The Powerful Rhythmic Principles of Charlie Parker

With his unique improvisational style and innovative approach, Charlie Parker not only revolutionized how to play alto saxophone, but how to play jazz as a whole. He had a concept all his own that transcended what came before him and elevated the music to new heights! It’s no wonder that nearly every jazz musician since his time has spent countless hours studying his playing, hoping to unravel his musical secrets…

Today, with the production of The Charlie Parker Omnibook it’s easier than ever to get your hands on transcribed Charlie Parker solos. Published in all keys, it circulates practice rooms and jazz schools world wide. This book has become a mainstay in jazz education.

And like me, you’ve probably played out of this book many times and used it as a central part of your jazz practice, thinking that this is what studying Charlie Parker is all about.

But no matter how much time you put in with The Omnibook, you’re not quite getting the results you want. Something just doesn’t sound right and the music of Charlie Parker continues to evade you…

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. For many years, I wondered how it could be that I had nearly every Charlie Parker solo at my fingertips, yet be so far from grasping his genius. All the notes were right there in front of me, but I wasn’t understanding or capturing any of the details that make Bird’s playing special.

And here’s where the problem lies…a lot of what makes Bird sound so good has less to do with the notes he’s playing and more to do with how he’s playing them. The trouble is, a lot of these things you simply cannot write down.

No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to capture Charlie Parker’s vibrant sound, precise articulation and accents, or his incredible swing feel on paper. It’s just not possible…

But what secrets of Charlie Parker are right there in front of us that we’ve been missing all along…the thing that everyone’s overlooking about Bird’s perfect playing that actually is staring them in the face, even when they’re perusing the Omnibook?

RHYTHM

Rhythm is the crucial part of music that unless you’re a drummer, you’ve probably spent very little time thinking about, observing, or practicing.

In fact, rhythmically, most people’s playing looks a lot like this…

A constant stream of eighth notes without much rhythmic variation or definition. Most jazz improvisers simply haven’t realized how important rhythm actually is and the primary role it plays in the overall feel and clarity of their improvised lines.

But Charlie Parker certainly knew the importance of rhythm…

Every single one of Charlie Parker’s phrases is rhythmically defined because he’s not just hearing melody and harmony in his head…

He’s hearing and feeling RHYTHM!

And it clearly comes across in his playing. So if you’ve been spending all your time focused on just the notes you’re playing, it’s time to shift some of your attention to the rhythmic components of your melodic lines.

By observing Charlie Parker’s lines in action and walking through the principles behind his rhythmic expertise, you’ll gradually learn to integrate his rhythmic genius into your own playing.

These principles deal with:

  1. How you place your phrases in relation to the bar lines
  2. How you use space between phrases
  3. How you utilize ties
  4. How you use and combine rhythms

And while Charlie Parker’s rhythmic facility goes well beyond just these ideas, keep these four principles in mind as we dive into his intuitive sense of rhythm…

Breaking down the bar line: Charlie Parker’s relationship to bar lines

When you listen to any of the great improvisers, their melodic lines have a natural sense of flow, as if they’re always pushing forward and moving toward something…

And they have this momentum in their playing for quite a few reasons, some being melodic, some harmonic, and even some having to do with how they accent and ghost notes…but one of the most contributing factors to this sense of flow and melodic momentum is playing through bar lines.

You see, most people tend to phrase with the bar line – their phrases are governed by the bar lines, so they play phrases that look like this…

Phrasing within the confines of the bar lines sounds predictable and stagnant – the melodic line isn’t going anywhere, it’s not pushing forward.

And it’s difficult to get out of this habit because we see and think of a tune in terms of measures…play a bar of Bb major, THEN a bar of F7…

So it’s only natural to play phrases that fit nicely into the “containers” of measures. But getting out of this habit is absolutely crucial.

Measures are NOT nice little containers for your phrases. You must learn to phrase through bar lines.

