Saturday Night Tunes: Bird and Diz

Tonight’s pick goes back a few years chronologically from last week’s Blue Train, but it focuses on couple other monumental jazz innovators: Charlie “Bird” Parker and “Dizzy” Gillespie. What Coltrane did for the development of hard bop and then for free jazz in the late 1950s and the 1960s wouldn’t have been possible if these two guys, along with a few others like guitarist Charlie Christian, hadn’t developed bebop in the 1940s.

Bebop was the result of a lot of things coming together musically. The caliber of musician going into jazz was increasing pretty quickly, and every great artist inspired other would-be artists to push the envelope farther. Swing music in the 1930s was dance music, which was all very nice but didn’t really put the focus on the musicians, so some folks like Gillespie started experimenting with music that wasn’t really meant for dancing but rather for listening. Parker, who claimed that in his younger days he spent 15 hours a day practicing (so let that be a lesson for you kids out there; if you want to be a great musician, uh, drop out of school, I guess), figured out that he could made any note in the chromatic scale resolve to any chord, so his improvisation could suggest chords within chords and even anticipate where the music was going next. A crowd seeing him play at the time must have been like an audience listening to Mozart in the 1700s — a lot of people thinking “what the hell is this?” mixed with a few folks who understood that this guy was about to change everything. Rhythmic emphasis changed, drumming styles changed, tempos got faster, and there was just one of those almost inexplicable bursts of creativity that happen in the arts from time to time.

Parker and Gillespie were both ridiculously gifted, incredible improvisers and composers. It says something about their legacies that, but for the fact that 1940s and 1950s recording technology wasn’t anywhere near what it is today, their music still holds up against anything and everything that came after. Separately they were iconic, but in their frequent partnerships they managed to take the music to even higher levels. Bird and Diz was mostly recorded in 1950 and features not just Parker and Gillespie, but Thelonious Monk on piano, Curley Russell on bass, and Buddy Rich on drums. It’s quite a quintet. Two of the tracks were recorded by Parker in 1947 with a different group, including Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Max Roach on drums, which was also pretty damned impressive.


“Relaxin’ with Lee”:

“Leap Frog,” which really showcases how well Parker and Gillespie played with each other:

“An Oscar for Treadwell”:

“Visa,” one of the two tracks from the earlier session:


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