Create and Experiment! Bebop Jazz

The Evolution of Bebop Jazz  

Bebop Jazz became incepted as a style around the year 1941.  This style came from Harlem New York from African American musicians.  In the early 40s, big band music was still the main style of music played.  Musicians would work in the evenings in clubs and ballrooms since people would attend shows after work.  After their performances in big bands, some musicians of the big band era met during after hours to perform jam sessions.  They would meet at a place called Minton’s Play House on 118th street in Harlem, New York.  Minton’s opened in 1940.  This is where bebop started to develop.  Some of the key musicians involved in these jam sessions were Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Kenny Clarke, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. It got its name “Bebop” from nonsense syllables used in scat singing. 

Highly Competitive

These jam sessions were not for the average musician.  They became highly competitive among musicians.  Musicians were known to take standard arrangements from the American Songbook or other well-known arrangements from the big band era and make them complex. In fact, these sessions became so competitive that the great Charlie Parker was initially kicked out as he was not able to keep up with the complexities of the music.  It’s been said that drummer Philly Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker out of frustration for getting off beat.  This drove Parker to practicing 16 hours a day who became one of the paramount influencers of bebop! 

From big band to bebop 

As we learned from our previous resource, Romancing and Dancing of Swing Music, big band music’s primary intention was to make people dance and feel happy in a tumultuous time of economic turmoil.  However, many musicians already playing big band became weary of playing standard arrangements that were primarily emphasized on dancing music.  These musicians wanted to become more experimental, revolutionary, and improvisational.  By conducting these jam sessions, musicians were allowed to play at their fullest potential without anything holding them back.  Below are some of the key differences of big band and bebop:

*Big band was dominant in the mid-30s whereas bebop became dominant in the mid-40s.

*Big band was all about the people, making them dance and feel happy.  Bebop was all about the musicians, making listeners appreciate the complexities of what the musicians were doing. 

*Big band was large size bands often involving 17 members in a band.  Bebop was much smaller in size that had quintets, quartets, and even trios.

*Big band was standard pre-rehearsed arrangements, whereas bebop was highly improvisational. 

*Big band was known to be mainstream music that became commercialized, where as bebop was highly experimental.

*Big band’s emphasis was the horn section using the rhythm section mainly to keep time.  Bebop significantly minimized the horn section size and brought the rhythm section to the forefront of soloing.

*Big band immediately gave birth to recordings and made airwaves around the United States with the popularity of the radio.  However, while bebop started in the early 40s, the first recordings didn’t appear until 1944-45 due to a musicians strike for unionized musicians from 1942-44.

*Big band emphasized a strong feel in the music with harmonies and chord progressions.  The feel of the music in bebop wasn’t sufficient.  Musicians had to understand music theory.  Chord progressions became much more complex.

*The appropriation of keeping time on the instrument differed between big band and bebop.  Drummers would keep the time on the bass drum playing 4 on the floor in the big band era.  In bebop, the ride cymbal was introduced and the time went on the ride.  In big band, the pianist would often stride where the right hand played a repetitive melody and the left hand would play a single bass note or chord on the weak beat.  In bebop, the pianist would comp.  The right hand often played complex improvisational lines.  The guitarist in the big band would strum.  In other words, they would play a repeatable riff.  In bebop, the guitarist would play single note lines where the music became more intricate.

*Big band focused on the macro dimension of the groove within the band, whereas bebop focused on the micro dimension – the individual performer soloing.

Bebop was a response to racial segregation

In a time of racial segregation, many black musicians were deprived from opportunities white musicians had.  They responded to this segregation through their music.  By playing music that highlighted experimentalism, improvisation, and originality, this was a way of reacting to the social injustices they faced during this time of segregation.  They wanted to oppose the mainstream view of American music. 

The characteristics of bebop

As alluded, bebop became a listening style of music that was highly improvisational and experimental.  Some of the characteristics of bebop include the following: 

*Very fast tempos.  Melodies, rhythms, and phrasing were played very fast.

*Bebop used quasi and unpredictable accents and short note durations.

*Bebop melody used relatively non-repetitive, as melodies were dissonant, asymmetrical, complex, and improvisational. 

*Bebop was conversational and interactive.  Musicians would musically interact with one another by having musical conversations.

The impact of bebop jazz 

*Bebop elevated the status of jazz to an artform.  It defied the standard ways of playing jazz music and brought new innovations that were never done before.  Since big band became mass marketed and commercialized, this deprived musicians expressing themselves to their fullest potential.  

