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Brad Mehldau: Final DetourBirds Hegelian Blues
In the seventh part of his series Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane, Brad Mehldauusing
multiple examples of scoresfinally looks at Bird himself.
Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Part Seven: Final Detour: Birds Hegelian Blues
Finally, lets look at Bird himself. Always at his most inspired, this solo on his own blues, Cheryl,
comes from a live recording. Here it is in its entirety. In five brief choruses that last a total of just
over one minute, this solo is a marvel in its brevityhe manages to say more here than most
musicians say in a whole lifetime. The melody, or head, of the tune is given directly below, in
concert key, followed by the solo:

The thing that we notice about Birds solo, compared with any number of his imitators, is its ease
and its wide reach. There is a strong, unmistakable identity to it; everything correlates to
everything. Yet there is nothing dogmatic or fixed about the way that identity lets itself be known.
So what you get is a variance of approach from one idea to the next that not one of Birds progeny
could match. He is constantly switching gears and thus always keeping it fresh for the listener.
Bird likes to create disruption within a solosomething that many of his imitators do not do to
equal effect. Many of us have probably heard this clone-like approach to be-bop, when a player
strings together Birds phrases and little else. Its probably the type of playing that Frank Zappa had

in mind when he mused that Jazz isnt dead; it just smells funny. Bird himself, though, at his
most inspired, is always playing hopscotch with our expectationsand, one suspects, his own. You
can almost hear him thinking during a solo sometimes, Yeah, I could play that right now, like Ive
done before, but let me do this instead. So, right after the nuanced phrase that opens his solo at
bar 14, he follows it with an exclamatory blues outburst. It is a quick, immediate moment of
rupture, as Bird introduces his inner badassquite a different personage than the one who just
spoke. Its exciting and dangerous; its reckless. At bar 20, he develops that blues utterance, but
then masterfully folds it back into a phrase at bars 22 to 24 that is more like the one that began the
solo, except that now there is more heat.
Its a discursive approach versus a declamatory one. The opening phrase is more discursive, and by
that we mean that Birds line traces a possible harmonic progression over the tonicthere is
tension and provisional resolution within that line. The dirty, unbridled blues that follows is more
staticit is an end in itself; it gives us no puzzle to solve. The way in which the blues utterance
seems to shut down the discussion that had just startedonly to find itself melded into the
following linereminds us of the same kind of approach we identified earlier in the opening
gestures of Beethovens Op. 95 Serioso Quartet. It might be a stretch, but we could look at the
approach in a Hegelian light: In both the Beethoven and the Bird solo, an initial proposition and its
negative are then preserved in a third ideaa process that Beethovens contemporary Hegel
called Aufhebung or sublation. This act of sublation gives the music a narrative flowit is a
distinct event within the solo, but it also becomes part of a larger continuum. It gives a feeling of
time passingindeed, it has the effect of stretching time. Birds short solo here has the same
compressed quality as the Beethoven Op. 95they both tell us so much; they both take us on a
journey in a shorter amount of time than we might think.
A 12-bar blues, at its most simple, stays on the tonic for the first four bars and then heads to the
subdominant at the fifth bar. Very often, we hear a variation on that: The second bar will move to
the subdominant for a moment, and then return back to the tonic on the third bar. This is
commonplace, but Bird found all sorts of ways to enrich that gambit. What he didpaving the way
for Coltranes harmonic innovationswas to suggest harmonic progressions within simple, strong
pre-existing formats like the blues. We say, suggest, and not superimpose, because the line that
Bird plays suggests a myriad of harmonic possibilities, not just one.
Imagine you are a pianist comping behind Bird. You might harmonize that opening phrase of his
solo like this (Here and throughout, the alto saxophone is given in concert pitch):

