Charlie Parker and Alan Turing: cracking the bebop code

In my Theory and Practice of Jazz Improvisation class at UVM, we study some building blocks of the bebop melodic language which Barry Harris has assembled and codified as the ‘5-4-3-2’ licks.  They are four short licks of between four and eight notes each which are models of how to balance ascending and descending motion as well as how to balance intervallic and stepwise motion on a small scale.

5,4,3,2 licks These licks are ubiquitous in the language of many jazz giants.  I first became aware of this from reading Fiona Bicket’s analysis of Barry Harris’ solo on ‘Stay Right With It’ (included in her book The Barry Harris Approach To Improvised Lines and Harmony: An Introduction), which shows how Harris makes ingenious use of the ‘4’ lick multiple times when soloing over this B flat blues progression.  Since then I have found a number of examples that demonstrate how 5-4-3-2 licks can be used at the beginning, middle or end of a melodic phrase (as Barry Harris says, they are useful for ‘getting out of trouble’.)  Charlie Parker begins the last eight bars of his ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo with the 5 lick, and includes the 4 toward the end of the same section.  Frank Morgan plays a beautiful phrase at the end of his solo on Tommy Flanagan’s Something Borrowed, Something Blue which uses a fragment of the 5 lick twice.   (This phrase, and the first and last two bar phrases in the last A of the ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo, lend themselves particularly well to being transposed through all twelve keys.)

The bridge of Charlie Parker’s solo on his big band version of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, where he combines the 5 lick and the 3 lick, shows one of the many ways the licks can be combined.   They can also be used in multiple harmonic contexts, as one can see from a Parker solo on a live version of ‘Ornithology’ (from a now apparently out of print album called ‘Broadcast Performances’), where he uses a combination of the 5 lick and the 4 lick in a way that also includes the flat 9 of a dominant 7th chord.  This combination of Parker’s involves the first half of a combination that Harris calls the ‘5-4-3-2 lick’, a longer lick that combines all four of the shorter licks.  I sometimes call this the ‘Monster Lick’, as it combines a number of pieces into a working whole, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale:

5-4-3-2 lick

As I have studied the 5-4-3-2 licks over the years I have become more aware that, even though the licks themselves are used by a number of improvisers, they are even more important as a general example of the way that improvisers in the jazz tradition use many kinds of highly potent and malleable melodic motives or ‘licks’ in multiple rhythmic and harmonic contexts.  While the 5-4-3-2 licks are examples of melodic vocabulary shared by many improvisers, Charlie Parker developed his own personal vocabulary of licks which he either generated himself or came to ‘own’ through his masterful use of them.  Identifying these licks as the building blocks of his composing and improvising can make it possible to ‘decode’ his personal melodic language in a way that makes it much easier to memorize and internalize his melodies, solos and melodic concepts.

Although I have played Charlie Parker tunes and studied his solos for many years, my interest in approaching his melodic language as a kind of code stems from a number of recent nonfiction and fictionalized accounts of the British cryptologists stationed at Bletchley Park during World War II.  These include a fascinating article on the difference between puzzles and mysteries by Malcolm Gladwell, the PBS series ‘The Bletchley Circle’, and the recent film ‘The Imitation Game’, which dramatizes the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician whose creative approach to cracking codes used in radio transmissions by the German Navy made a major contribution to the Allies’ victory over the Axis in World War II.  At the point when Turing joined the British intelligence community, the German Navy was encoding messages using the Enigma machine, a kind of early code-reading electric typewriter capable of reading messages with a high degree of encryption.  In a step beyond codes used in earlier eras, where each letter of the alphabet was simply replaced with a different letter, the Enigma machine allowed the German Navy to send messages in codes where a single alphabetic letter could represent multiple letters depending on its position in the message.  (A video by numberphile helped me to understand this.)  Jim Holt writes that Turing’s approach to this seemingly unbreakable encryption was to devise a machine ‘the size of several refrigerators, with dozens of rotating drums’ which was capable of searching for ‘logical consistency’ – such as frequently used phrases – in the German Navy messages.  Because of a ticking sound it made, Turing’s colleagues dubbed the machine ‘the Bombe’.  Holt hints that a change occured in Turing’s demeanor during the time he developed this machine; while he was ‘solitary’ and ‘ascetic’ in his earlier academic life at Princeton and Cambridge, during his time at Bletchley Park he ‘impressed his colleagues as a friendly, approachable genius, always willing to explain his ideas.’ ‘The Imitation Game’ also dramatizes Turing as a reluctant but well-liked group leader.  Both the ‘Bombe‘ and a later, more elaborate computer which Turing began designing in 1945 are now acknowledged as the forerunners of the modern personal computer.

There are a number of noteworthy correspondences between Turing’s life and the life of Charlie Parker.  Both men had a genius for working with patterns; as a Japanese website has shown, Parker ‘encoded’ his melodic lines with not only his own melodic phrases but those from sources including classical music, folk music and opera; and Turing’s greatest success came from developing a machine that used electrical current to identify patterns in encoded messages. There are also parallels in the way their work evolved chronologically: in 1945, the year that Turing began developing his plan for a more elaborate computer, Parker had his first recording session as a leader, which included his classic tune ‘Anthropology’.  (When one considers that Turing’s 1945 computer design, following his work leading the group at Bletchley Park, ultimately led to his being appointed deputy head of the computing laboratory at Manchester University, one can see that Turing and Parker were rising to leadership positions in their respective fields at around the same time.)  The original title of ‘Anthropology’, ‘Thrivin‘ On A Riff’, is a clue to the way in which it is a repository of multiple patterns that figure prominently in Parker’s personal melodic code.

