Jazz 101: Bebop

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Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, by looking at the era of bebop.

Last time, we looked at five different jazz revolutionaries that came about during a period of revivalism. We learned how it was due to their contributions, that jazz moved away from swing, and towards the next stage in its evolution.

And now we’ll get a good look at that next stage, and explore the era of bebop, which was still a genre relatively close to swing. It was a strange name to give to music, and even stranger, given the cultural context of its time. As we’ve done in previous articles, we’ll start with a brief overview of the genre itself. Then, we’ll highlight two major players who helped influence bebop.

Bebop

While it had a somewhat silly name, bebop was a both formal and serious undertaking. At the same time, however, there was an air of parody to it as well. “Many of the black musicians who first played bebop were migrants from the South and the Southwest, their musical abilities developed within a framework of local intellectual activity and political thinking, and they often presented themselves in a kind of double face of artiste/bohemian and a simultaneous parody of those roles” (p. 161).

Despite this characteristic, bebop was still quite similar to swing. “A case could be made for swing and bebop having more in common than any other two styles of jazz”(p. 162). There was a key difference between the two, though. Swing was made to cater to as wide of an audience as possible. It was targeting the pop market hard. Whereas, in bebop the aim was to challenge the simplistic structure of swing numbers. It was swing pulled back in the direction of jazz.

“Bop melodic phrases were longer and less repetitious, but at the same time unevenly structured and irregularly placed” (p. 163). The melodies heard in bebop are more chromatic, drawing on all twelve notes of an octave. They were also wandering, and often made large interval leaps. It was an era of melodic and rhythmic experimentation. This, along with the sheer virtuosity of its players, is what made bebop really stand out.

“Bebop may have begun as a scandal, but it soon began to make swing seem tired, prewar, symmetrical, a thinly veiled pop music suddenly laid bare” (p. 168).

Bud Powell

Bud Powell was a pianist during the bebop era. And, “much as Earl Hines was Louis Armstrong’s interpreter on the piano, Bud Powell adapted Charlie Parker’s ideas to the piano” (p. 170). When Powell began expressing these ideas on the piano, they began to take on a different feel than Parker’s.

“Solo, Powell could imply the beat without playing stride or using a walking bass line, and the listener never missed the rhythm section…He was the quintessential bop pianist, never equaled and exceptionally difficult to imitate” (p. 171).

Thelonious Monk

Even if you’ve never listened to his music, you most likely recognize his name. Thelonious Monk was not your usual pianist, and was able to coax unusual sounds out of an acoustic piano that weren’t supposed to be possible. “Both his compositions and his improvisations are simple inasmuch as they remain true to the 12-bar blues and 32-bar pop song forms that served as the frameworks for improvisation in the bebop era” (p. 171).

Unlike most beboppers, Monk took a different approach to his melodies. They weren’t the same wandering, unstructured flow of notes. And they lacked bebop’s harmonic density. “Instead, he favored spare, calculated melodies and carefully chosen notes, graced with silences which were treated as a part of the melody” Monk was indeed a bebopper, but he went beyond the conventions of bop with his conceptions of rhythm and harmony. (p. 172).

Final Thoughts

Bebop is one of my favorite styles of jazz. And that’s not just because it has the best name of any genre ever. I like it so much because it embraced experimentation. The beboppers of their time weren’t satisfied with imitating swing, even though it was the most popular style by far. They wanted to keep pushing music forward, and continue to adapt. I admire that drive, in music as well as in any other art form. Imitation is for suckers. Innovation is for the bold.

That wraps up our discussion of the bebop era. Next time, we’ll continue moving forward into the 1950’s, and look at the era of “cool jazz”.

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