Youd definitely be within Birds parameters. First, you doubled his characteristic major seventh
right away in the first barthe fourth note of Birds line, the B-natural directly below middle-C.
The major seventh is big for Bird, like it was big for Lester Young before him. It can be felt in the
music, depending on its context, as a concession or a whole-hearted embrace of something that is
foreign to the bluessomething that we might say, at the risk of being impolitic, is very white.
Specifically, that B-natural in the first bar is behaving itself just as the seventh degree of the
diatonic major scale is supposed to. It is acting as the final leading tone that pulls us back to the
tonic, just the way it has acted for centuries in Western classical music. Birds deepnessthat wide
reachis felt in the way he carries on a few different conversations at the same timeone is about
the blues, and one is about more traditional functional harmony.
The more traditional classical conversation is about tension and resolution. That leading tone in
the first bar is characterized by its close proximity to the first degree of the scaleit nestles up

chromatically towards it, and this proximity creates a strong pull towards resolution. The magnetic
attraction of the leading tone to the first degree of the scale is part and parcel with that most basic
of harmonic resolutions, dominant to tonic, and is a central tenet of a big chunk of music. If youre
dealing with harmony and the 12-tone scale, its hard to get away from that.
But you can get away from it real fast if you play any variant of the blues scale, with the flatted
seventh. Here is one such variant, given in Cit is really a minor pentatonic scale with the flatted
fifth added:

Birdand a whole cross-section of jazz playerswill have his cake and eat it too: He uses both the
major and minor sevenths in the same phrase. If youre first learning about be-bop from someone,
you may be encouraged to learn the be-bop scale:

The idea in learning that kind of scale is to get you thinking about making lines like Bird made
lines that make simultaneous use of both kinds of sevenths. To make it clearer, here is a Bird-type
phrase where they fall right next to each other in the second bar, like in the scale:

So Bird begins that long opening phrase with a B-natural but then ends on a B-flat. That B-flat is
multifaceted. One the one hand, it denotes the blues: It is a flatted interval that, along with the
flatted fifth and flatted third, gives the blues its harmonic character. When a blues musician like
Howlin Wolf plays the guitar, sings, and plays the harmonica, tracing melodies around those
notes, his music is fundamentally harmonically different than much of Western classical music
because those melodies, with their flatted intervals, are felt and understood to be in the tonic key.
This is self-evident, but we shouldnt underestimate that distinction. Nowadays, a great number of
people worldwide have been exposed to the character and sound of the blues, although more often
than not, they are exposed to something watered down or trivialized; so be it. Nevertheless, that
very large group of people has no problem identifying onehearing where the tonic is among

those diminished intervals. A tune will end on a chord like this, lets say, with a grandstanding
flourish:

Everyone hears that as the tonic. What would Beethoven have heard, though, if he only heard that
ending by itself? Would he even recognize it as being in the tonic key? He would probably hear it as
something very strangehe would hear the piano chord there as a very dissonant version of
a dominant chord that must resolve itselfin this case, to F Major. And its hard to imagine what
he would make of the saxophone partas a strange outburst, no doubt.
That type of saxophone flourish, which is more purely blues in nature, might not register as
intelligible for Beethoven, but he wouldnt have such a hard time with Birds long opening phrase
that we first considered. He would hear the B-flat that ends the phrase differently than we do,
though namely as leading to the subdominant key of F that is approaching in the fifth bar of the
solo, at bar 18. We hear that as well, but we also hear the blues in that B-flat. With our ears steeped
in the blues and centuries of Western music alike, we can have these two simultaneous
conversations with Bird. That B-flat is so alluring and exciting when Bird lands on it because of its
dual meaning. Its like a great actor appearing on the stage who wears the garb of a nobleman fresh
from a visit to the court but adapts the speech rhythms of a twentieth century hipster. We are
surprised and delighted because we respond naturally and easily to both of these musical tropes,
but have not expected them to inhabit the same character.
The blues for Bird begins as something authentic and independent of traditional Western music
theory, but with Birds mastery of harmony and inventive melodic approach, the blues also
becomes one of several means of chromatically enriching the simple 12-bar schema. Looking at the
opening line of his solo again,

we see that Bird is also using that be-bop scale with both sevenths in the second bar over the
implied F subdominant tonality. The be-bop scale shows its effectiveness in a different light: It
gives the players in the bandsoloist and accompanying pitched instruments alikea cue of sorts
to chromatically thicken the texture. This isnt willy-nilly chromaticism, though. Birds E-flat and
E-natural in that second bar both easily attach themselves in our ears to the last notes of that bar,
the C and the A, to create chains of relatively consonant third intervals. Many of Birds great lines

form themselves by linking a major or minor triad to a passing tone that is half a step away from
one of the notes in the triad. Bird joins something stepwise and something triadic:

