In this article we'll be looking at an advanced interpretation of the 12-bar blues, known as the Charlie Parker blues or "Bird" blues (Parker's nickname). The thing that makes this interpretation of the blues advanced is the sheer number of chord changes. We'll take a look at these chord changes and simplify them a bit by cracking the code and answering the question "how did Charlie Parker come up with these chords?" But if you're not familiar with the Charlie Parker blues form, start by listening to the tune "Blues for Alice," a classic Charlie Parker blues.
First let's take a look at a lead sheet for the tune "Blues for Alice."
Those chord changes look quite different from a 12-bar blues form, right? Yes and no (as we'll see in a minute). The first question many students ask when they see all these chord changes in place of the simpler blues form is, "why?" Charlie Parker was a bebop player. Well, not just a bebop player but one of the best bebop players. And one of the characteristics of great bebop playing is the ability to improvise over forms that contains a lot of quickly shifting chord progressions. So Charlie Parker likely amended the simpler blues form to that which you see above in order to create a set of chord changes that required a lot more harmonic navigation - and sounded less like blues and more like bebop.
Okay, let's quickly review a typical 12-bar blues form in jazz.
What you see above looks pretty familiar, right? You have the 'I' chord, the 'IV' chord, and then a 'ii - V' progression back to the 'I' chord. Believe it or not we're actually going to leave much of that form above in place. Take a look at the "Blues for Alice" lead sheet above and look at measures 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11. What do you see? Most of the chords in those measures are the same as in the simpler blues form. The big difference occurs in measure 7, so let's discuss why.
The cool thing about these Charlier Parker blues changes is that they are a constant series of 'ii - V' progressions. These 'ii - V' progressions move us from the 'I' chord in measure 1, to the 'IV' chord in measure 5, and finally to a 'ii - V - I' progression in measures 9, 10, and 11 - the same structural and primary chords that give shape to the basic 12-bar blues form.
Let's do a quick harmonic analysis of this advanced blues form. We start on the 'I' chord (F) and do a series of 'ii-V' progressions which bring us to the 'IV' chord (Bb7) in measure 5. Measures 6, 7, and 8 are a series of 'ii-V' progressions which move down by half-steps. Measures 9 and 10 are a 'ii - V' progression (Gm7 and C7, one measure each). In measure 11 we get back to the 'I' chord which begins what is called a 'I - vi - ii - V' turnaround (F to Dm7, to Gm7, to C7. The C7 resolves back to the F major chord at the start of the form).
This is a valuable blues form to know, so give it some practice and add it to your repertoire.