Parker, Monk and all that jazz

November 10, 1995

Even before "theory" hijacked the fast track of literary and cultural criticism there was a noticeable oddity about much American academic publishing. Book after book from reliable uuniversity presses would take the high theoretical ground in a tightly and convincingly argued chapter one, before casually marching off in chapters two, three and onwards into boggy old prac. crit.

Thomas Owens's Bebop was commissioned and supervised for Oxford University Press by Sheldon Meyer, one of the few academic publishers to have afforded jazz sustained and serious attention in his main list. That being so, it is all the more disturbing to find the book drift into that familiar imbalance of focus and tone. The main saving defence in this case is that there are three excellent, historically grounded chapters before Owens lapses into a by-the-numbers resume of the instrumentalists associated with bebop.

There is still some controversy about the origins - and the onomatopoeic naming - of bebop, rebop, or just plain bop. For some observers, it is a revolutionary break in the language of jazz, an urgent, complex, spiky (opponents like Philip Larkin would suggest "neurotic") music, which emerged as a reaction to the redundancies of commercialised swing at the end of the 1930s. There is a quasi-separatist myth of origins that suggests bebop was devised at jam sessions in Minton's Playhouse in New York City as a deliberate bid to exclude technically unassured amateurs, whites in the main, who tried to "sit in". And there is a school of thought which maintains that, far from being a schism, jazz represents a logical progression from the harmonic language of earlier styles, and that its "revolutionary" aura was exaggerated by historical foreshortening; specifically, a union recording ban meant that many early experiments in the new style were not documented, thereby exaggerating the novelty of later releases.

There is one much more specific myth about bebop, which ties the style to its most distinguished exponent, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Owens usefully shows how most bebop tunes were "contrafacts" based on the chord structure of Broadway tunes such as "How High the Moon" and (especially) "I Got Rhythm". Many pseudo-technical accounts of bebop's origins draw on an article published in Down Beat in 1949 by Michael Levin and John S. Wilson. In it they describe the young Parker experimenting with the chord changes of another standard tune, Ray Noble's "Cherokee", and discovering "that by using higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, he could play this thing he had been 'hearing'. (Guitarist Biddy) Fleet picked it up behind him and bop was born."

The notion that bebop was "born" in a Seventh Avenue chili house in December 1939 is somewhat punctured by recognising that the explanation Levin and Wilson give of bebop harmony, building a solo from the top rather than from the middle notes of the chord, scarcely explains Parker's practice, nor that of his more inventive successors. Nor, as Owens makes clear, did Parker much favour the "flatted fifth" interval that was commonly supposed to be definitive of bebop. Dramatic as the two journalists'anecdote was and is, it isinsufficient as musical history.

Far from being revolutionary, bebop was a product of simultaneous evolution. Aspects of it emerge in the music of guitarist Charlie Christian, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, and pianist Thelonious Monk, all of whom gave the emerging idiom a very personal - and in Monk's case, idiosyncratic - slant. Many of their experiments actually predate Parker's Seventh Avenue eureka. The problem with Owens's account is that even in questioning the received wisdom about Parker as sole progenitor, by foregrounding him so prominently and so dominantly, he reinforces a false teleology. However interesting the later chapters are both anecdotally and analytically (this is a book with worked music examples on nearly every page), its progression from Parker's instrument, the alto saxophone, through tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums, other instruments and then ensembles seems to confirm structurally what Owens is attempting to disprove analytically: that Parker "invented" bebop; that he was followed by epigoni like alto men Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean, and that other instrumentalists simply translated and transposed the "Parker style".

Every new development in jazz has involved an innovation in jazz rhythm. It would make equal sense to look at the bass playing of Walter Page with Count Basie and Jimmy Blanton with Duke Ellington (Owens touches on both in the opening chapter) and on developments in jazz percussion culminating in the work of Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Art Blakey, and to treat Parker as the apotheosis of the bebop movement, rather than its historical source. Owens frequently points to this sensibly mediated conclusion, but is blocked again and again by his own structure. By falling back on an instrument-by-instrument approach, he devalues the contribution of the rhythm section, and undermines his own case, leaving later chapters reading like footnotes to the main action. A major opportunity lost.

Bebop is now arguably - and this is Owens's contention - the basic idiom of contemporary jazz. A music that presented a major challenge to critics and players alike (even to Basie and Ellington, who both bowed to consensus and imported some bop elements into their own conceptions) has become almost inaudibly familiar, even banal. It is salutary to be reminded how formulaic how much of Parker's best work was, punctuated by tags from Carmen, rounded off with the irritating cadence from Percy Grainger's "Country Gardens", but it is important also to be able to appreciate the sheer originality, brilliance and simplicity of his greatest solos. In order to do that, it is probably best to read Bebop backwards.

Brian Morton is a writer, broadcaster and musician.

Bebop: The Music and the Players

Author - Thomas Owens
ISBN - 0 19 505287
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 323

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