In this way, Birdlike Bach and all the great conjoiners of melody and harmony before him
strongly denotes vertical harmony within a mere single-note horizontal melody: The outlined
triads strongly suggests a harmonic progression, but the stepwise motion of those passing tones
gives the line a melodic suppleness and keeps it from being mere glorified arpeggiation.
Birds continuing pervasive influence on the jazz vernacular is not merely because he joined
together triads and scales to form his lines, though. It really rests on the way in which he codified
that conjoining into a style that was so appealing in its plasticity. In that regard, its instructive to
compare Bird with another innovative contemporary of his, the tenor saxophonist Don Byas. Byas
was often more harmonically adventurous than Bird, arpeggiating further outwards from the triad,
creating lines that effectively traced the piquant harmony of modern jazz, with its characteristic
dominant seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords in their various permutations. But Byas, like
Coleman Hawkins before him, is ultimately more literal than Birdwe hear the shape of a chord
easily in his lines; he does not transcend arpeggiation in the way that Bird does.
There is nothing wrong with arpeggiation in itself, but Birds transcended that literal quality, and
the less literal one is, the more possibilities remain. To demonstrate that further, lets look at Birds
opening line and imagine that he has a slightly hipper piano player comping behind him. This time
well give him some rhythm as well:

The pianist has gotten bolder in the second bar by inserting a half-diminished chord between the F
triad and the C dominant thirteenth chord that follows. The F-sharp bass note then moves
naturally upwards in scalewise motion towards a G in the third bar, instead of simply jumping back
from F to C. (We can just as easily imagine this bass movement being supplied by the bass player in
the rhythm section; I keep it in the piano part here just to show it on one stave.) This move to G in
the bass is less clumpy and more sexy and sophisticated, but it is also more discursive in that way
we mentioned earlierit thickens the plot and packs more tension into a smaller amount of space.

We now have a bluesy descendant of the second inversion triad in the piano chords at the third bar,
which, in the high Classicism of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven, is associated with the final
climactic tutti utterance from the orchestra in a concerto, directly followed by a cadenza from the
soloist that ends the movement with a flourish. The second inversion in both cases transmits a
quickening and delayed gratification all at once. The message is that youve arrived at your
destinationthe tonic chordbut will just have to sit tight for a moment and merely gaze at it
longingly. In the Classical concerto, the second inversion tonic will come back once more at the end
of the cadenza, head to the dominantalready stated in the bassand then finally resolve to the
tonic to end. In the case above, that G in the bass leads us to one of the stock jazz progressions, the
famous 2-5-1that 1 being the new 1 of the F tonality of the fifth bar as the solo continues. And so
we have what is long since a normative gambit within the first four bars of a 12-bar blues, brought
to you by Charlie Parker.
That F-sharp half-diminished chord from our hipper piano player works quite nicely with Birds
line, but the interesting thing is that the simpler F dominant seventh chord that the first imaginary
comper played also worked just fine. Both accompaniments are already immanent in Birds line,
which, with its E-natural and E flat, allows for both of them. This is the freedom of Bird on display
his lines sound unshackled in a way that no one elses do because of they are so ripe with
harmonic possibility. The pianist and other members of the rhythm section are likewise freefree
to choose any number of hip ways of getting from Point A to Point B.
So, the E-flat in that second bar of Birds solo is a blues impulse, but paired with the E-natural, the
blues is also felt as chromatic enrichment in the way it densifies the harmonic texture. We still have
our 12-bar format; we still go from the tonic to the subdominant back to the tonic in the first four
bars, but our journey is more involved. The emotional effect from all this on the listener, I think, is
that Birds nuanced chromaticism brings romance to the music.
One way to think about this is through the metaphor of color. When a harmonic progression is less
chromatically enhanced, the colors remain primary; when it is enhanced as in the example above,
they become more pastel. Likewise, as those colors become more pastel, the emotions conveyed are
increasingly complex; namely, there is the possibility to convey mixed emotions. Sentiment is less
simple; we do not only hear the primary color emotions like joy and sorrow, but we also things
like longing, wistfulness, and regret. Irony steps forward.
Admittedly, Im putting forth a subjective reaction to the music, but Birds deeply beautiful long
phrase that runs from bar 66 through bar 69 tells us all about longing and regret. To close, we look
at the final chorus again of his solo that contains that phrase. Ive inserted chord symbols to
represent what the piano player comps for Bird. The piano player is none other than Bud Powell.

