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by Seth Colter Walls

April 19, 2014

Jazz 101: Bird, Diz & Bop

by Seth Colter Walls  |  April 19, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where do you start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

In the early 1940s, Charlie Parker wanted to hear some new music: new chord changes, soloists playing in more keys, etc. And so, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, he started writing and practicing that language with missionary zeal. They wouldn't get a chance to record this new sound until 1945, but by then, the pair was ready to take the jazz world by storm.

Parker -- affectionately known as "Bird" -- didn't just play saxophone faster than all the cats before him -- he played in more keys than the others. "Bebop," which is the name bestowed on the fast, harmonically tricky music Bird and Gillespie invented, sometimes covers its tracks so well that the underlying tune is hard to recognize. But that doesn't mean that the beboppers couldn't put over gorgeous melodies (see "Embraceable You," in which a young Miles Davis joins Bird, and also the fine original "Parker's Mood"). And for all of Parker's inventiveness, there's a connection to the past masters of the sax, too -- as on tunes made famous by Lester Young.

This is also where the supporting cast starts to get interesting: One of the bands Bird and Diz took out on the road featured Charles Mingus on bass, Max Roach on drums, and Bud Powell on piano (a technical master influenced by stride and Art Tatum, who would later also influence Cecil Taylor). That quintet was rightly celebrated for its Jazz at Massey Hall recording (even though Mingus had to overdub his bass parts later).

Shift into your highest possible gear before clicking play: "Ko Ko" and "Bird Gets the Worm" are just the first speed-mad hits on the appended playlist. The fact that so many later styles of jazz -- hard pop and post-bop among them -- draw so heavily from this music should tip you off to its enduring vitality.

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