You need to think…play one chord INTO the next. Connect them so that your phrase continues smoothly through the bar line instead of stopping at it.

And that’s exactly what Charlie Parker does…

His phrases operate completely independently from bar lines. It’s almost like a game to him, where the more bar lines he plays through the more points he collects…

Have a listen to Charlie Parker soloing over Thriving on a Riff, a simple Rhythm Changes Tune that he blows a few creative choruses on.

Let’s take a look at the first A section of Bird’s solo. Do you notice how his phrases operate in relation to the bar lines?

Bird line 1

We can break the A section of his solo into 3 large phrases and clearly see that they operate completely independently from the bar lines! In fact, he plays through EVERY bar line that he could possibly play through before he takes the horn out of his mouth for a brief moment at the end of measure 7.

This is exactly what you want to do with all of your phrases.

When people talk about rhythm, they often ignore how phrases relate to the bar lines and only focus on the rhythmic values, but what they’re not getting is that where your phrases “sit” within the grid of time defines their starting place, ending place, and rhythmic activity.

You can play phrases with interesting rhythms, but if where they start and stop are dictated by the bar lines, they’re going to sound boring and stagnant.

Before you focus on anything else having do with rhythm, start here and use Bird as a model to understand how to phrase through bar lines. Really hear the difference it makes and integrate this idea into your playing.

Practice Ideas: Phrasing Through Bar Lines like Bird

  • Avoid starting phrases on beat 1. Try thinking “start in the middle of a bar, and end in the middle of a bar.” Learn to start and end a phrase anywhere in a measure.
  • Start phrases on upbeats often. By starting your phrases on the upbeat, you’ll force yourself to play rhythms that move your phrases through bar lines.
  • Push your phrases to beat 1 and then keep playing. Think of 1 as a destination and when you reach it, keep playing and end your phrase in the middle of the bar.
  • Play through at least one bar line per phrase. Just like Parker, think of playing through as many bar lines as possible and never allow yourself to be governed by them.

Practice through all these exercises over the tunes you’re currently working on. Then, once you begin to adjust your phrasing concept, it’s time to revisit how you use space…

Use of Space: How Charlie Parker defines his ideas

Another critical piece of your rhythmic concept is your understanding and use of space, after all, the space between notes is what defines the actual rhythms within phrases, and the space between phrases clarifies how separate musical ideas relate, contrast, and build into the larger story you’re trying to convey.

Just like playing through bar lines, space is something rarely thought about that is connected to rhythm at its very core.

It’s similar to the drawing concept of negative space illustrated by the popular image below…

Do you see the vase on the left and the two heads facing each other on the right?

Just like the object itself (the vase), the physical space surrounding an object known as the “negative space” (the faces) has shape too. And its shape directly correlates to the object, just like the relationship between musical notes and the rest around them…

Where you insert rest within your melodic line, versus when you play notes is the same idea. They’re intricately connected, and one directly affects the other, and that’s why space is such an important element of rhythm.

Now, when you think of using space, you might think of players like Paul Desmond, or Ahmad Jamal, and especially Miles Davis.

But Charlie Parker is a MASTER of space as well, even if it’s not nearly as obvious how he’s wielding it…

Let’s take a look at the first A section again from Parker’s solo on Thriving on a Riff , breaking the larger phrases into even smaller phrases to see how he uses space to define his ideas.

Notice how he uses tiny bits of rest in just the right places to create six distinct musical phrases that logically progress from one to the next?

And this is not what you generally think of when someone tells you to to use space…

In school, I can remember teachers saying, “take the horn out of your mouth…let your ideas breathe,” which is solid advice, but really something to do between larger sections of your solo, like Bird does at the end of the A section above.

But during the A section, he’s not taking the horn out of his mouth. He’s just using little bits of rests – eighths and quarters – to break up his steady stream of notes.

It’s these little bits of rest, along with the other 3 principles that we’re discussing today, that transform a steady stream of eighth notes into something much more exciting and rhythmically interesting.

