this monday at the hideout
About once a year I do a wordplay-generated mashup at my Monday residency. This Monday it's "Graham and Charlie Parker." I seem to recall, during previous mashup preparation bouts, which, by the way, are always extensive and call on a broad swath of the cerebrum, that subtle and surprising common threads have come to light. This time, not so much. The reason you can find an element here and there in, for instance, a Monk head, that can be made to correspond with something in, for example, oh, a Monkees melody, is that the world of harmony is finite. Narrowed down further yet by the subcategories "American" and "midcentury" (broadly speaking, of course) and "popular" (jazz used to be popular music, believe it or not), the project starts looking much less lunatic, and a Monk-Monkees or two-Parker set of music can come to be something other than an otiose comic exercise.
What a lot of fantastic songs Graham Parker has written, over the last 40 years! Behold some of the titles: "Stupefaction," "Nothing's Gonna Pull Us Apart," "Just Like A Man," "Kid With the Butterfly Net," "She Wants So Many Things," "Silly Thing," "You Can't Take Love For Granted," "Back to Schooldays," "Mighty Rivers," "Temporary Beauty," "Under the Mask of Happiness," "Dark Side of the Bright Lights," "No Holding Back," "Problem Child," "Fool's Gold," and there are whole albums that list doesn't even draw from, including Squeezing Out Sparks, his alleged magnum opus. (I like it, but it's not topmost in my heart.) These songs clutch you at the first line and keep you clutched. Each one has a few startling and highly creative changes, and the comparatively cosmetic showoffery -- the hit factory signatures, group accents and other attention-getting events, the Rumour's laborious and pointyheaded parcelling of "parts," the sound-recording contributions of such outsized personalities as Mutt Lange, Nick Lowe, William Wittman, David Kershenbaum, Jimmy Iovine, and Jack Nitzsche -- do almost as much as the writing to make the songs irresistible.
When it comes to the Bird, I'm a definite rarity, a good musician and educated Americano who is yet unfamiliar with much of Charlie's music. Before this week, I had of course heard a number of songs, just walking around living life, and I knew the basics about his life story, but I had only one of his heads in my working toolkit ("Billie's Bounce"), owned none of his records, couldn't really attach a name to a title except for "Tunisia," and missed the Clint Eastwood movie about him. I hesitate to try offering thoughts about him in a world that includes Mr. Phil Schaap. But it's possible that the thoughts of a musician outside the tribe, even one with no formal training or very fine-grained contextual outlook on jazz, could be useful. Even if not, then as usual, at least writing down gives me a chance to know what I think and for others to correct or improve it.
First, these tunes -- I'm talking about the Dial and Savoy recordings mainly, because that's mainly where I've been living this week -- are short. Compared to post-Parker jazz, that comes as a contrast and, to admit an impulsive thought, a bit of a relief. The D&S tracks are always under 3:50, usually under 3:30, and sometimes don't make it to 3. At some point in the Fifties it seems that an act of Congress made jazz songs of less than 7 minutes a punishable offense. I love listening to a set of Sonny Clark songs, but, as accessible and algebra-averse as the music is, in a sense it's more demanding than Parker. When you put on the record you are obliged to go under and stay under. Your role is not only to take delight but to give deep and sustained attention. The Parker tracks are a friendly reminder that a strong head and 6 minutes of improvising aren't married partners, that for jazz to be serious it doesn't have to be stretched-out. The listener isn't required to be in just the right frame of mind, the way you imagine you have to be before seeing Boyhood or dropping the needle on Ornette Coleman. The composer/bandleader has made it the first order of his business to grab hold of you and take you on a quick and pumped-up ride. (I guess I've just implied a link to Graham there, but it's too boring to dwell on.)
The next 15 years of jazz history are legible in these records, made 1945 to 1948. Idiosyncratic languages as far from each other as they are from Parker, styles that would soon take center stage -- Bud Powell's, Miles Davis's, Dizzy Gillespie's, John Lewis's -- are here in early form. I'd love to know what any of these players felt they were absorbing from the mind of Parker and, by comparison, to know what Parker thought these men were contributing in the shaping of his sound. In the case of most recordings (like Graham Parker's!) the cherished ideal of the lone, all-seeing writer/composer is a bit of a falsehood, because so many influences between the writing of the song and the pressing of the record come to bear on the sound and shape. Of these influences, the strongest is who's playing. However, Bud, Miles, et al. were quite young and Parker was quite brilliant, so it's possible this music is Parker's own to an unusual degree.
It occurs to me that one reason this music can easily accommodate such widely divergent stylists is that its wild originality doesn't extend to chord progressions. A fair number of these songs have rhythm changes, or 12-bar changes, and some others are taken not from template but from other specific songs. So, once the head's over (a major "once"!), you can turn off your brain and play, giving the changes floating under you scant attention.
On "Moose the Mooche," the two phrases that make up the 3rd and 4th bars of the second A section, ending at the A flat, sound to me like they could constitute a near-complete Monk head. The cramming of ideas into the Parker heads partly accounts, I think, for their enduringness -- the world needed years to investigate and play out the ideas -- and certain people wanted lifetimes. This music comes to you as a neatly packaged miracle, in terms of its sensible complexity and the completeness with which it's been imagined, like Esperanto or Star Trek. It's also like those two nerdy inventions in that one feels an inhuman or anti-human force in its technique, working dimly behind the curtain. Parker heads are not well-suited to the mechanics of human vocalizing, apart from the odd phrase here and there. This music seems to me, with my limited historical context, to signal a determined retort against the dominance of hummability in popular and jazz music. If this is so, I wonder whether such a move was considered by the architects of bebop to be a definitive advance. Either way, this rigidly composed, jittery, uptempo, interval-hopping style (sometimes it evokes Raymond Scott) turned out to be more of a vogue: there's no fighting hummability. The composing of Monk, some of whose heads are like earwormy evolutions of Parker with rests replacing about one-third of the notes, is stronger for embracing it.
