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The History Of Jazz - Part 4
- Then Came Bebop

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The History Of Jazz - Part 4
- Then Came Bebop

Bebop, the jazz insurrection of the Forties was the first jazz style to come along since Louis Armstrong that was in every respect new and different. It was almost as if the inventors of bop had sat down and said to themselves 'Is that how the older guys play?, well we're going to do it the other way round'.

The difference between Bop and Swing is often seen as an harmonic question, a switch from diatonic to chromatic harmony, but there were other changes just as fundamental, notably a quickening of the pulse of jazz.

Bop players loved quicksilver runs and were fond of doubling the tempo even when they were playing ballads. Much of the most characteristic bop however was played at an astonishing, unprecedented pace. 'That horn ain't spos'd to sound that fast' the swing tenor saxophonist Ben Webster is said to have declared on first hearing of Charlie Parker's playing.

Bop musicians also did away with the polished instrumental tones of the swing era e.g. growls, smears and tonal effects were out. Dizzy Gillespie was an example, built on Roy Eldridge's phenomenal ability to play high and fast on the trumpet. In time he played higher and faster than his model, on the edge of what is technically possible on the trumpet, but he was not interested in the hot sizzle of Eldridge's vibrato and the stress in bop phrasing was often the reverse of swing-on weak beats, not strong ones.

Altogether strange harmonies, hell-for-leather speed, inverted phrasing, funny new instrumental tones, bop had an exotic sound to the conventional ear, hence the bandleader Cab Calloway's description of it as 'Chinese Music'.

Some of the older generation, like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young played with boppers but none could completely transfer to the style themselves. Bop was a watershed in jazz history.

The style was forged by the elite of younger black musicians, it was the music of a coterie, played in little clubs for people 'in the know'. Later on it acquired a following but it was never the dominant popular idiom of the Forties that was provided by singers like Frank Sinatra and the trappings of the bebop fans i.e. the dark glasses, berets and goatee beards (imitated from Gillespie) stressed that they were members of an esoteric inner circle.

You needed to be knowledgeable to appreciate this complex, fiercely compressed music. With bop, jazz not only split into separate camps, it also split off from the broad mass of popular music. It became an art, a highbrow affair.

In 1939 - 1941 the forerunners of bop liked to meet in two Harlem clubs, Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House with the leaders-to-be of the bop revolution, guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk for whom live recordings exist of sessions at Minton's and other Harlem clubs in 1940 and 1941.

Who contributed what to bop? - The accent on the bass drum (the name bebop seems to have begun as an onomatopoeic way of describing a drum pattern).

Thelonious Monk put in a lot of harmonic ideas as did Gillespie himself, but Parker and Gillespie were seen as the leaders by other musicians.

Of the two Gillespie, the steadier character was the one who rapidly became a famous name, the public face of bop. With his mischievous humour, his beard and beret he had an image as recognizable as Armstrong's handkerchief and wonderful grin.

He conducted his career with the shrewdness and stamina of an Ellington or a Hampton ('Dizzy is like a fox' someone once said of him), but wonderful though Dizzy was, Charlie Parker was the improvising genius. It was Parker who demonstrated the potential of the style with overwhelming power, just like Armstrong had done for Swing.

The first full recording sessions by bop bands do not come until 1944 and 1945, by which time, especially in Parker's masterly tracks from the latter year, the music had been refined to perfection.

By then too a number of important new figures had arrived. In the brilliant, psychologically unstable pianist Bud Powell, the new music found its most influential keyboard performer. A young drummer, Max Roach applied the lessons of Kenny Clarke with more rhythmic freedom. J. J. Johnson attempted the difficult task of playing bop on the slide trombone. Milt Jackson did the same for the vibes. Two trumpeters, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis appeared with less fiery, more reflective ways of playing than Gillespie.

Over the next few years the key bop records were made. Among the most important were Parker's on 'Savoy' and 'Dial'. Gillespie endeavoured to translate bop into big-band terms, while Tadd Dameron (with Navarro on trumpet) and Thelonious Monk made a superb series of recordings which in different ways showed how the music could be moulded by the sensibility of a composer.

By the late Forties Bop had Swing on the run. Most of the younger generation of players were more or less marked by it and in time Bop became the basis of the modern jazz of the Fifties.

Since then Bop has had many rivals but in the early Nineties, a full half century after those young revolutionaries met at Minton's, it is still more likely than not that an up-and-coming musician will take Parker, Gillespie or Bud Powell for a role model.

Next Time in Part 5 - The Sound Of Cool Jazz

* Also see :- Louis Armstrong Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

Wes George (former Sony Jazz webmaster)
Email : info@jazznet247.net
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