88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Similar to the accomplishment of Earl Hines who thinned out the solo ragtime and stride styles, pianist Earl “Bud” Powell was to offer an alternative to what had come to be regarded as the previous virtuosic “two-fisted” style of Art Tatum and others.

By the late 1930s, the Kansas City band riff style, made up of reiterations of short motifs or patterns, evolved into Big Band Swing. From about 1939 to 1945, a parallel development to the harmonic, rhythmic, and improvisational possibilities of swing was taking place in the almost sub rosa growth in small clubs of the Bebop style. Amidst the turbulence the war, the racist zoot suit riots, the quiet revolt of the hipster, etc., musicians were exploring the melodic (gestures, patterns) and rhythmic transformations of saxophonist Lester Young and guitarist Charlie Christian, and the implications of Coleman Hawkins1939 “Body and Soul” recording in which his melodic improvisation followed harmonies moving at twice the speed of the original composition, by means of additional passing and substitute chords.

A favorite device in 1920s jazz bands was to suddenly “double-time” a piece that had been proceeding in a slower “city blues” pulse. This involved subdividing the beats and slightly cranking up the speed of the basic pulse (also called the ictus). And then, just as shockingly, the music would drop back to its initial “get down” tempo. In his famous “West End Blues” (1928), Louis Armstrong took this simple idea and developed it, using more complex rhythmic patterns and interactions.

In 1945, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie recorded “I Can’t Get Started” with the harmonic rhythm moving at twice the speed of the original while Gillespie wove artful runs and patterns around fragments of the original melody; that same year Charlie Parker recorded “Koko,” based on the harmonies of Ray Noble‘s “Cherokee” but with a completely new tune that unwound in steady eighth notes.

The velocity of bebop tunes also increased radically (with the quarter note pulse often running as hot as a metronome marking of 212) in comparison to the slower dance tempos of the swing era.

Bud Powell absorbed the lessons of Parker and Gillespie (and therefore of Lester Young, Ben Webster, and others) but created a language of his own. He took the stride rhythm and steady beat out of the left hand and replaced it with thin implications of chords (the root with just the 7th and/or 10th, or a few overtones without the root) played in an apparently freely syncopated “comping” manner—but actually, accented as the consequence of “think in three, play in two”; the fast internally-felt triplets emerge as actual figures throughout Powell’s melodic improvisations, as well as in longer rhythm patterns phrased as a series of dotted quarter notes, but feeling like the triplets.

Powell’s well-seasoned right hand improvisations often run the scale of the root chord or arpeggiate its higher overtones, as if playing in a key a whole tone lower than the regular progression—and they tend to employ accented chromatic passing tones. The particular fleeting gestures that make up Powell’s lines are many and varied.

All of the previous musical elements can be heard clearly in Powell’s recordings “Hallucinations,” “Strictly Confidential” (“Fool’s Fancy”), “Tempus Fugit,” “Celia”

(all of which can be found on The Genius of Bud Powell on Verve), and “A Night in Tunisia” (in The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 on Blue Note). Powell’s take on the Afro-Cuban beat is “Un Poco Loco,” with its winding melody creating a delightful rhythmic counterpoint to the insistent dance beat bass line. Powell also contributed soulful, slow ballads such as the chromatic “I’ll Keep Loving You” (The Genius of Bud Powell), a portrait of an unsettled romantic search told in subtly modulated timbral harmonies.

Although he evolved a fine, uncluttered bebop solo and “‘comping” style, Tadd Dameron was primarily an influential composer-arranger, one who preferred to play an “arranger’s piano” and remain in the background. He began working for Kansas City bands and touring during the 1930s, and then moved on to work for such notables as Sarah Vaughan, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Dameron’s best-known work is probably “Lady Bird” recorded with his Sextet in 1948 on Blue Note Records. This unusual piece, sixteen measures in duration, moves its harmonies along in a novel rhythmic scheme: Two measures + 1 + 1, 2 + 1 + 1, 2 + 1 + 1, 1 + 1 + 1/2 + 1/2 + 1/2 + 1/2. And, like most blues forms—but unlike pop song forms which cadence—this tune is a closed loop where the last chord leads directly back to the beginning; a potentially eternal process is stopped only by the player’s decision. Other Dameron tunes that have become standards include “If You Could See Me Now,” “Good Bait,” “Hot House,” and “Todd’s Delight.” His harmonies and voicings contributed a great deal to loosing up the dependency of jazz on standard tonalities.

