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Bebop: a Controversial Transition to Modern Jazz

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    The decade of the 1940’s was an important era in the history of jazz. The 1940’s was a transition from traditional jazz into modern jazz. Leading this transition was the introduction of the Bebop period in Jazz. Bebop created controversy in the jazz world for being a contradiction to traditional jazz and was widely disliked by many audiences across America. Despite its controversy, Bebop, also referred to as “Bop,” was one of the most important eras in the history of Jazz. The technical creations by some of Bebop’s greatest musicians influenced future generations of jazz musicians and transformed the jazz world into the modern era.

    The word Bebop, according to Bebop artist Dizzy Gillespie, came from people trying to sing the unique melodic leaps. The singing created a distinct “bop” sound that led to it being referred to as bop or Bebop music (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 14). The rhythm and technicalities of the Bebop style were unlike any other used in jazz before. This completely different method of jazz led to the popular accusation that Bebop was not jazz and many traditional jazz artists dismissed it as such. And since Bebop could not be danced to, it was largely dismissed by the public as well for not being jazz music.

    Although it is true that Bebop was not classical jazz and was not typical “dancing” music, it was in fact the first type of modern jazz to be recorded. The flatted fifth is the most important interval of Bebop and in traditional jazz the flatted fifth would be considered erroneous. Also characteristic of Bebop are the nervous and racing phrases that appeared as melodic fragments. Bebop music left out “every unnecessary note” giving it a distinct irregularity that had not been present in jazz before 1940 ( Berendt and Huesmann, p. 5). Other technical characteristics of Bebop uncommon to traditional jazz were the Bop improvisations composed mostly of eighth-note and sixteenth-note figures which created jumps and twists within the music. There were also abrupt changes of direction and large intervals between notes. The rhythms in the lines were fast and unpredictable and were marked with an unprecedented amount of syncopation (Gridley and Cutler, p. 137). The era of Bebop followed the most popular era of jazz before 1940, the Swing era.

    The swing era had become a popular culture phenomenon due to its relationship to dancing. The large audience attracted by “Swing dancing” allowed the Swing style of Jazz to move into other areas of culture other than music and dance. The word Swing became a marketing device for consumer goods from cigarettes to women’s clothing. The Swing style conformed to the commercial demands of audiences and as a result became consumed by endlessly repeated rhythms. These rhythms became cliche and too trite for some jazz artists who wanted to created a more technical and modern style.

    The Swing style had become too commercialized and, as often is the case in jazz, the evolution turned in the opposite direction in the form of the Bebop period (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 14). Thus Bebop was formed as an intended contradiction to the Swing era. The contradiction to Swing music was so strong that Bebop music faced opposition and was accused of not even being jazz music. Bebop was founded during World War II by young African American musicians who were tired of the repetition and lack of original creativity of the big bands popular in the Swing era.

    These musicians wanted to create a new style of music that was played by small bands and featured creative solos and irregular rhythms. The founders of Bebop believed their music could not be as easily copied by big bands led by white composers and would be an exclusive type of jazz. This style began to form in 1940 from the improvisation that took place during the after-hours jam sessions among jazz artists. Bebop developed originally in Kansas City and in clubs (particularly in Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House) in Harlem where the Bebop style would be focused (Gitler, p. 4). With the leadership of hree of the most famous jazz musicians, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, Bebop reached its height in the mid 1940’s. Charlie Parker was one of the most influential and important soloists in Jazz history and was important to the development of the Bebop style. Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas on August 29, 1920. In 1927 Charlie Parker’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, an influential center for African American jazz music in the 20th century. The rich musical culture in Kansas City fostered the development of the young Charlie Parker who began playing alto saxophone in 1933.

    After Parker left school in 1935 he pursued a career as a professional musician in Kansas City and played among various blues and jazz groups. In 1939 Parker visited New York, the national center for the music business at the time, for a year and participated in jam sessions with other musicians. Parker’s time spent in New York left him bored with the cliches of the popular Swing style still very common in America. He envisioned a new style of music, contrary to Swing jazz, that emphasized a new set of techniques. This new style of music which became Bebop would finally reach maturity in the mid 1940’s led by Charlie Parker (Patrick).

    In December 1942 Parker joined Earl Hine’s big band along with other young jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie. During Parker’s years with the band, he participated in many after-hours jam sessions with Dizzy and other musicians at clubs in New York. The musicians were working on the new Bebop style of jazz which Parker had first envisioned when he visited New York. By 1943 Parker and Dizzy introduced their ideas of Bebop to the band, but their songs were never recorded due to a recording ban in the early 1940’s.

    After the recording ban was lifted, Parker and Dizzy formed a quintet to play their Bebop style of music and recorded for the Guild label in 1945 (Gitler, p. 4). The Bebop songs recorded for Guild gave Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie musical recognition outside New York which they took with them to Los Angeles, California. Parker and Gillespie worked successfully in California to spread Bebop to a national audience. Parker continued his work in California until a nervous breakdown due to his heroin and alcohol addiction caused his confinement in Camarillo State Hospital.