See the difference between a boring constant string of eighth notes and the rhythms defined by the space that Charlie Parker uses in the first A Section?

Of course there are quite a few other things going on here, but without the space and the unique way he’s using it, the over all affect would not be achieved.

Learn to sprinkle little bits of space throughout your lines and hear them come alive!

Practice Ideas: Using space like Charlie Parker

  • Learn to use tiny bits of rest within your phrases. Play through a Blues and after each small phrase you improvise, insert an eighth or quarter note rest before the next phrase.
  • Learn to use larger blocks of space. Play through a Blues and after each larger phrase you improvise, rest for at least a measure. Pay attention to the difference between using tiny bits of rest versus using larger blocks.
  • Keep the other principles in mind. Make sure you continue to play over the bar line, start phrases from upbeats, avoid starting phrases on beat 1…keep everything you’re learning in mind as you practice using space.

Understanding and practicing the use of space within your melodic lines will make your solos more musical and rhythmically define the phrases you play. But sometimes you’ll want to extend a phrase by linking it to another…

Phrase extension: How Bird extends his phrases with ties over the bar line

As we’ve seen with his phrasing and spacing techniques, everything in Charlie Parker’s playing moves his lines forward. There’s no momentary lull or stagnation that’s all to common in everyone else’s playing.

And Bird has this exceptional quality because every technique he’s using contributes to this forward momentum, even his use of ties!

Charlie Parker loves to use ties in a way to extend his phrases over the bar line and connect two musical ideas.

Using this rhythmic device in your own playing is simple.

All you have to do is tie the last note of one phrase over the bar line, to the first note of the next phrase in the following measure.

Let’s take a look at exactly how Charlie Parker does this…

On the first four measures of the bridge on Thriving on a Riff, Bird uses this over-the-bar-line-tie device twice…

Hear how his ties extend the initial phrase into a longer phrase and keep the forward momentum going?

So, besides extending his phrase and connecting several musical ideas into one, using ties like this is yet another way to play through bar lines, the first principle we talked about.

And it’s a great technique to break the bad habit of stopping before the bar line.

Rather than just giving up on playing through the bar line, you can simply hold your last note out, and use that note to start your next phrase in the following measure.

Simple, effective, and something you can start using today!

Practice Ideas: Using Ties Over The Bar Line Like Bird

  • Tie two phrases together over the bar line. At the end of your first phrase hold out the last note and use it to start another phrase in the next measure. Improvise like this for many choruses until it’s natural for you.
  • Tie three phrases together over the bar line. Once you can confidently tie two phrases together, practice doing it with three.
  • Discover more over-the-bar-line techniques. Both the first principle and this principle get you playing through bar lines. Go study a Charlie Parker solo and see if you can discover at least one more way to play through bar lines.

Using ties over the bar line is one of the easiest techniques to start using that will get your improvised melodic lines to move forward through the bar lines. And, it will naturally get you in the habit of playing longer phrases rather than breaking them into smaller ones.

Now, the final principle we’ll look at today is the most obvious when it comes to rhythm because it has to do with the specific rhythms Charlie Parker plays, but, it’s not necessarily the rhythms he uses that are so fascinating, but how he mixes them together…

Mixing it up: How Bird combines various note durations

With all this talk of bar lines and phrasing, you might be wondering…when are we going to talk about the actual rhythmic figures that Charlie Parker plays?!?!

But if you’ve been diligently following along so far, you know that over the bar line phrasing, space, and ties are crucial elements of rhythm, and while the actual rhythms Bird plays matter, they are only one piece of a larger puzzle.

And it’s not really the exact rhythmic figures that he plays that standout as much as the way he combines several rhythmic values into one line.

Everyone plays triplets, eighths, and sixteenth notes, but few people combine all of these into a single measure…But Charlie Parker does!

