How Bud Freeman and Charlie Parker learnt to play Jazz

If you read biographies of great jazz musicians you will often find information about how they learnt by ear.

The two examples which have struck me the most are these.

The first is taken from Hear Me Talkin' To Ya by Nat Hentoff & Nat Shapiro – check the whole story out by reading pp118-121. Jimmy McPartland is talking about how all the people in the Austin High School gang learnt to play by copying the records of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

“What we used to do was put the record a few bars...Then stop! A few more bars of the record, each guy would pick out his notes and boom! We would go on and play it. Two bars, or four bars, or eight – we would get in on each phrase and then all play it.

But you can imagine it was hard at first. Just starting, as most of us were, we'd make so many mistakes that it was horrible on people's ears......

It was a funny way to learn, but in three or four weeks we could finally play one tune all the way through…..Bud Freeman was the only guy that had not had any training, consequently he was slow picking up the music. In fact, it was murder those first weeks.....

[But] there was one thing I could recognize in Bud then - he had a terrific beat. He still has. He began by just playing rhythm, getting on one note and holding it; I mean singing on it, just that one note. He didn't change the harmony or anything, and we used to get so mad at him, you know. We'd yell at him, “Change the note.” But I said, “No, no, no, don't. He's coming on, he's playing.”

If you haven't heard Bud Freeman check out his recordings – he really does have a tremendous rhythmic feel, as well as very considerable virtuosity on his instrument. He lived in the UK for a time in the 1960's and I was lucky enough to see him play a couple of times.

The second story is of Charlie Parker......I can't remember where I read this, but it is said that in his teens, before there were any signs of genius in his playing, he had a residency with a band playing in a hotel in the Ozarks – he took his wind up gramophone and his records of his hero Lester Young, and spent the summer learning Young's extant recordings. When he came back home after the summer everyone ackowledged that he really could play. Lee Konitz tells a story of how Parker played a couple of Lester Young solos to him in a band room one night – showing that he still knew the solos off by heart.

There are also stories told of how Lester Young knew solos by Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke off by heart.

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