*Bebop also gave birth to music all around the world, impacting Brazilian and Cuban music.  Many of these musicians integrated bebop with their respective styles.

*Lastly, bebop introduced school programs, jazz institutions, and yearly jazz festivals all around the world.  Many of these implementations all stemmed from bebop jazz.

The instrumentation of bebop jazz 

As we learned, the band size of bebop was dramatically reduced from the band size of big bands.  Much of this had to do with the transformation of music from arranged (big band) to improvisation (bebop).  The sound of bebop did not require having such a large band size big band had.  In addition, from an external standpoint, traveling costs during WWII made it increasingly difficult for bands to travel with such a large band size.  Bandleaders were required to pay for lodging, food, and transportation of their band members.  As the style of big band phased out in the early 40s and with the rising costs of WWII, it was a financial burden to have such a large band traveling around the United States during a time of recession.

In a trio, there would typically be a drummer, pianist, and upright bassist.  In a quartet, there would be a drummer, pianist, upright bassist, trumpet or saxophonist.  In a common bebop quintet, there would be a trumpet and saxophonist, which were considered the horn section, and upright bassist, pianist, and drummer, which were considered the rhythm section.  

On the drum set – the bass drum size was reduced from a 22 inch to 20 inch head.  The ride cymbal became the primary time keeper, where as in big band, the time keeper was the hi-hat.  Bebop drummers like Kenny Clark, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach began to play asymmetrical accompanying patterns between the bass drum and snare drum. This was known as comping.  The drummers of the big band era, including Gene Krupa and Papa Jo Jones played more straightforward symmetrical phrases with occasional punctuations on the snare and cymbal.  In other words, the sound of big band was a driving beat enabling people to dance, whereas the sound of bebop evolved into more complexity and improvisation that complimented with the other musicians performed.

The influences of bebop jazz

While there were a number of names (both male and female) who were instrumental in the bebop era, there are 3 essential names who were instrumental in the development of the style:

Charlie Parker: 

Known as the “bird”, Charlie Parker was a saxophonist and composer.  Born in 1920, he began to play the saxophone at the age of 11 years old.  Parker was the epitome of dedication to his craft.  He dropped out of high school to join the musician’s union and would practice up to 16 hours a day! This was triggered by drummer, Philly Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at the head of Charlie Parker in a jam session where he lost track of a rhythm.  Parker was instrumental in developing improvisational methods to the style of bebop.  His songs, “Ko-Ko”, “Billie’s Bounce”, and “Now’s The Time” all epitomized the ability to improvise within a framework of a song.  Sadly, Charlie’s life was shortened from drug addiction.  As a result, he died at the age of 34 years old.  His legacy lives on! He was inducted in the big band and jazz hall of fame in 1979, and went down as one of the prominent figures to develop bebop jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie:

His real name John Birks, Dizzy was born in the year 1917.  He was a trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and an occasional singer. Dizzy was exposed to music as a young child as his father was a bandleader.  While starting off playing the piano at age 4, he subsequently changed to the trumpet at age 12.  He got his first major breakthrough with The Cab Calloway Orchestra in 1939.  He also wrote music for big band artists, Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey.  However, Dizzy’s personal career skyrocketed in the mid-40s with the development of bebop jazz.  Known as the “Sound of Surprise”, Dizzy had the ability to play with emotional sensitivity, improvise complimentary melodies, while staying in perfect time with his band members.  Some of his classic bebop titles, include: “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts”.  Lastly, he made significant contributions to jazz by integrating Afro-Cuban music with jazz, and having the first conga percussion player in his band.

Thelonious Monk:

Also born in 1917, Thelonious Monk was the second most recorded jazz musician behind Duke Ellington.  A pianist and composer, Monk was known for his unorthodox approach to playing the piano.  He would use hesitations, key releases, and pauses that all conveyed to his strong improvisational ability, which is paramount to bebop jazz.  Monk started to play piano and took lessons at age 6.  Around 12 years old, he was learning classical pieces from Beethoven and Mozart, but was intrigued by jazz.  This eventually led to him playing at The Minton’s Playhouse in Manhattan, New York in the early 40s.  This was the place that gave birth to bebop and Monk played an integral role in the development of this style.  Some of his classic titles, included: “Blue Monk” and “Round Midnight”.  Being one of five jazz musicians to make the cover of Time Magazine in 1954, he rarely spoke to his audiences or gave interviews as he wanted the music to speak for itself.  He once quoted, “Jazz is my adventure. I'm after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That's it. Just using notes differently.”