Bird Quotes: "Tico Tico"

The Rufous-collared Sparrow, or "tico-tico"

On March 12, 1951, Charlie Parker recorded the 1917 Zequinha de Abreu piece "Tico Tico" for a Norman Granz-produced session for Mercury, but he's on record quoting the tune at least three times in the years preceding.


The earliest version comes from a set-closing version of "52nd Second Theme" from Billy Berg's Club in Hollywood, recorded just a few weeks after Bird's legendary "Ko Ko" session in New York. Bird slips it in at the top of the last A section of his solo, after which Dizzy comes in with a favorite quote of his own, "Rain on the Roof," and Billy Berg comes on the mic to announce the end of the set.

In pop culture, the song was a major hit for Ethel Smith, who is featured playing "Tico Tico" in the 1944 musical movie Bathing Beauty, which is available on YouTube:

It was also recorded by the Andrews Sisters, which includes English lyrics that make explicit the connection to Bird:

Oh, tico tico, tick!
Oh, tico tico, tock!
This tico tico, he's the cuckoo in my clock.
And when he says "cuckoo,"
He means it's time to woo,
It's tico time for all the lovers on the block.

I've got a heavy date,
A tete a tete at eight,
So speak, oh, tico, tell me if it's getting late?
If I'm on time, cuckoo,
But, if I'm late, woo-woo!
The one my heart is gone to may not want to wait!

For just a birdie, and a birdie who goes nowhere,
He knows of every lover's lane and how to go there;
For in affairs of the heart
My tico's terribly smart,
He tells me: "gently, sentimentally at the start!"

Oh, oh, I hear my little tico tico calling
Because the time is right and shades of night are falling.
I love that not-so-cuckoo cuckoo in the clock,
Tico tico tico tico tico tock!

Considering the early date of the first quote, it seems timely enough for Bird to assert his soon-to-be legendary nickname in a little in-joke on the bandstand. Carmen Miranda's version from 1947's Copacabana, which features a memorable dance and rapid-fire lyrics (and also Groucho's wisecrack "Outside of nuts, she's the greatest thing that ever came out of Brazil—outside of nuts"), is also worth noting here and viewable online:


Dean Benedetti was present on July 10, 1948 at the Onyx Club when Bird quoted "Tico Tico" at the top of the bridge to "This Time the Dream's On Me," which, like "52nd Street Theme" is also in F (but in this case, the harmonic implications of the melody better fit the part of the form compared to the earlier instance).

Just a few days earlier (on July 7 most likely), Benedetti was also present for an afternoon rehearsal at the Onyx with Bird's band, where they rehearsed "Tico Tico"—although they apparently didn't play it on the gig, or at perhaps Benedetti missed it.

It's a remarkable document: the band vamps, Bird counts in the melody and plays it through, the band vamps more, and it sounds like he says "melody" or something before jumping in again, at which point the band (the "Golden Era Bebop 5," per Phil Schaap, with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach) starts swinging on the changes of "Tico Tico." Bird alludes to a melody a few times, but mostly improvises his own line before the tape fades out.


The final instance of the quote that I've found happens on "Scrapple From the Apple" from the February 12, 1949 broadcast from the Royal Roost in midtown Manhattan. During the chase chorus with Kenny Dorham before the head out, Bird plays the very beginning of the line (cracking one of the notes) at the top of the bridge before pivoting to his own line (on a notable but unrelated point, Bird also does the half-step slip on the next and final trade, which shows up elsewhere on this particular tune, like the version at Christy's in Framingham, MA). 

Again, a tune in F where the first chord of the bridge is A7: a perfect place for this quote.

In general, I've found that the densest concentration of quotes tend to happen during trading exchanges, particular with another horn player. It makes sense: it's a ritualistic exchange of musical phrases between musicians, and what better place to drop in some allusions and get some commentary in response?

"Tico tico," like "be-bop," is an onomatopoeia inspired by the song of the rufous-collared sparrow, which we get to hear courtesy of the internet:


  1. Sonny stitt quoted it on there is no greater love. I wonder if he heard it from bird or it was just a popular song at the time.


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