JAM, XII: Master of Music, Music History Competency Exam, "On Ko-Ko" + "Phrasing, Time, and Idiomatic Authority: Improvisations by Clifford Brown, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane"

Every weekday this month I'll be posting new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is on the last day of April, the 30th; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month is at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Yesterday's installment featured Hampton Hawes's solo on "Crazeology" (other solos on the tune by Harold Land and Scott LaFaro). Tomorrow's features liner notes I wrote on Curtis Nowosad's "Dialectics" release last month and a strange earworm of a phrase, "Neo-Hard Bop."

†If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider supporting my band's homegrown effort to get our record through the final stages of mastering and production. It's all recorded—you can listen to it now!—but we just need a bit more help to get to the finish line. We appreciate it. </self-promotion over>

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"Charlie Parker Lincoln Cemetery" by cool valley from Gladstone, MO, USA - Charlie Parker. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
The entry for "Bop [bebop, rebop]" in Grove Music Online (accessed 15 April 2015, etc., entire entry accessible here) begins:
A modernist movement in jazz which had a deep influence on the genre's history.
From there, a few words about Bird, Diz, Monk, and Charlie Christian, and then:
...Among other innovations, they superimposed on the harmonic structure of 'standard' songs melodic themes closer to the spirit of jazz improvisations, creating a new repertory... [etc. etc. on density of harmony, rhythm, and melody, changing in comping tendencies, "syncopation" and "polyrhythm"] 
..The range of tempos became wider, with a tendency to the extremely fast (at times exceeding 360 crotchets per minute). 
Exceeding 360 crotchets/min, you say? Grove Music Online's lengthy entry for "Improvisation, §III: Jazz" includes a subsection on "Formulaic Improvisation," which spends some time discussing "Ko-Ko." It begins:
The principal manifestation of the fragmentary idea in jazz is in formulaic improvisation...In formulaic improvisation (a concept borrowed from studies of epic poetry and Western ecclesiastical chant) many diverse formulae intertwine and combine within continuous lines; particular musicians and groups often create a repertory of formulae (their 'licks') and draw on it in many different pieces.
I wouldn't be surprised if Bird and co. dug Homer, Dante, other epic poets, and/or Western ecclesiastical chant, but what's that got to do with bop, Black American Sonic Modernism? Now, on to Bird:
The greatest formulaic improviser in jazz was undoubtedly Charlie Parker...In a piece such as Koko (1945, Savoy 597), based on the theme Cherokee, a surprising amount of formulaic material recurs within the brief solo; given the great speed at which the solo proceeds and the artful way in which Parker re-uses material the repetitions are hardly noticeable.
"Formulaic Improvisation" is the third of six subsections of the larger subheading "Techniques and procedures" (of improvisation). These six subsections are as follows: "(i) Paraphse improvisation," "(ii) Use of motifs and formulae," "(iii) Formulaic improvisation," "(iv) Motivic improvisation," "(v) Interrelated techniques," "(vi) Modal improvisation." 

That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is "jazz improvisation," as far as Grove Music Online is concerned.

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I hand-wrote a 1000-word essay in about an hour as part of a degree requirement. None of this is new information, but it was an overall enjoyable exercise in revisiting something I thought I knew pretty well. As I began writing, I realized that just mentioning one detail would suggest an entire set of related details, inevitable but necessary digressions. Writing on the blog tends to be a one draft, stream of consciousness-type thing, which may have led to some bad habits for this genre of exam essay writing. Alas.


Write an essay on your assigned work that explains:

1)  The social and cultural background of the work.
For example:  When was the work composed and first performed?  For whom or for what occasion was it written?  In what ways does it reflect the tastes and values of the time and place in which it was created?  Etc.

2)  The relationship of the work to other works of the same type that preceded and followed it.
For example:  In what ways does the work conform to practices established in preceding works in the same genre?  Who are some of the composers chiefly responsible for establishing those practices, and in what works?  In what ways does the work you are discussing conform to and depart from established practices?  Did it have any influence on subsequent practices?  If so, how and in whose works, for example?

3)  The formal principles of the work and the nature of its musical language.
For example:  How did the composer give shape and coherence to the work?  What are the apparent aims of the work in terms of musical-emotional expression, and how are those aims achieved?  What are the distinctive features of the composition's musical language (melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, orchestration, etc.) that mark it as a work from a particular time in history and by a particular composer?  Etc.

If you are writing on a longer work such as an opera, a sonata, or a suite, you may focus your discussion of form and musical language on an individual aria or movement.

Cite specific names, dates, and titles throughout to support and illustrate your points.

Use precise terminology to describe the nature of the work, avoiding generalizations such as “baroque,” “romantic,” etc.