It interested me to find that the rhythmic values of Parker heads are as crucial as the note values -- in fact, if you had to pick one as the main ingredient in the Parker brand, I think it would be the rhythm. Tap "Moose the Mooche" out on a tabletop, and you already have a captivating piece of music, full of surprises and symmetries and wit. (According to Miles Davis, Parker's father was a tap-dancer and the feel carried over.) There's nothing very intuitive about Parker's choice of notes or beats, either one. When I was learning Monk tunes for the residency, I found that there was a barrier to get past, given the counterintuitiveness of the music, but that once past it, the tunes lodged permanently. The language, I infer, is not only fresh but, at some mysterious level, basically right. I'm finding that this is true of the Parker music too, but not quite as true: it's taken me longer to internalize "Moose" and "Scrapple from the Apple" and I don't think I really have either in my bones yet. I'd have to dive deeper and stay under longer before this kind of playing became at all reflexive (for example the quick little pick-up notes that are sometimes attached to the start of a phrase are a few degrees lower than it feels easy for me to conceive or to play) -- and I'm not sure I want to go to that place or become that person.
Though if I could do it at the price of a few lessons and a year's woodshedding, I certainly would want to. A while back, I went to Don Stiernberg's house in Skokie, cash in hand. When he asked what I wanted to achieve musically and how he might help me get there, I told him that I was frustrated by how unnatural jazz harmonies were to me after all these years. I can learn the heads, I can improvise over the changes if they're not too crazy, I can listen with unadulterated pleasure for hours to the music; but I can't make it natural-sounding out of my two hands and brain, I always sound like a country/bluegrass player messing around. He explained to me instantly that I was a I-IV-V guy, who concieved and moved around these changes as you bounce between blocks of land. All bluegrass guys start from that place, and a lot of them, me apparently included, end there. What I needed was to assimilate the Parker conception of chords as more liquid, more connected, and to forsake my beloved I-IV-V for a while in favor of ii-V-I. This was the perfect thing to say -- it turned the key in the lock. Not that it turned me into a guy who could play jazz!
It's not unusual, when you survey avant-garde art decades later, to find that it no longer juts abrasively from its contemporary cousins, the way it used to, but jibes neatly and clearly with its era. "Avant-garde" is of course only meaningful in the present-tense, and intended only for consumer use. We convey either our discomfort or what we take to be the extra-artistic or self-promoting intentions of the maker. Decades later, the reception of the first users is forgotten and the art previously called avant-garde reveals itself, as all art reveals itself, as perhaps junk, or perhaps a beautiful artifact of a mind in time. The reaction to Thelonious Monk is a little hard to believe at this point, his music sounds so unforced and sturdily wrought. Parker sounds a little wilder to me, though -- proudly wild. A brashness and reactiveness still come through. Possibly this is the hummability comment repeated in a different way -- a heartfelt lashing against constraints is ever-present in Parker. This provides plentiful emotional fuel but also, it seems to me, prevents his voyaging where lesser-fueled men may; his approach -- writing, delivery, tempo -- overvalues dazzlement a little.
Where Parker stands in the current iconography, and where he'll come to stand -- as distinct from where he should stand -- is of interest to me. Academically, he appears unassailable. A drummer friend who went to an elite music school tells me his teachers considered the beginning of jazz history to be coterminous with the release of "Ko-Ko" and the end of it with Giant Steps. Down at the level where musicians are living and working, ossified reputations don't count for much. I've never run into a musician who professed to disliking the music, but this week, while it was in the front of my mind, I talked to some people whose hedging was striking. One swing guy told me he thought the music took a step back in the 1940s, back from the awesomeness of Basie, and another great player told me he can't listen to too much Parker at once without, pardon the expression, overdosing. If swing guys are talking like this, then the reputation is still a work in progress.
My own feeling is that, though the hypertempos and in-your-face esoteric grammar are indeed tiring in large doses, the reclaiming of jazz from white dancers and smoothly accommodating bandleaders is a nearly sacred moment in African-American history; one's reluctance to lay a hand on the moment translates unforcedly to a disinclination to budge Parker from his throne. Was Parker's music a leap forward in the story of art? Probably, but it's discussible. Was it a leap forward in the saga of black self-determination in America? Yes, discussion closed. It's impossible to imagine a line between the big band era to Coltrane and Mingus without the pivotal figure of Parker and his insistence on devising something "they couldn't play."
There, I've proven that even someone with near-zero acquantance with a subject can last one hundred paragraphs. I get tired of saying it, but puh-leez, if you have specialized knowledge with which to augment or knock down any of the foregoing positions, have at it. Oh, and the reason Graham and Charlie are almost unjoinable is that Graham uses chords as I tend to, as big blocks. There's no progression in any GP song I know of that could be switched out or confused with a CP progression. So how will I blend the two? That's for me to know for now, and you to come see Monday!