    After his release from the Hospital, Parker returned to New York and formed a quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach. The quintet recorded some of Parker’s most famous Bebop pieces, and the years 1947-1951 were Charlie Parker’s most productive. The few years left in Parker’s life from 1951-1955 were marked with depression and his failing health. Parker lost his performer’s license in July 1951 and his career fell into sharp decline. Parker attempted suicide twice during the last few years of his life and finally died at the age of thirty four in a Manhattan apartment on March 12, 1955 (Patrick).

    Charlie Parker’s legacy would achieve elite status following his death among the jazz world as Bebop became more widely accepted by jazz audiences. Dizzy Gillespie was another influential musician during the Bebop period. Dizzy was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on October 21, 1917. At a young age Dizzy’s musical proficiency was evident when he taught himself to play the trombone and trumpet and later the coronet. Dizzy attended the Laurinburg Institute and played trumpet in the school band. In 1937 Dizzy moved to New York and earned a job with Teddy Hill’s big band and toured in Europe.

    Dizzy played with various bands while in New York and while on Tour in 1940 Dizzy met Charlie Parker, and soon he began participating in the after-hours jam sessions with Parker that led to the creation of Bebop. In 1941 Dizzy worked with many jazz leaders including Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines. By 1944 Dizzy had recorded near-bop music and joined Billy Eckstine’s bebop band along with Charlie Parker. At the same time Dizzy was playing for Billy Eckstine, he recorded some of his own small group bebop pieces with Charlie Parker including Salt Peanuts and Hot House.

    Dizzy and Parker’s collaboration continued when they formed a quintet in 1945 which lasted a few years. Dizzy’s desire to lead a big band led him to form many big bands in the years following the 1940’s; and his efforts as a pioneer in modern jazz helped cement his legacy as one of the great artists of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie died in Englewood, New Jersey on January 6, 1993 (Owens). The incredible talent and popularity of Dizzy on his trumpet contributed to and helped spread the Bebop style. Thelonious Monk along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie also contributed to the Bebop style of jazz.

    Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on October 10, 1917 and at the age of four he moved to New York. In the early 1940’s he became the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem where he collaborated with Parker and Gillespie to formulate the Bebop style. Monk continued to work in Bebop music and performed in Dizzy’s orchestra in 1944 (Blake). Much of Monks music career was not focused during the Bebop era, but his contribution to the founding of Bebop made him an important artist to Bebop music.

    Monk was the most famous Bebop pianist in the 1940’s and he continued playing jazz piano for the remainder of his music career achieving worldwide renown. The Bebop style was developed by some of jazz history’s most talented artists. Even though Bebop music was composed by incredible music geniuses, it remained controversial to many traditional jazz audiences and its reception in America was generally cold. Bebop was generally disliked by the white fans of jazz music and traditional African American jazz musicians.

    Many traditional jazz audiences and artists in reaction to this new turn in evolution in jazz oriented themselves backward toward the basic forms of jazz. There was a New Orleans jazz revival during the 1940’s in response to the Bebop era, and “simple” music was demanded by the mass jazz audience. The revival did not last long among the African American musicians because the revival soon turned to cliches and simplified forms of traditional jazz, but it remained popular among the white audiences (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 16) The Bebop period seemed to be a great antagonist to traditional jazz and the New Orleans Revival.

    This antagonist aura of Bebop subjected its highly talented musicians to ridicule and contributed to the lack of support from the music business for Bebop music. Bebop did, however, have a large following among the young African American audience. Many of the African American artists who played Bebop music were young and related to a young audience. Many young African Americans no longer supported jazz the way they once did and thus accepted Bebop for its anti-traditional jazz sound. Bebop was most popular among African American populations in big cities above the Mason- Dixon Line.

    The white audience rejected Bebop mainly because it did not have a regular step count and they could not dance to it. But despite Bebop’s irregular rhythm, African Americans figured a way to make the fast tempos by cutting time in half, and they were dancing to the music. By cutting time in half they could incorporate old dances such as the Lindy Hop or new dances such as the “The Apple Jack”, (Gitler, p. 5). Bebop did not appeal to a mass audience and earn as much revenue like the Swing movement, but more importantly it created an identity for the young African American population in the 1940’s Bebop music as not received well by the masses, but the impact it would have on the modern jazz movement would prove its great importance in jazz history. Over the years since 1940 Bebop has become the quintessential form of classical modernity in jazz.

    A revival in Bebop, that nobody predicted, occurred in the 1970’s and is still continuing into the twenty first century. The importance of Bebop to new generations of jazz artists can be summed up in a quote from Scott DeVeaux, a renowned author and professor of jazz: “In order to understand jazz, you have to understand bebop (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 7). ” The pioneers of Bebop, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and others, propelled the jazz world out of the classical era into the modern era. Today the bold creations of Bebop artists do not seem as revolutionary, but at the time they were very revolutionary and upsetting to the jazz world. Bebop artists sacrificed fortune and fame in the 1940’s to play a style of music they felt needed to be played. Ultimately, their sacrifice and creation of Bebop became a defining moment in jazz history.

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