Oct 25, 2015

A Short Charlie Parker Story

Back in the 1970s, I was a music major at Portland State University in Oregon. This was before the internet, so we had to do our research in the libraries. One day I was in the Portland city library checking out back issues of Downbeat, looking for solo transcriptions. There was another college kid also studying in the music section, and we struck up a conversation. He told me this story.

The kid's father (let's call him Bill) was a trombonist in the early 1950s, in New York City. One evening he decided to go to a jam session at a club. When he got there, he saw that there were some real heavies on stage, including Charlie Parker. Bill was kind of intimidated, so he took his trombone out into the hallway and jammed along quietly, horn pointed at the wall. Then someone grabbed him by the collar, and marched him up onto the stage. When he turned around to see who had grabbed him, Bill saw that it was Charlie Parker.

Oct 12, 2015

Why is the "Bb Bis" Key on Saxophones Named That Way?

Saxophones are not designed with a lot of alternate fingerings, but the note Bb is an exception - the Bb on the center line, and the Bb above the staff (same fingerings, plus the octave key) have 5 different possibilities. The most useful of these is the "bis" fingering, with the first finger of the left hand holding down both the B key and the little "bis" key directly below it.

I'd always wondered why the bis key had that name. I knew it meant "again" in French, but that didn't completely answer my question. This last summer I had the pleasure of meeting Xavier Sibre, a French sax/clarinet player who was visiting in Silicon Valley for a couple of weeks. He's back in Paris now. It occurred to me that Xavier might be able to give me a good answer to the "bis" etymology question, so I emailed him. Here's his answer:
Actually yes, "bis" means something in French. It means "double" as in the double of something already existing. For example, you would find a house on number 3 of a street and another house on 3 would be called 3bis. So concerning the Bb it means the bis key is like a second option towards the same result ;-) if you see what I mean. Just like a Bb number 2.
As nearly as I can tell, the first saxophones c. 1845 used a Bb fingering with the first two fingers of the LH, plus a RH side key, as on clarinet. According to Fred Hemke's 1975 dissertation "The Early History of the Saxophone," an 1886 patent application described a mechanism that allowed a Bb with LH first finger plus either first, second, or third finger of the RH (as on modern saxophones). In 1887, the bis key is described in a patent granted to Evette and Schaeffer, "allowing the Bb to be fingered with the first finger left hand alone."

In high school, my lessons were mostly on clarinet, from Paul Pone, who was an accomplished classical clarinetist, but not really a sax player, or a jazz guy. In college I signed on with Eddy Flenner, who was both a saxophonist and a jazz player. At my first lesson with Eddy, he asked me to play an F major scale for two octaves. I did, and Eddy asked me, "Why didn't you use the bis key?" I said, "What's that?" I had to spend some practice time learning to use it.

I teach students to use the bis Bb in most situations. Exceptions would be when going chromatically between B and Bb (usually the side fingering is better), and in a few rare situations (usually arpeggios when 1 and 1, 1 and 2, or 1 and 3 offers some advantage). If intonation needs to be adjusted, it's useful to remember that bis Bb is a little sharper than the other fingerings.

Here's a discussion of "bis" etymology from Sax on the Web - but I think Xavier's answer is about as clear as it could be.

Oct 8, 2015

Coltrane and the "Delta" Symbol for Major Seven Chords, part 2

Just to not leave the job unfinished, I've looked at the rest of the thumbnails of John Coltrane manuscripts from the jazz auction catalog, mentioned in my last post, to see if there was a clue as to when Coltrane might have started using the "" symbol to indicate major 7 chords (Yusef Lateef asserted that Coltrane introduced this usage to jazz). The evidence is inconclusive.

(Click here for Part 1)

The manuscript name and the symbol used for "major seven" chords are shown below. While I was at it, I checked for "minor seven" chord symbols also:

A Love Supreme:   
Saida's Song Flute:  △, mi, mi7
Like Sonny:  maj, maj7 (recorded 1960)
I'm a Dreamer:  maj, maj7, -7 (This is the chart with chords in concert, melody transposed for Bb. Recorded 1958.)
Unidentified (chart for King Kolax):  maj7, mi7
Swinging Seventh:  m, m7, -
Handwritten Chord Progressions:  maj7
From Diz to Tadd:  maj7, -7
Moody Speaks:  ma7, mi7
Apollo:  Eb (letter only), maj7, -7

The catalog also showed thumbnails of several Tadd Dameron charts, presumably written out by Dameron, but including a "Lady Bird" chart that I had thought might have been in Coltrane's hand:

Tadd's Delight:  maj7
Choose Now:  maj7
Milt's Delight:  ma.7
Smooth as the Wind: maj7
Lady Bird:   (Byline "signature" similar to Tadd's other charts, but treble clef in a different style; this is the only chart in the Dameron group using the "" symbol.)

The catalog also showed one lead sheet written by Wayne Shorter:

Africaine (Wayne Shorter):  △7, -7 

So, the charts using the "" symbol were:

A Love Supreme (recorded 1964)
Saida's Song Flute (recorded 1959, released on the "Giant Steps" record with the misspelling "Syeeda's")
Naima (1959, on the "Giant Steps" record)
Lady Bird (chart perhaps written out by Coltrane; if by Dameron, it would be the only use of the "" symbol in the catalog's Dameron group of charts; date impossible to know)
Africaine (chart by Shorter; this tune was recorded in 1959 with Art Blakey)

I'm not sure we can draw any conclusions here, but FWIW, it looks as though both Coltrane and Shorter were using the symbol by 1959. In Coltrane's case, perhaps not earlier. Wayne used a "△7", Coltrane just a  "". Coltrane was inconsistent in using "mi7" or "-7" symbols.

If any readers know of any use of the "" symbol for major 7 chords pre-1959, please leave a comment. Trivia? Maybe, but it's interesting.