sometimes mentioned, and I hold to be of crucial importance, is that Parker’s music was meant to bring the music back to its black roots, in a time when Benny Goodman was “the King of Swing”. It is reported that Parker and his co-revolutionists wanted to make a new music which “they can’t steal from us”, “they” being the white musicians who copied earlier forms of jazz and received most of its financial rewards.
By the late fifties, Parker’s music was already well accepted, among most jazz musicians (excepting the reactionary, mostly white “Dixieland” musicians). Some of its elements were even incorporated into the mostly white “cool jazz” school. Hard bop musicians were usually very capable bebop musicians, who inserted some gospel influences as another attempt to keep the music black.
When the sixties erupted, change was in the air, especially for black Americans. As Parker’s music was already two decades old, and accepted into the mainstream of jazz, it was clear that repeating the same ideas could not fulfill the desperate need for change, so prevalent among black musicians. By that time, John Coltrane has already exhausted the harmonic implications of Parker’s music. The next logical step had to be a whole different approach to harmony. The European composers arrived at the same junctions in the beginning of the century, and came up with what is termed “atonality” – music with no tonal center. What the black jazz musicians arrived at was different. They came to the conclusion that with the broadening of harmonic awareness, every note is “legitimate”, and thus many have abandoned the use of harmony in its Western form. They did not all do it in the same way. Coltrane went to non-Western modes heard in Indian and African music, while Coleman came up with an original concept he called “Harmolody” – where the melody line creates the harmony, instead of the melody depending on harmony.
Both directions were very influential among musicians, and both represented another aspect of Parker’s revolution. In both there was a rejection of white domination of the music, and a rejection of the Western approach to music.
Eric Dolphy took a slightly different approach, closer to Coleman’s, though. He extracted from Parker’s music only the “strange” chords and intervals, and made them the basis of his solos. He was one of the few musicians who took Parker’s phrasing, the unexpected breaks and accents, and made them an integral part of his music.
Other musicians, such as Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, were heavily influenced by the new changes and incorporated them into their playing and composing. They were important in consolidating and bringing order to the many refreshing ideas that kept coming up in the music.
I have to note that when I say “Parker’s” music, I am doing injustice to other bebop revolutionists, such as Bud Powell, Monk, Gillespie and Navarro. It is especially important to note that Monk’s influence was crucial as well. Let us compromise by accepting that the term “Parker’s music” includes Monk and his exceptional music.
Where Parker moved from fourth to eighth notes, the new musicians have attempted a bolder move, to an un-countable meter, where the beat is divided into endless fractions. Mingus said that he wanted his drummers to “never play on the beat”, creating endless “tension and relaxation” patterns.
We cannot help concluding that the new jazz musicians of the sixties did to Parker’s music what Parker himself did to swing in his time. They have all used his music as the starting point from which to make the changes they felt were necessary.
It is the creative artist’s apparent fate not to reap any financial rewards from his valuable contributions. In 1964 Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” became a hit. While Morgan was a great musician, the success of the funky, well executed music of the Sidewinder was a direct blow at the new movement in jazz. Lee Morgan himself, as well as other musicians, was asked to continue and play in a style, which had none of the innovations on Parker’s music.
Morgan’s “In Search of a New Land”, which was creative as well as connected to the social aspect of the music, in both title and content, was shelved until many years later. Alto and flute player James Spaulding said in a recent interview that because of the Sidewinder’s success he was asked to play the same kind of music for Blue Note, a request that frustrated him, since he was more influenced by Coltrane and Coleman and wrote music in the new style. We can only guess that his is only one of many instances where the musicians were forced to play contrary to their creative tendencies, in order to survive financially. The exceptions of Coltrane and Miles Davis, who continued to make money playing the new music, are exactly that, exceptions to the rule.
As a movement, the heirs of Parker were eventually suffocated, and never gained enough power to change the mainstream in the way Parker’s music did. Coltrane, Dolphy and Albert Ayler were all dead before 1970. Others continued to search for new grounds, but were no longer a substantial force within jazz.
Today, musicians are playing Parker’s music and making a good living, as if nothing happened in the music for fifty years. Others insert funk elements into their music, rarely achieving what Lee Morgan accomplished forty years ago. They too make a good living. In the fringes there are the survivors of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), always exploring, European musicians who have not given up on creativity, such as Evan Parker, but they are still, as they were in the sixties, waiting for the public to rise up and come to them and their music.
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© 2004 Nadav Haber
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