Swing loses steam and Jazz loses the large audiences – forever?

All the time Jazz musicians intended to become more regarded as artists rather than being seen as pure entertainer. This was true when the Dixieland Jazz followed the Ragtime era as well as when the Swing or Big Band Jazz took over. But never before did a new breed of Jazz musicians behave so aggressively as the Bebop generation.

In the early 1940ies the Big Band sound dominated the music scene, it was the Pop music of that era. While African-American musicians had developed the style, now white musicians led the large orchestras and made the biggest money.
With its success the Swing had certainly lost part of its innovation power, top chart positions were best achieved with little experimentation.

Fortunately, this was not true for everybody and there were some adventurous soloists such as pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines; tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” is a good example for brilliant music outside the typical Swing sound.
These soloists influenced a young group of musicians keen to develop Jazz further and play “modern”. These were, amongst others, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Christian.

Characteristic for the sound, which was eventually called “Bebop”, were a rhythm section which instead of the bass drum used the hi-hat cymbal as timekeeper. The bass drum was now rather used for accents. And on the other hand, improvisation became much more important.
Although Louis Armstrong had already created more space for solos, so far they were still rather short and within a given framework. In Bebop typically a theme would be presented together at the beginning and the end of each piece, with improvisational solos based on the chords of the tune in-between. Thus, the majority of a song in bebop style would be improvisation, the only threads holding the work together being the underlying harmonies played by the rhythm section.

There were also non-musical driver behind this development. The speed and also the complexity of the Bebop sound required very good musical skills. This allowed the new generation to separate themselves from the mass of lesser skilled (white) Swing musicians. In jam sessions, most famously at Minton’s Playhouse, this was exercised when the established musicians had left.
They also regained the control back over the development of the Jazz.

But obviously it took more than a group of young and wild musicians playing a wild and chaotic style to dethrone Swing as the number one music genre.
But indeed after the end of WWII, most of the Big Band orchestras disappeared, including Jack Teagarden’s, Tommy Dorsey’s and even Benny Goodman stopped touring with his band. Only Louis Armstrong, Count Basie (for a while) and Duke Ellington could maintain their large ensembles.

A number of factors played a role in this change. The war was obviously dominating the world and many musicians had to serve their time in the army, which undermined the stability of the large ensembles. And people did not want to be seen enjoying themselves during such difficult times, i.e. dance events did not draw large crowds anymore.
Additionally, the entertainment industry fought internally about who would get what part of the money. The fight culminated in a number of recording bans. This obviously hit hardest the successful big bands, which depended on the income from record sales to pay for the ever increasing (salary) cost.

All in all, the advent of the Bebop was probably the most fundamental change in the history of Jazz and marked the start of the “Modern Jazz”.
Bebop certainly achieved what its inventors wanted, Jazz was now far away from being a popular, while “boring” style, but had truly become a musician’s music. All traces of minstrel had been eliminated and the mostly black musicians appeared more self-confident than any generation before them.

But with this, it had also lost a large part of its audience, most notably the African-Americans. The Jazz did not longer belong to the musicians and the dancer, but rather to the critics, collectors and academics.
Rhythm & Blues and later the Rock’n’Roll attracted now the (dancing) crowds of young people.


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