Birds first long phrase is feminine in nature. It is willfully nave and simple, but almost trite. In
bars 61 and 62, he is courting a clich but then backs away from it. Bud, though, gives us the blues
unquestionably in his dominant seventh and ninth chords. The way Birds pretty B-natural rubs
against Buds B-flats is a great example of how be-bop should workboth players are free to
approach the blues in different ways, and the tension they create in doing so is compelling. Birds
next line from bar 66 through 69 is the kind of phrase that separates him from all his imitatorsits
so full of harmonic possibility; it suggests so much. When I look at it now and play it, it seems to
suggest this kind of harmony:

Im following the chromatic descent that Bird suggests in his line. The result is a variation on a
progression that you hear on any number of tin-panalley tunes like Candy or I Cant Believe
that Youre in Love with Me. Its romantic; its sweet. In itself, it was already nothing new at all
when Bird arrived.
That kind of progressionnot explicitly stated, but immanent, if you will, in Birds line, becomes
something new when it rubs against the blues, which Bud Powell makes explicit in his comping: He
bypasses that chromatic descent and stays mostly with dominant chords in the first eight bars of
this chorus. The tension that arises when the craggy blue notes and sweet white ones rub against
each other is subtle and thrilling. Does this have a name in music theorybesides wrongwhen
one person plays major intervals and another plays flatted notes directly against them? Is it a kind
of suspension? That its something chromatic is about all we can say, and it works best in praxis.
We can forensically examine Birds playing with his groups and maybe establish a method, but it is,
as the writer Italo Calvino remarked in the context of literature, a method subtle and flexible
enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatsoever.
At the risk of using a bandied word, Birds blues is deconstructive, meaning that it critiques
traditional functional harmony and engages with it at the same time. Jazz music in Birds
representative oeuvre is a marriage of romance and the blues. The blues becomes precious, and
romance loses a bit of its preciousness.
In these segments, weve been considering the benefits and limits of a three-period model when
applied to Beethoven and Coltrane. Before I go back to Coltrane for the next and last post, we
should ask, after all this discussion of Birds innovation: Is Bird like Coltrane or Beethoven? The
way I see it, no. Bird did not reach a third phase. He never transcended his own mature style for a
second time. His early death leaves the question open as to whether his playing would have
significantly changed again. There are some fascinating early recordings, for example, of Bird as a
soloist with the Jay McShanns band that might constitute a kind of first period of Birds, but not in
the same way that we have been understanding Beethovens and Coltranes first periods. To clarify:
The first period of Beethovenwhich includes his six Op. 18 string quartets, the three Op. 2 piano
sonatas, the early piano trios and his first two symphoniesand the first period of Coltranewhich
includes his recorded work in the bands of Miles and Thelonious Monk as well as numerous dates
for the Prestige label under his own nameare canonical in their own right, independent of what

Beethoven and Coltrane subsequently achieved. Their first period output captures our imagination
on its own terms; it is fully realized and we make no concessions in listening to it.