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Bird's words and Lennie's lessons: Using or avoiding patterns in bebop

Max W Stehr, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Research on how jazz musicians improvise suggests that learned patterns or “licks” inserted during improvisations are ubiquitous, especially among those playing bebop. Analysis of saxophonist Charlie Parker’s solos reveals his reliance on distinct patterns that he often repeated multiple times in a single solo. Due to Parker's iconic status as a bebop progenitor and his influence on the dissemination of mainstream bebop vocabulary, one can argue that bebop improvisation is dependent on the use of licks and that they are fundamental to bebop syntax and vocabulary. This claim is supported by a myriad of improvisation manuals advocating the practice of licks as integral to the acquisition and development of bebop vocabulary. Saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh were both contemporaries of Parker who matured as improvisers under the direction of teacher Lennie Tristano. Though he and his students revered Parker, Tristano’s pedagogical method rejected the imitation of other bebop improvisers by specifically avoiding the inclusion of licks, thus encouraging more melodic spontaneity. The results of Tristano's method are exemplified by the work of Konitz and Marsh during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This paper addresses the relative merits of these two approaches to bebop by investigating the stylistic differences between Parker and Tristano’s students Konitz and Marsh. Chapter 1 discusses Parker's approach to improvisation, specifically his use of licks, and his influence on mainstream jazz pedagogy. Chapter 2 outlines Tristano's pedagogical method and discusses the differences between his approach and the mainstream approach to teaching bebop. Chapter 3 explores the cognitive and neurological necessity of using licks in bebop, and discusses current music cognition literature and fMRI studies conducted on improvisers. Chapter 4 presents an analysis of licks by Parker, Konitz, and Marsh, and their effect on improvisational outcomes. As there is a rhetorical quality to jazz improvisation, linguistic concordance software called AntConc was used to locate patterns in the transcriptions. AntConc analysis reveals a greater volume and frequency of patterns in the playing of Parker than in the playing of Konitz and Marsh.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Stehr, Max W, "Bird's words and Lennie's lessons: Using or avoiding patterns in bebop" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10247656.