A number of commentators on Parker’s music, including Lawrence Koch and David Baker, have pointed out how the last phrase in the bridge of ‘Anthropology‘ is identical to measures 7-8 in ‘Ornithology’ (and nearly identical to measures 9-10.)  None of the analysts and biographers of Parker I have consulted so far, however, have pointed out that the A section of ‘Anthropology’ contains four smaller motives, comparable in size to the 5-4-3-2 licks, with clear connections to other places in Parker’s work: in order, they are the first five notes of the tune (which Parker reuses with a different rhythmic placement as the first five notes of ‘Dexterity’); the last five notes of the first measure, which are re-used with a different concluding note in measure 6 of ‘Ornithology’; measure 7, which takes the melodic pattern from the second half of measure 8 of Billie’s Bounce, extends it rhythmically by half a beat (i.e. an eighth note pulse) and simplifies it melodically by removing one note; and measure 8, which is a slightly altered version of the second half of the ‘Cool Blues’ motive which formed the basis of one of Parker’s B flat blues heads (and which he stated with a signature-like clarity in his solos on ‘Yardbird Suite’ and ‘Dewey Square’.)

Of these four tunes, three were recorded after ‘Anthropology’, while one (‘Billie’s Bounce’) was recorded the same day.  Parker analysts and biographers do not generally agree that the order in which he recorded his tunes was also the order in which he composed them, so it may be futile to try and establish whether the composition of these four tunes came after their themes were encapsulated in ‘Anthropology’, but in any case, the musical relationship is clear.  Whether ‘Anthropology’ was composed before or after the tunes it references, it is a summation of some of his most potent ideas, much like Turing’s ‘Bombe’ and the post-war machine for which it was the prototype.

On a more abstract level, the rhythmic pattern which is heard between beat 2 of measure 7 and beat 1 of measure 8 in Anthropology is also an important element both of Parker’s melodic code and the elements of melodic language that he and Dizzy Gillespie shared.  It can be heard multiple times in ‘Moose the Mooche’ (including between beat 4 of measure 5 and beat 3 of measure 6 in each A section, and three times in the bridge), and it forms the opening lick of Gillespie’s hit ‘Oop Bop Sh Bam’, which Parker performed on at least one occasion with Gillespie and his big band.  Anthro breakdown

In the version of ‘Moose the Mooche’ by Joe Lovano and his quintet Us 5, the rhythm section dispenses with traditional bassline-and-chords comping and plays a single-line accompaniment based on this motive.  Their accompaniment to the A section is based on a rhythmic motive heard in measures 1 and 3 of each A section and the last two bars of the second and last A sections.  This motive is extended to three repetitions in m. 1-3 and 11-12 of Billie’s Bounce, and is truncated to a single statement in measure 2 of ‘Anthropology’.

As I hope to continue demonstrating in future posts, the more one becomes aware of Parker’s use of patterns, the more one comes to see that while his work does include a fairly large number of tunes, there is a somewhat smaller vocabulary of key melodic and rhythmic phrases that recur throughout the tunes.  I believe that one could demonstrate the same kind of thematic unity in the work of Thelonious Monk, whose interest in variation through repetition can be found in many tunes, or Billy Strayhorn, whose best work shows his interest in altered harmony and dominant-cycle chord progressions.  I would question whether the an equally identifiable melodic style could be found in the best-known tunes of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, two undeniably masterful composers, performers and bandleaders who, according to recent scholarship, were also skilled at appropriating themes or whole songs from another musicians (quite often those less experienced at the particulars of copyright law) and asserting themselves as the composers.  Terry Teachout’s recent biography Duke mentions that the main themes of ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, and ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ were all the creations of lead players in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and a long list of composers have credibly claimed they authored tunes on which Davis’ name appears as the composer: ‘Four’ and ‘Tune Up’ (Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson), ‘Solar’ (Chuck Wayne), ‘Dig’ (Jackie McLean), and ‘Blue In Green’ (Bill Evans).  I welcome and encourage comments on this blog post either supporting or challenging these claims.  Using charts in The Real Book and original recordings as a resource, see if you can find common themes or approaches among the tunes of Monk, Strayhorn or other jazz composers – or find thematic unity in the tunes above attributed to Miles Davis or Duke Ellington.

The correspondences between the lives of Charlie Parker and Alan Turing also unfortunately include the fact that both died tragically early, leaving the advances they had made in their respective fields to be continued  by others, sometimes without attribution.  Countless improvisers, both contemporaries of Parker and those from later generations, have assimilated his melodic language; the extent of his influence is indicated by Charles Mingus’ tune title: ‘If Bird Had Been A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Lot of Dead Copycats.’  Holt notes that the well-known mathematician John von Neumann, who had contact with Turing at Princeton, was ‘credited with innovations in computer architecture that Turing himself had pioneered.’

Before my interest in Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts, what first got me re-interested in analyzing Parker’s use of patterns was studying the improvised solos of Ella Fitzgerald.  In Fitzgerald’s soloing, the bebop practice of combining two to four bar patterns, which can be hard to detect when players like Parker or Bud Powell are using largely ‘private’ patterns (as in Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugue-It’ solo), is made easy to understand by Fitzgerald’s tendency to make ingenious use of patterns from what might be called a ‘public’ melodic language, as in her ‘How High The Moon’ solo.  In some cases, as Catherine Cartwright has shown with Ella’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ solo, Fitzgerald constructed entire solos completely from familiar patterns.  In a follow-up blog post, I will discuss how Charlie Parker, and/or Benny Harris, who either composed or co-composed the tune, used Bird’s melodic code in ‘Ornithology’, as well as  one of Ella’s ‘How High’ solos.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to Alex Stewart, for introducing me to Barry Harris (in the early days of the Flynn Summer Jazz Camp) and encouraging me to base the improvisation class on his concepts.

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