Thelonious ‘Sphere’ Monk steadfastly refused to talk about his music even in interviews. Instead, he would refer the questioner to his records, clinging to the reasonable notion that the answers were in the music itself. As a young man, Monk played gospel music on the piano and organ at his mother’s church; he was apparently fascinated by the rising and falling keys of a neighbor’s player piano and when he played for hours by himself he was taken with the movement of the interior mechanism of his own piano at home which was reflected in a mirror mounted in the ceiling. These solid and grounding musical and physical experiences seem to have reinforced his feeling that every musical gesture should be intended and inventive, not simply playing in a style for the sake of playing in a style. In Nugget magazine, he once complained about many of the bebop players that “they don’t pay enough attention to (the) swing … they don’t know where to put those bops … they play mostly stuff that’s based on chords of other things, like the blues and I Got Rhythm … I like the whole song, melody and chord structure, to be different.”

That “something different” is certainly what Monk offered:

(1) He played tone clusters with his elbows because that was the only way to get the harsh edge that he wanted at certain times, and he created a bent-tone effect by playing a minor second and then releasing one of the pitches (this is the central motif in the seventh chorus of his legendary improvisation on the Milt Jackson 12-bar blues tune “Bag’s Groove,” Dec. 24, 1954, and in his tune “We See”).

(2) Monk had a predilection for whole tone scales, minor 9ths and minor 2nds because they kept the harmonic underpinnings ambiguous, and he would sooner remove notes than add them, sometimes “ghosting” figures like a country blues guitarist who plays a figure once then subsequently leaves out notes so that a listener’s mind will supply them (choruses five and six on “Bag’s Groove”).

(3) Monk’s tune “Hornin’ In,” with its Gershwin-like (read: An American in Paris) imitation of car horns in major 2nds, is constructed so that the listener has no idea where the key center exists until the final bar: “ohhh, D-flat!”

(4) In his chamber music-like “Evidence” (1948), Monk created a composition that contrasts and eventually combines his pointillistic piano with the swing trio sounds of Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Simmons (bass), and Shadow Wilson (drums).

(5) What many musicians and commentators have to say about Monk is that he always seemed to “play the right thing at the right time”. Besides his unique harmonic inventions, Monk’s astonishing sense of pacing is the other strong identifying characteristic of his style. During long held notes (as in his solo on “The Man I Love,” on The Miles Davis Chronicle on Prestige) or even in silences, Monk’s concentration never flags—he is constantly giving intense attention to the accumulated duration of what has passed, and he waits for the proper moment to enter, a calculation that is difficult to describe and impossible to quantify. Once, Monk laid out on a whole chorus because the bass and drums seemed to be doing fine on their own, but Miles Davis impatiently played a trumpet call to supposedly wake him up. As pianist Dick Katz wrote in Jazz Panorama “(Monk) by an ingenious use of space and rhythm, and by carefully controlling a single melodic idea … builds tension that is not released until the end of his solo.”

(6) In Chorus 4 of “Bag’s Groove,” Monk constantly shifts (displaces, offsets) a simple two-chord pattern onto different beats of the underlying, internally felt fast triplet pulse. But Monk also produces a relaxed super-legato vibe twice in this same chorus by playing some high treble material in a complex “out of time”, Parker-like ratio of three against two and a half. Here, he is clearly in love with the “sound” of the chord: pianist McCoy Tyner said: “Sound is what Monk produced”).

(7) In “Bemsha Swing” (1952), Monk employs a classic rhythmic time delay by following in close canon to the saxophone melody at the time interval of one beat. According to drummer Max Roach, this and other rhythmic inventions were the way Monk encouraged him “to emancipate the drums from their subservient role as just timekeepers” by creating “a rhythm pattern within which the chord didn’t necessarily have to fall on that first beat.”

There are certain ideas that Monk explored from composition to composition.

(1) “Epistrophy,” “Well, You Needn’t” (1947), and most of “Played Twice” employ riff tunes over rhythmic harmonies that rise and fall by a half-step.

(2) “Misterioso” (1948), “Crepuscule With Nellie” and “In Walked Bud” all have melodies that involve movement in sixths.

(3) “Round Midnight,” his improvisations on “I Should Care,” “April in Paris,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and the tune “Crepuscule With Nellie” are Monk’s most harmonically rich compositions, the last written for his wife while she was recuperating from an illness.

(4) Joyous rhythmic displacement (offset, shifting) creates floating melody lines in “Straight, No Chaser,” “Jackie-ing,” “Worry Now Later,” the haunting “Pannonica” and Criss Cross (an extended composition, rather than a song or tune).

(5) “Brilliant Corners” and “Misterioso” are both closed loop compositions.

In “Thelonious,” Monk pays tribute to stride piano. After the opening passage where he plays laconic right hand lines, the steady stride bass enters—perhaps to reveal beats to which Monk may have been silently, or internally, listening.

To emphasize the achievements of pianist-composers like Powell and Monk is not to overlook the difficulties in their personal lives: Monk’s beating from racist police, or Powell’s brutal institutionalization sanctioned by psychiatric pseudo-science. Their devotion and commitment to music that is beyond temporary circumstances is certainly something to be respected and valued.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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