Monday, September 3, 2007

Charlie Parker's Listening Skills

My interest in reading about music as a practice has led me from Eunmi Shim's book about Lennie Tristano to the more "classic" book by Ira Gitler, Jazz Masters of the Forties (which was, of course, one of Shim's sources). This book begins, as, by all rights it should, with a chapter entitled "Charlie Parker and the Alto and Baritone Saxophonists." One of the things that Tristano and Parker had in common was an extraordinarily acute skill at listening to performances and internalizing those listening experiences into performance practice. Thus, both of them were tapping into what Stravinsky would later get at in his remarks about good listening. It was therefore no surprise for me to discover that Parker though a lot of Stravinsky.

Leonard Feather use to arrange "blindfold tests," where the subject had to identify performers on the basis of sound alone. When Parker took the test, Feather included classical music. Gitler documented the results as follows:

Feather also played some classical music for Parker. Bird readily identified Stravinsky and said: "That’s music at its best. I like all of Stravinsky—and Prokofiev, Hindemith, Ravel, Debussy and of course Wagner and Bach." Several years later he named Bartok as his favorite. In the forties, at the Roost, he would play the opening phrases of Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik as a call to let his sidemen know that it was time for the next set. In the fifties, according to Bill Coss, "He never listened to jazz in his home. For that matter, he seldom listened to jazz anywhere unless he happened to be on a job. His main interest was in classical music, mostly the moderns."

I suspect that, had Stravinsky been aware of these remarks and practices, he would have approved!


America Jones said...

I was not aware that Bird was such a fan of "Classical" music.

Some years ago, while visiting a linguist friend studying at Stanford, I had occasion to attend a church organ performance of Bach compositions. I do not recall the name of the performer, but he was elderly and by accounts well regarded in his field. I learned from him that Bach was a fan of improvisation, which changed the way I heard Bach.

The Goldberg Variations came to sound like a jazz composition, and many jazz compositions (most notably, some of those by Oscar Peterson) began to sound quite Classical. An old friend who plays violin in symphonies concurs.

Although I am untrained in music, I find it quite remarkable how Mstislav Rostropovich, in his 1991 recording, interprets the Prelude to the 6th Cello suite as call-and-response; even more so when compared to Janos Starker's 1997 BMG release of the same.

Stephen Smoliar said...

There is, of course, the whole practice of interpolating familiar material into improvised passages. This almost certainly predates jazz (at least as far back as improvised cadenzas); but, within the confines of jazz history, Fats Waller was prolific enough to interpolate classical passages as well as familiar songs. At the other end of the spectrum, if Bird's invocation of Hindemith is not "far out" enough, somewhere in my collection I have a Gerry Mulligan cut where, at the very end, he tacks on the opening bassoon solo from Rite of Spring!

Another important historical perspective is that early organists pretty much had to be good improvisers because the instruments were so uncooperative. What we now call a "pedal tone" was originally a "stuck" tone, where the mechanics would not immediately respond to a key (or pedal) being released. The only sensible thing to do was to improvise around it and try to make it sound "right!" Bach was particularly good at this; and I suspect that much of his experience went into the eventual writing down of the F major toccata in BWV 540 (which, at least according to the notes that Harry Halbreich prepared for the Michel Chapuis recording, left Mendelssohn totally awe-struck).

Another source of improvisation is the exploration of a new (or non-standard) instrument. This is the case with the last two cello suites. The fifth uses an alternative (scordatura) tuning (which accounts for some of the "pedal" effects), while the instrument for which Bach wrote the sixth suite had an additional string turned a fifth higher than the usual "top" string.