Today in Jazz History — October 28th – Gems of Jazz – Medium
Though all the material here is worth discussing, we will focus specifically on the numerous takes of ‘Bird of Paradise’ and ‘Embraceable You’. The majority of the tunes recorded for this session are energetic, uptempo numbers that exemplify the term which came to represent this style of jazz, Bebop. The last two songs, however, are far slower and more relaxed than the rest. The first, titled ‘Bird of Paradise’, is based on the chord changes to ‘All The Things You Are’ (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), a popular song from the ‘40s with an unusually complex harmonic progression that quickly became one of the most well-known standards in jazz history.
This concept of ‘recycling’ the chords from another tune was a very common practice among jazz musicians during this era, as it allowed them to record their own interpretations of any song without having to pay copyright fees to the original composers. These types of compositions eventually became known as contrafacts (Also see this article for a running list of well-known jazz contrafacts). The tunes ‘Dexterity’ and ‘Dewey Square’ from this same session are also contrafacts, based on George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘Oh, Lady Be Good!’ respectively. However, in the case of ‘Bird of Paradise’, it is apparent that Parker did not compose a new melody in advance for this piece, instead he chose to simply make one up one as he went along. It may sound daring but this was just business as usual for Charlie, a masterful improviser who frequently composed original tunes in a taxi on his way to recording dates. His impulsive personality may have actually helped him attain the remarkable improvisation skills demonstrated in these tracks, but his reckless behavior also precipitated his severe heroin and alcohol addictions which ultimately lead to his premature demise at the young age of 34.
For this session, three takes of ‘Bird of Paradise’ were recorded, with the third and final one eventually being chosen as the ‘Master’ take for initial release. Intriguingly, on the first take, Charlie chooses to play the melody from ‘All The Things You Are’ quite plainly, but by the time he starts the third take (just minutes later), he has abandoned it altogether. Listening to all three takes consecutively is a fascinating experience, as you can literally hear the original melody gradually disintegrating with each successive take, and this gives us some significant insight into Parker’s creative process. He was constantly seeking to expand upon his previous musical ideas and themes, both in the trajectory of his career and also within his individual improvisations and performances.
When comparing the three recordings, it certainly seems like the Master take has captured Parker at his most expressive, as evidenced by the sheer elegance and unrivalled fluency displayed throughout his solo. In contrast to Parker’s powerful performance, the 21-year-old Miles Davis seems quite out of his depth, and his meek though acceptable playing reflects this. Similarly, pianist Duke Jordan’s solo is perfectly competent yet unsurprisingly it still sounds uninspired when compared to Parker’s. Luckily, Jordan’s comping throughout the rest of the tune is very tasteful and sparse, leaving plenty of space for Bird’s sublime improvisations.
Anecdotally, it is known that Charlie Parker was particularly fond of ‘All The Things You Are’, and he certainly played it frequently throughout his tragically short career. His fourth and final wife, Chan Richardson, was quoted as saying that Parker always referred to the song as ‘YATAG’, which was an acronym for his favorite line in the lyrics, “…You are the angel glow…”. Another interesting story relating to this recording is the origin of the 8-bar motif which introduces all three takes of ‘Bird of Paradise’.
At the start of 1944, Charlie Parker and longtime collaborator John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie were both members of Billie Eckstine’s Orchestra, one of the first successful big bands to pioneer the Bebop style of jazz. On April 13th,1944, Billy Eckstine and his band recorded three tracks (as ‘Billy Eckstine with the DeLuxe All Star Band’) for DeLuxe Records, one of which was a blues arrangement by Gillespie titled ‘Good Jelly Blues’. This recording includes the earliest known instance of the ‘bebop-style’ introduction to ‘All The Things You Are’, although the rest of the Eckstine tune bears no similarity to Jerome Kern’s composition.
Incredibly, however, to find the true origin of this memorable three-note motif, we have to go back more than 50 years prior to Billy Eckstine’s 1944 recording. It turns out that the introduction for Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement of ‘Good Jelly Blues’ is actually a reference to the opening theme of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s classical composition ‘Prelude in C# minor Op. 3, No. 2’, written and first performed in 1892.
However, ’Bird of Paradise’ was not the first recording of ’All The Things You Are’ to feature this historic introduction vamp. On February 28th, 1945, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker both participated in a studio session for Musicraft Records (as the ‘Dizzy Gillespie Sextet’), which produced the first recorded version of ‘All The Things You Are’ to include the Rachmaninoff-inspired intro.
Although this recording precedes Parker’s 1947 Dial session by two years, the ‘Bird of Paradise’ version is far more well-known in the jazz world. Although Gillespie was not present at the October 28th record date, his recycled 8-bar introduction was immortalized that day, and even now many jazz musicians still use his iconic theme to introduce performances of Jerome Kern’s classic, ‘All The Things You Are’.