The ‘Cool Blues’ lick was a phrase Charlie Parker used in multiple improvised solos, including his March 1946 recording of Yardbird Suite and his May 1947 recording of Cheryl. In February 1947 he recorded an entire composition titled ‘Cool Blues’ which was based on the lick and which gave the lick its title. The jazz blogger Peter Spitzer makes a persuasive case that Parker borrowed the first part of the lick from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. One factor that points to Carmen as a likely source is that Parker also quoted from the opera’s most famous aria, ‘L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle’ in solos including one on a big band version of Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ I would argue that the second half of the lick is one of many innovations Parker and other bop players made on the opening motive from Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose. The ascending perfect fifth interval figures prominently in the end of the lick as Parker played it, which features the fifth followed by an ascending minor third and a descending perfect fourth.
A video by jazz YouTuber Simon Fransman splices together a number of uses of the lick by Parker and his contemporaries including trumpeters Howard McGhee, who uses it on a solo from a live version of the Parker tune ‘Now’s The Time’, and Fats Navarro, who uses it on a live version of ‘Ornithology’ with Parker. Fransman also includes excerpts from solos by more recent players such as trombonist Conrad Herwig who incorporates the lick into a solo on ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Fransman’s survey also includes the 1990s rap songs ‘Jazz Thang’ by Gang Starr, which briefly samples the lick, and ‘Southern Comfort’ by Down South, which makes the lick a repeated feature of its groove. Other solos from around Parker’s time where the ‘Cool Blues’ phrase is used include the solo by saxophonist Sonny Rollins on a recording of the tune ‘Professor Bop’ by vocalist Babs Gonzales (which was the 19-year-old Rollins’ first recorded appearance) and Sammy Davis Junior’s scat solo on a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Gershwin tune ‘Swonderful from the Ed Sullivan Show. I encourage you to listen through one of the original recordings I have linked to in this paragraph (other than Cool Blues and Southern Comfort, where the lick is used repeatedly) and leave a comment in the comment section indicating the timing in the recording where the Cool Blues lick is used. A further question is: does the soloist use the lick more or less in its original form (i.e. as it appears in ‘Cool Blues’ and the Parker solos linked above), or if not, how many notes from the original lick does the soloist use before finding an innovation that fits the lick into its new context?
Probably the best known recording of the jazz standard Afro Blue, composed by Mongo Santamaria, is the recording by the John Coltrane quartet from Live At Birdland. In a recent recording by Wayne Wallace and Michael Spiro with La Orquestra Sinfonietta, the arrangement adds an intro to Santamaria’s tune that includes two different Toques (rhythms) and Cantos (songs) from the Cuban Santeria tradition addressed to the deity Obatala, with a piano interlude in between them. The second Canto (starting around 2:07, just after the piano interlude) includes a four-note motive that matches the opening of Afro Blue, and so seems likely to have been the inspiration for the jazz tune. The section opens with the four-note motive, but it is used once more in that section of the intro. I encourage you to listen to Coltrane’s statement of the melody to Afro Blue, which takes up about the first minute of his recording, and then see you can find the timing in the Spiro/Wallace recording where the second use of the four-note motive occurs. If you can find the timing, leave it in a comment in the comment section.
Coincidentally, the same four note phrase that Santamaria quoted in ‘Afro Blue’ also appears near the beginning of the melody in ‘My One And Only Love’, a ballad that Coltrane recorded with vocalist Johnny Hartman on an album released the year before Live at Birdland. While Coltrane and Hartman’s recording is the authoritative jazz version of the tune, partly because of the way Hartman conversationally interprets the melodic rhythm, the four note phrase that the tune has in common with Afro Blue and the Obatala chant can be heard somewhat more clearly in the recording by Paul McCartney with Diana Krall on piano, particularly in the second A section where the lyrics begin ‘the shadows fall’. I encourage you to listen once again to Coltrane’s melody statement on Afro Blue, and then see if you can find the timing and lyrics in either the Coltrane/Hartman or McCartney recordings of ‘My One And Only Love’ where the four-note Obatala/Afro Blue motive occurs in that melody.
John Scofield also briefly uses the four-note Afro Blue/Obatala motive in his solo on Herbie Hancock’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. I encourage you to listen through this interesting arrangement and leave a comment if you can find the timing in the video where Scofield uses this motive.
Having the Obatala/Afro Blue motive firmly in your ‘mind’s ear’ is a good preparation for listening to the epic and iconic solos on the Coltrane ‘Afro Blue’ by McCoy Tyner on piano and Coltrane on soprano saxophone. While Tyner’s solo follows the basic outline of the tune’s chord progression with much use of the harmonic ‘side-slipping’ (or ‘chromatic planing’) technique which Tyner pioneered, Coltrane’s solo is on ‘open F minor’, a prolonged F minor tonality enlivened by Coltrane’s melodic explorations, Tyner’s moving of chord voicings within that tonality and drummer Elvin Jones’s explosive and expansive rendering of a swing 6/8 groove.