Kevin Sun

M.M. Music History Competency Exam: "Ko-Ko," Charlie Parker

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (born “Christopher,” hereafter referred to as “Bird” to accord with accepted jazz terminology) recorded “Ko-Ko” in late 1945 in New York City. The small ensemble accompanying him epitomized the emerging, so-called “bebop” school of jazz: Dizzy Gillespie & Miles Davis on trumpet (more on this later), Curley Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums (apparently Sadik Hakim was on piano for a few tracks due to the absence of Bud Powell, Bird’s long-time friend/rival, but Gillespie plays piano on this track [Gillespie hereafter referred to as “Dizzy,” same reason as above]).
            “Ko-Ko” is a watershed moment in jazz history, setting the bar for generations of saxophonists and other instrumentalists and establishing the aggressive modernism of these black artists—no longer to be seen as mere entertainers. The composition features an 8-bar unison intro figure played by Bird and Dizzy, without bass accompaniment and only drums outlining time on hi-hat. The extended absence of bass was virtually unprecedented and showcases the ingenuity of the horn players, each of whom delivers an 8-bar solo statement (Dizzy, then Bird) that suggests harmonic motion without granting the ear any obvious, single harmonic progression. Following that, another unison 8-bar figure is delivered, with an abrupt break at the end before the entire enters with Bird blowing (i.e., improvising) lines over the chord progression of “Cherokee,” a 1938 popular song by Ray Noble popularized by such figures as Charlie Barnet & his band. Bird continues for several choruses before Roach takes an extended drum solo primarily using snare and bass drum in rapid, mysterious figures. Finally, Roach cuts off his solo to return to playing time as Bird and Dizzy take out the head (recapitulate the opening 8-bar figure, two 8-bar solo statements, and closing 8-bar figure).
            The melody of “Cherokee” is never played over its chord progression, which is characteristic of bebop compositions that repurpose popular songs for harmonic-rhythmic-melody [sic] innovation—this practice enabled artists to use those songs’ harmonic frameworks without paying royalties. Many bebop compositions used new melody lines played over these popular song harmonies, e.g., Bird’s “Ornithology” (on “How High the Moon”), “Donna Lee” (over “Back Home in Indiana”) and Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” (“What Is This Thing Called Love?”). “Cherokee” is an important composition for its bridge, which begins a half step above the original key (from Bb to B major) and modulates through a sequence of key centers before returning to the original tonic. This presented (and continues to present) a technical challenge to improvisors, and previous versions of “Cherokee” did not feature extensive improvisation through this challenging harmonic terrain, e.g., Count Basie’s version, which showcases Lester Young, a tenor saxophonist and key influence on Bird, on the ‘A’ sections, but conspicuously not on the bridge.
            “Ko-Ko” emblematizes a number of trends that would prove massively influential: a movement toward small group abstraction (drums-bass-piano rhythm sections plus horn soloists, not big bands), oblique and complex melodies over standard chord progression (e.g., Warne Marsh’s “Marshmallow” over “Cherokee,” or Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” over “What Is This Thing Called Love?”), highly sophisticated rhythmic interaction between soloist and rhythm section (primarily in the drums, with interpolations of bass note hits, often called “bombs,” and snare figures), and virtuosic melodic lines improvised at quick tempos.
            The use of unison lines on a complex melody was an extraordinary achievement—the precision with which Bird & Dizzy played together was another technical landmark*, a sound that would be continually repurposed in jazz from Horace Silver’s hard bop quintet in the ’50s on takes like “Room 608” even through fusion jazz in the ’70s with the aggressively funky lines of the Brecker Brothers. Moreover, Bird’s lengthy solo is one of the greatest of all time: lengthy lines that wind in and out of the harmonic structure using strategically deployed chromatic passing tones, cutting-edge voice leading within phrases to reinforce melodic continuity (the beginning of the second chorus bridge is known to every decently studied saxophonist to this day), asymmetric rhythmic phrasing that channels the heritage of the African Diaspora (e.g., same bridge figuring presenting sequences of duple/triple not beholden to Western European musical traditions; the opening 8-bar figure, presenting groupings of 3-3-2, its mirror 2-3-3, a square 2-2 followed by a self-interrupting 1-3, etc.). This musical language is not necessarily a break with what came before; in terms of pitch content and harmonic colors, predecessors like tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and pianist Art Tatum were already using similar sounds. However, the rhythmic phrasing of this information, the freedom with which Bird could start and end phrases and seemingly resolve them at any point of the form was unheard of. Precursors like Lester Young had intimated such freedom in solos such as “Shoeshine Boy” (1936), but Bird showed the world what that freedom sounded like.
            Only 10 years later, Bird passed away at the age of 34. By that time, a whole generation of beboppers had emerged to carry on his linguistic and formal innovations in the jazz language, on both coasts: saxophonist Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Clifford Brown on the East Coast and pianist Hampton Hawes and tenor saxophonist Harold Land on the West Coast, to name a few. Jazz was no longer popular music—World War II all but killed the big band swing era—but it was now art, a music appreciated by Ivy League-educated critics and cognoscenti as much as black communities from which the music emerged. Bebop, for better or worse, was the future.

*Although Miles was hired for this Savoy recording session, his technique was deemed insufficient to phrase with Bird on “Ko-Ko.” Davis claims to have been sleeping in the studio… [rest cut off, something along the lines of, “…at the time of the recording, as he wrote in his autobiography”].

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Grade: 70/100, Pass

Comments: “Your analysis of Ko-Ko is detailed, but you never define Be-Bop, nor do you mention formulaic improvisation (see detailed analysis in Grove Online).”

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I'm sharing transcriptions of and observations regarding three solos I checked out this past semester, as part of an independent study. It's next Friday afternoon. Come by if you're interested.