Oct 5, 2017

Charlie Parker's "Cool Blues" and Bizet's "Carmen"

Charlie Parker's "Cool Blues" is a "riff blues" in C, first recorded in 1947. 

The riff itself was in Parker's vocabulary at least as early as his March 28, 1946 recording session in Los Angeles for Ross Russell's Dial label; he uses the lick in his "Yardbird Suite" solo. About a year later, on February 19, 1947, Russell set up a recording session with Parker, pianist Errol Garner, and Garner's rhythm section. Parker had recently been released from Camarillo State Hospital. He was relaxed and refreshed, and playing beautifully. One of the tunes recorded was "Cool Blues," a setting of the riff as a 12-bar blues. Here are the four takes from this session:               

These recordings of "Cool Blues" were titled differently in various Dial releases: "Cool Blues," "Hot Blues," and "Blowtop Blues."

In the biography Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, author Carl Woideck mentions some possible sources of the "Cool Blues" riff. One possibility is the very brief use of a similar lick in Duke Ellington's "Blue Ramble" (1932). The riff occurs at 1:40 and 1:58:

Woideck also quotes Phil Schapp's liner notes for The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker as stating that "Cool Blues" is "similar to a set-closing theme...reportedly used several years beforehand by bassist John Kirby's sextet." In a telephone conversation with Woideck, Schaap also mentioned that "at least one musician who remembered the Kirby theme sang it to Schaap in a way similar, but not identical to, Parker's version."

A footnote in Schapp's liner notes:
Bird told Benedetti that his title for "Cool Blues" was "Blues Up and Down." This same blues theme was used earlier by the John Kirby Sextet to take the "Biggest [Little] Band in the Land" off the stand. Bird learned it by hearing the Kirby Sextet and through his friendship with Russell Procope, that group's alto saxophonist.
This speculation on the origin of the tune does seem credible. However, there is another likely source, in Georges Bizet's opera, "Carmen."

The "Cool Blues" riff shows up briefly, but unmistakably, in Act 2 of "Carmen." In this recording, it occurs from 1:16:22 to 1:16:52:

Woideck added the Bizet information in the (later) Italian edition of his Parker biography, mentioning also that the Kirby group was known for its jazz interpretations of European classical music. The Italian edition also mentions that "[the Kirby set-closing theme] does not appear in any of the official records of the orchestra for various labels, and the search for live performances and radio tunes for the band has not identified any version as yet."

Schaap makes a good case that Parker might have adapted the Kirby melody. But Parker might equally well have lifted the theme directly from "Carmen" - he was definitely a classical music fan. Or both, or neither. The Ellington fragment is pretty fleeting, and seems less likely as a source.

Quite a few recorded live versions of "Cool Blues" exist; below are four from Youtube:

With Fats Navarro and Bud Powell (1950):

 "The Washington Concerts" (1953) (note the "Habanera" quote):

"Summit Meeting at Birdland" (1953), with John Lewis:

With a very young Chet Baker (1953):


  1. Not that it can't happen, but I'm suspicious when I read about early jazz musicians liking/knowing classical music. piano players would have learned etudes and pieces, but horn players, not so much. Back in the 1970s I read that Duke Ellington learned voicings and harmony from Debussy and Ravel. James Lincoln Collier has debunked that one - Duke studied with a piano teacher for a very short period, and was largely self-taught. It was writers (in particular, European) who claimed that they heard these classical composers in Duke's work - Duke never cited them himself, and never studied composition or evel listened to classical records. There's also a much-cited reference to Bird digging Stravinsky, but I suspect that was from a single hearing of a record. First, Bird was a self-taught player, and an obsessive practicer, not leaving much time for classical music listening. When he got to NY, he was already a junky, and was just trying to get gigs and score dope - not much time for the Philharmonic.
    So where there certainly were particular jazz musicians who were familiar with the classical repertoire, they were rare before the rise of the music school jazzer. Tatum was one for sure.

    1. Mark, I'd give Bird a little more credit. Regardless of his drug dependency, he was a brilliant and driven musician, who was intellectual in his own way, as was Dizzy, and some other NY bop pioneers. Reading Bird biographies, it seems that among the originators of bop, Parker was the one who could take a musical concept that interested him, and almost immediately incorporate it into his musical language, in a natural and melodic way. Studying his solos, I see pretty clear evidence that he was meticulous about his harmonic concept, to a degree that just having a gifted "ear" doesn't explain.

      I don't hear any Stravinsky in his musical language, but I don't doubt that he had some records at home. Actually, though, I sometimes think he might have checked out Bach. The structure of Parker's lines sometimes reminds me of the cello suites. Pablo Casals' recordings of the cello suites came out in the late 1930s.