The Power of Brevity

I’ll keep this short.

I was listening to one of my musical heroes recently, the great Charlie “Bird” Parker, and his legendary solo on the classic “A Night in Tunisia” (recorded for Dial Records in 1946). This particular version contains one of the most famous solo “breaks” in all of jazz. You can hear it starting at 1:17 in this clip:



If you can read music, here is the “break” written out:


As the website points out, “[W]hile Parker’s solo is nothing short of brilliant, it’s the short, blazing improvised cadenza with which he begins it that still stands as a challenge to anyone attempting a life in jazz. It’s 8 seconds or so of blazing invention; one of those rare meetings of virtuoso technique and creative expression that feel like diamonds when one first stumbles upon one of them. This cadenza is now known as ‘the famous alto break,’ by anyone who cares about jazz in its heyday, and sends chills down through the decades like little else in the 20th century audio lexicon.”

How could such a brief burst of spontaneous music continue to inspire more than 70 years after its creation? The answer, I believe, lies in its rare combination of speed, precision, boldness, and most notably, brevity. It’s precisely because so much invention is packed into so little time that Parker’s riff endures as a milestone in the development of jazz. Of course, Parker played thousands of longer solos throughout his career, almost all of them remarkable; yet it’s these 8 seconds — 8 seconds! — that perhaps best represent his singular genius.

The “famous alto break” serves as a potent reminder that it’s not the quantity of one’s contributions that matter but their quality. In a world over-saturated with content, it’s a notion worth keeping in mind.