Take a look at the first measure from the next four measures of the bridge on Thriving on a Riff

Bird Line 3

It’s a little difficult to hear because he ghosts some of the notes and emphasizes others, but if we slow it down a bit and you listen closely, you can hear the underlying principle…

Now that’s a unique approach to rhythm! Starting out with sixteenth notes, into eighths, followed by a triplet right before the bar line…and then he pushes his melodic line through the bar line, continuing with eighth notes.

By starting his phrase on the ‘and of two’ (Principle #2: Use of Space), using over the bar line phrasing (Principle #1: Playing Through the Bar Line), and mixing sixteenths, eighths, and triplets together (Principle #4: Combining Various Note Durations), his line catapults forward with great momentum and rhythmic interest.

And you don’t even have to combine everything within a single measure to get this effect, in fact just a moment later in this same phrase, Bird plays triplets to eighths and sixteenths over the bar line, although it’s very close to sounding like a triplet.

Just another example of how difficult it is to write these things down because even Bird’s note durations are ever so slightly longer or shorter than the durations that are typically notated.

Bird Line 3

Not many people would think of playing triplets into this other figure, one after the other, over the bar line. But these subtle details are what make Charlie Parker incredible.

Get rid of the notion that “triplets make bebop” or that “sixteenths are for when you want to play fast”, and start to mix all of these various note durations together to create rhythmic interest within a single line!

Practice Ideas: Combining Rhythms Like Charlie Parker

  • Start ALL your phrases with triplets or sixteenths. Improvise over a standard or common progression and start every phrase with triplets. Then do the same exercise with sixteenths.
  • Start each phrase with a different note duration. Improvise over a blues and start your 1st phrase with 8th notes, 2nd with triplets, and 3rd with 16ths. Then start the cycle over with the 4th phrase.
  • Combine different note durations for every phrase. Improvise over a standard and make sure every single phrase combines at least two of the following: 8ths, 16ths, and triplets.
  • Combine longer note durations. Nothing says you have to only use small note durations. Try repeating the last exercise, but mix in quarter notes, dotted quarter notes, and half notes.
  • Create your own note duration exercise. Use the exercises here as a model to craft your own exercise that gets you working on combining different note durations into your lines.

Practice these exercises and remember, the actual note values that you use in your solo are only a small piece of the rhythmic puzzle.

It’s more about how you combine note values within a single phrase. Experiment and explore, and make sure to mix in the other 3 principles at the same time, just like Bird.

Adopting Charlie Parker’s Rhythmic Concepts

Although Charlie Parker’s harmonic and melodic concepts were leaps and bounds ahead of others of his time, there’s a whole lot more to Charlie Parker’s genius than just the notes he’s playing.

Where he starts his phrases. How long he holds each note and how he extends them over the bar-line. How his lines mix rhythmic values and pair unexpected groupings together. His use of anticipation and delayed resolution…

Becoming aware of these rhythmic devices will start to give you an understating of the depth of Charlie Parker’s playing.

With Bird’s playing, there is so much going on at once, on SO MANY LEVELS. It’s difficult to isolate any one thing and say that it’s solely responsible for his greatness, especially when it comes to rhythm, because he’s not only using the 4 principles we discussed today, he’s using all of them and more, at the same time!!

Integrating Charlie Parker’s techniques into your own jazz improvisation takes time. Remember, this guy pretty much reinvented how to play jazz and influenced everyone after him!

Give yourself a break if you’re not getting this stuff right away. It’s NOT easy! The important thing is that you focus on one thing at a time and isolate the weak spots in your playing, and use Bird’s playing to help you discover solutions.

Study one rhythmic principle at a time, thoroughly understand it, and take the exercises to your practice room. In time, you’ll notice your jazz phrasing, rhythmic awareness, and overall concept expanding and improving.

I know it’s tempting to spend all your time on just the notes your playing, but give it a rest. It’s time to focus on RHYTHM!!!