Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Possible Paths": Schemata of Phrasing and Melody in Charlie Parker's Blues

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Possible Paths": Schemata of Phrasing and Melody in Charlie Parker's Blues

Article excerpt

[1.1] Charlie Parker was a master improviser. His extraordinary oeuvre carries an implicit question: how did he do it? How did he create such well-crafted melodies in the very act of performance? This is "the problem of improvisation"-a problem for both the improviser and the analyst.(1) Inspired by the epigraph from Steve Larson, this paper posits one kind of solution for Parker's improvisations on the twelve-bar blues. I suggest that Parker developed two different sets of "possible paths" through the blues: phrase structures, to solve the problem of how to place phrases against a fixed meter; and melodic paths, to solve the problem of creating coherent melodies against a fixed harmonic structure. I call these paths schemata of phrasing and melody.

[1.2] The term "schemata" is most familiar from the work of Robert Gjerdingen on the galant style (2007). The galant composer confronted a similar "problem" to the bebop improviser: high-speed composition. Gjerdingen's schemata are recurring patterns of scale-degrees. Through artful elaboration and combination of pre-learned schemata, galant musicians could compose efficiently and expressively. Without using this term, jazz scholars have similarly speculated that the improviser draws on a pre-learned repertory of (pitch-based) musical materials. An improviser imprints this repertory through practice, so that it spontaneously emerges in a solo. My schemata are based on this same view of improvisation. They are Parker's raw improvisational materials, highly flexible in their details and application, and they facilitate efficient composition (to put it mildly). They inhabit two domains: melody, in the form of recurring sequences of scale-degrees (very similar to Gjerdingen's); and phrasing, in the form of recurring relationships between phrasing and meter. The interaction of these domains further increases Parker's economy of means: the same melodic schema sounds quite different when laid over two different phrasing schemata.

Example 1. The metrical-harmonic structure of a typical bebop blues (for simplicity, sevenths are omitted)

[1.3] The twelve-bar blues has been a basis for jazz improvisation perhaps longer than any other form. Example 1 gives a metrical-harmonic outline of a bebop blues.(2) There are three four-bar hypermeasures, describing a single harmonic phrase. The first hypermeasure prolongs tonic, the second hypermeasure moves to the subdominant and then back to tonic, and the third hypermeasure presents a ii-V-I cadence.(3) Harmonic substitution and interpolation are common; but alterations preserve the opening establishment of tonic, measure 5 motion to the subdominant, and cadence terminating in measure 11.(4) Charlie Parker had a particularly intimate relationship with the blues: it represents around a quarter of Parker's recorded output, and it likely constituted an equivalent portion of his practice time (Martin 1996, 3). It is only natural that he would develop shortcuts to improvising on this familiar form.

[1.4] To identify schemata, I sought recurring patterns in a sample of Parker's blues. This sample included thirty-nine recorded performances totaling 156 improvised choruses, dating from between 1944 and 1953, after Parker's style had reached maturity (Owens 1974, vol. 1, 5). These thirty-nine performances fit two criteria, one practical, the other theoretical: a recording and published transcription were readily available;(5) and the tempo was at least 160 quarter-notes per minute.(6) I speculate that the patterns in this sample would be found throughout Parker's blues performances.

The Solo as Interpretation(7)

[2.1] The form of a bebop performance is often described as following a theme-and-variations model; this familiar analogy needs refining. The technique of "bebop variation" might be better understood if we distinguish how the theme's three elements of meter, harmony, and melody are treated during the solos. …

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