When I was fifteen I became obsessed with Jazz music. I had taught myself to play piano a few years earlier, and I finally had the faculty and rudiments of theory to begin appreciating jazz on a deeper level as both a listener and a fledgling student. While most of my peers were listening to whatever forgettable bubble-gum spewed from the Top 40 circa the late 90s, I was lost in my own world of post World War 2 era Bebop. I loved the frenetic tempos, soaring horns, the endlessly complex lines weaving snake-like through dense harmonic changes. I loved the combative one-upmanship of the soloists, the “oh yeah you can play that, well check out this phrase” attitude. If you know anything about that era in Jazz, you know it starts and ends with the king, the legend: Charlie Parker. Or simply, Bird.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Charlie Parker occupies the same place in music history as giants like Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong. He changed the way music was played forever after his short sojourn on earth. His fleet playing was oft imitated but never replicated. I also loved his compositions. Even with his ability to play anything that
popped into his mind, he always wrote very memorable, singable melodies. One of my favorites was the song Billie’s Bounce. This was the leitmotif of my Bebop studies, the song I kept coming back to and practicing obsessively. It was my vehicle for improvisation. I would spend long stretches of time walking a bass line in my left hand and working out phrases in my right hand over the bass line.
Thinking back to half a life ago and this song still bring up a host of crystalline memories. Getting my driver’s license, having a tape player in the car where I would listen to Bird’s solos over and over until I could sing along with every note. In my mind it’s always a sunny day, somewhat incongruous considering it was the Willamette Valley. I think I wore out that tape. Another memory is of deciding I needed the family piano in the basement, where my room was, so that I could play later into the night without keeping my parents up. I enlisted the help of friends to help me get the piano down the basement stairs. Even though it was small, the hallway was so narrow that I’m amazed it fit (I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a piano down on it’s side though). This was the age where I started to become a night owl, and having the piano downstairs really helped my late-night musings. It was in those late hours I think I played at my most inspired. Although I knew little about the jazz world, I knew for sure that both Jazz and everything else that was fun in life happened late at night.
One of the most important things I learned in my discovery of jazz was that you’re never “done” with a song. Songs are templates for your improvisation and musicality, in a way that’s different than playing classical. With studying classical, at some point you finish your song and move on to the next, ideally retaining each in your repertoire. In my tidy world of being a good student and going through the Syllabus program, both grades and songs were benchmarks to be achieved and completed, only to move on to the next set. I find jazz to be so much more nebulous a discipline. One only hopes that from year to year your solos become hipper, more coherent, and ultimately closer to conveying your own style, finding your voice. It’s been 16 years or so since I first learned Billie’s Bounce, and I still play it regularly, hopefully much better than in my teenage years. In fact, I think I’ll go play it right now…
Billie’s Bounce on YouTube