The Evolution of Bebop

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(Bird on Money, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tribute to Charlie Parker.)

The song “Cherokee,” by the English dance-band leader Ray Noble:

Charlie Parker’s version:

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Parker said that, when playing “Cherokee,” he realized that the 12 semitones in any scale could take a piece of music from one key into any other, a realization that Arnold Schoenberg had also come to in Vienna earlier in the century.

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“Ko-Ko,” based on the harmonic progression (i.e. chord changes) of “Cherokee”:

How does Parker’s soloing represent a break from that of the saxophone masters who came before him? Can you hear how Lester Young improvises on the melody, while Bird goes deep into the harmony, skews it, and cobbles together new melodies from different scale degrees?

How does Parker’s version of “Lover Man” differ from Coleman Hawkins’s?

By the way, it was Lester Young who famously noted that he couldn’t play a tune because he didn’t know the words.

Pierrot

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Pablo Picasso, 1920).

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Pierrot is one of the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, an improvised form of theater that was performed by traveling players throughout Italy and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is a sad clown, in love with the stock heroine of commedia, Colombina (Columbine), who in turn is in love with the more virile and aggressive Arlecchino (Harlequin).

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Paul Cézanne, 1888).

While Harlequin is identifiable by his trademark checked leotards, Pierrot usually appears in a loose white suit, as shown here by the French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

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By the nineteenth century, whiteface makeup would become a trademark of the character as well, an innovation of the famous mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), who added depth and nuance to the stock figure of Pierrot. Debureau’s portrayal of Pierrot even earned him comparisons to Shakespeare. The classic 1945 French film Les enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) is a fictionalized account of Deburau’s life.

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Claude Debussy wrote a song called “Pierrot” in 1881, a setting of a poem by Theodore de Banville which references the great Deburau:

The text, in translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Pierrot became the idealized image of the suffering, alienated, and melancholy artist. His white costume suggested innocence; his white face, with its corpse-like pallor, suggested death. He became a favorite subject of modernist painting.

Georges Seurat

By Georges Seurat.

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By Georges Rouault.

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By Pablo Picasso (who painted many images of Pierrot).

Elaine Haxton

By Elaine Haxton.

A very early animated French film of Pierrot.

In 1912, the German actress Albertine Zehme commissioned Arnold Schoenberg to write a song-cycle for her, based on German translations of the poem-cycle Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot) by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud. Giraud’s poems begin in a dreamlike, surrealistic manner, and gradually become more and more nightmarish.

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Albertine Zehm.

Schoenberg pioneered the extended vocal technique of sprechstimme (speech-song), and used an ensemble consisting of flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet in A (doubling on clarinet in B-flat and bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and piano. This particular amalgamation of forces — flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — is still known as a “pierrot ensemble.” The piece was first performed on October 16, 1912, with Zehme dressed as Columbine.

The German critic Theodor Adorno said that Pierrot Lunaire is about “the homelessness of our souls.”

Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Black Pierrot,”
which was set music by William Grant Still, 1895-1978):

I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I crept away into the night 
And the night was black, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I wept until the red dawn
Dripped blood over the eastern hills 
And my heart was bleeding, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So with my once gay-colored soul
Shrunken like a balloon without air, 
I went forth in the morning
To seek a new brown love.

Pierrot has continued to haunt the music of our own time. David Bowie told an interviewer in the 1970s:

I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre. . . . It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976.

Later, Bowie appeared as Pierrot in the video for his 1980 song “Ashes to Ashes.”

In 1996 and again in 2015, Björk sang Pierrot Lunaire in live performance.

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