Jazz 101: Post-Bebop Improvisation

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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“, with a look at improvisation in the post-bebop era. This era happened in the mid 1950’s, and came with a good deal of experimentation.

Last time, we looked at three defining genres that came from bebop and West Coast jazz: hard bop, soul, and funk. We saw how each one developed, and grew to what we recognize today.

Now, we’ll look at an aspect of jazz that remains constant throughout every iteration. Improvisation. During the post-bebop era, musicians began to incorporate quotes from other songs into their improvisations. This had been going on for awhile, but became much more self-conscious and common in the post-bebop era.

Once again, we’ll start with a brief overview of the era, followed by a look at one of the musicians who stood out during this time.

Post-Bebop Improvisation

Years before the post-bebop era, musicians were interpolating fragments of older songs into new ones. “Such quotations could be no more than phrases that fit harmonically and rhythmically, or they could be humorous commentaries on the current song or merely citations to connect an existing musical literature” (p. 200).

Regardless of the reason these references were included in improvisations, their presence became much more frequent during the post-bop era. But Szwed points to a problem signaled by this trend in jazz improvisation during this time. “The problem was that there was a lack of cohesion and unity in the performance as a whole: soloists often linked unrelated ideas together as they occurred to them, and one musician’s solo was usually unrelated to the next” (p. 201).

Musicians of the time developed several solutions to this problem. One was to arrange compositions that structured the improvisations. This method was common among Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. Other methods were to improvise on the melody rather than the harmony, or build up solos from thematic motifs.

While there were many impressive improvisers during the post-bop era, there were few quite as impressive as Charles Mingus, who stood out despite playing an instrument previously resigned to the background.

Charles Mingus

In the 1950s, most of the important figures in jazz were pianists who doubled as composers or arrangers. Others were horn players with exceptional improvisational abilities. Drummers and bassists were typically overlooked. While some drummers could gain notoriety with flash and charisma, most bassists faded into the background.

“It was all the more surprising, then, that one of the key figures of the 1950s was Charles Mingus, a bassist — but a great bassist, with a volatile and virtuosic approach to a notoriously inflexible instrument” (p. 203). Mingus showed that it was possible for bassists to become equally important members of jazz arrangements.

Throughout his career, Charles Mingus got the chance to play with a number of other legendary jazzers. “Born in New Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, Mingus had at one time or another played with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Red Norvo, and Charlie Parker. He had worked in classical settings, Latin bands, rhythm and blues groups” (p. 203). It’s hard to find an area of jazz that Mingus wasn’t a part of. The influential ripples he made with his improvisations can still be heard in jazz today.

Final Thoughts

After taking this brief look at post-bop improvisation, I hope you came away with a greater understanding of this era in jazz history. It was not only a time of great experimentation, but also a time that ushered in new voices. Musicians like Charles Mingus continued the tradition of pushing the limits of jazz ever forward.

That about wraps up our discussion for today. Next time, we’ll take a look at the multiple revolutions in jazz that sprung up just before the 1960s.

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