Charlie Parker’s Koko – the Sound of a Revolution

Charlie Parker’s recording of Koko is an extraordinary creation. A powerful, raw, aggressive performance, the sound of boundaries being busted and rules being broken, of a genius improviser tearing up the rulebook with ferocious virtuosity. Parker is on inspirational form, totally ‘on it’, in the jazz parlance, and he’s out to prove that the new guard of jazz musicians has something to say. This passage from Kerouac’s On The Road captures the vibe I’m describing:

The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!” and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging on that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor.

That’s what Charlie Parker’s solo on Koko sounds like.

Koko was one of the recordings by Parker in late 1945 that revolutionised jazz, along with Billie’s Bounce and Now’s The Time. This was the first time that the wider public got to hear the radical new approach to jazz that the beboppers were pedalling, and these recordings became as influential as Louis Armstrong’s 1920s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in shaping the future direction of jazz.

All of the pieces that Parker and his band recorded in 1945 were ground breaking, but Koko was the most shocking. The form is based on the chord changes to Cherokee, an old big band tune that Parker loved to improvise over. This presents a number of problems for jazz musicians, especially in the middle 8, which moves through four different keys in succession. And these were unusual keys for jazz at the time; up until the bebop revolution, jazz tunes were mostly in the four standard keys that suited brass and reed instruments, C, F, Bb and Eb; whereas in its middle 8, Koko moves rapidly through the keys of B, A, G and F. Parker fired through these key changes at a blistering tempo – Koko was recorded at over 300 bpm, a speed that very few players could cope with at that time. His technique at this speed is mind boggling, and contemporary players were simply stunned at his mastery of the alto saxophone. But over and above sheer technique Parker created lines of great beauty and melody, with astonishing facility. His lines are logical, surprising and endlessly inventive.

Other aspects of Parker’s revolutionary approach are brilliantly showcased on Koko. There is his tendency to play phrases of odd bar lengths – three-bar, five-bar and seven-bar fragments mingle with the standard two- and four-bar phrasing common to jazz. Then there’s his astonishing rhythmic invention. His lines are full of surprising swirls and eddies, unexpected twists and turns, as melodic motifs are picked up and hurled in new directions like a cork in a fountain. Parker had a distinctive tendency for downward moving lines, but there are always surprises, big leaps to upper non-chord tones that were unheard of at the time – 9ths, 11ths and 13ths are often emphasised over standard harmonies.

I find Koko exhilirating and audacious, but it’s also a challenge. Ross Russell has this to say about it in his definitive biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives:

Twin sides of a medal, Koko and Now’s The Time remind us of the duality found in all of Parker’s work. Now’s The Time is cool, nocturnal, bluesy. Koko is tense and aggressive, very sure, a piece of astonishing and reckless virtuosity: sixty-four bars of difficult changes, saxophone playing to end saxophone playing – to castrate all other saxophonists. But Koko is not the kind of music one wishes to hear often. It is disturbing, in the way that some of Schoenberg is disturbing.

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