Trends cause anti-trends, especially when they are successful. And Swing was very successful during the time of WWII, therefore no surprise that just when Jazz was at its peak in popularity, some young musicians started developing a new style.
It clearly distinguished itself from the rather straightforward compositions of the Swing era, which left limited room for improvisation and were aimed to please dancers. It was more complex with a lot of room given to improvisation and was faster.
Another difference to the Big Band sound was that Bebop was played in small orchestras, typically consisting of saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and piano.
This new style, later named ‘Bebop’ or simply ‘Bob’, did not come out of the nowhere, but had been inspired by some adventurous soloists of the Swing era, e.g. Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge. And the ones further developing Bebop and making it popular had played with them. Charlie Parker had been in Earl Hines orchestra and Thelonious Monk with Coleman Hawkins. Others at the forefront of the developments after the second world war were Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie.
As often, a main driver for the development was the rhythm section. In Bebop it claimed a wider role beyond just keeping the timing. Swing drummers had kept up a steady four-to-the-bar pulse on the bass drum. Bebop drummers, led by Kenny Clarke, moved the drumset’s time-keeping function to the ride or hi-hat cymbal, reserving the bass drum for accents. The bass not only maintained the music’s harmonic foundation, but also became responsible for establishing a metronomic rhythmic foundation by playing a “walking” bass line of four quarter notes to the bar.
Bebop also broke up the metronomic regularity of the drummer’s rhythmic pulse and produced solos played in double time with several bars packed with 16th notes.
This ‘loose’ concept of rhythm allowed the soloists much greater freedom. This was further accentuated by that fact that Bebop superimposed on the harmonies of the old jazz additional “substituted” chords. The result was complicated improvisation. Swing arrangements mainly consisted of composed sections, but with certain sections designated for improvisation. A bebop tune, however would simply consist of a statement of the head, or main theme, extended solos over the head’s harmonic structure, and then one final statement of the head.
But Bebop was not only about music, the Bebop musicians as well as fans also distinguished themselves via their personal style. Beards, glasses and hats became important clues, think Dizzy Gillespie. It was the birth of the ‘hipster’.
The development of the new music style was often done in collaboration in jam sessions and joint concerts. At that time, the mecca of Jazz was in New York within two blocks. Around 1945, Gillespie and Parker played a lot together, and seemed to harmonise perfectly. Parallels between those two and the Louis Armstrong / King Oliver duo can be drawn.
Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was certainly the idol of the BeBop scene, probably the most talented of the new breed. But Parker was a difficult character and became addicted to heroine. The drug spread like an epidemia amongst the Jazz musicians at that time. His drug addiction caused him many problems and even made him disappear from the scene for a while.
Because of this, it was rather Dizzy Gillespie who became the ‘face’ of the Bebop. In the early phase of his career, he (and Parker) clearly had the intention to be taken seriously purely as musicians. But later Gillespie started to become more of an entertainer and even added some comical aspects to his show (to much of the dislike of Charlie Parker).
However, the hype around Bebop was not of long duration. Around 1950, it became clear that it could never attract the same audiences as the Big Bands had in the past. Dizzy Gillespie had formed a Bebop Big Band to bridge the new music to the traditional audience, but it did not have much success.
And what had happened with the heroes of the Swing era? Actually most Big Band stars disappeared, even Benny Goodman had to stop touring with his orchestra. Count Basie continued with a small ensemble. And two of the greatest Jazz musicians remained popular in during the Bebop era – Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Both of them never were fully attached to a genre but were always staying between the different boundaries.