Understanding Bop

No, I have not accidentally forgotten to use the spell checker. This post is not about understanding Pop (what is the meaning of Lana Del Rey’s latest album title?) nor about what Bob Dole is doing nowadays. This is about the Jazz style Bop, i.e. Bebop and Hardbop.

Why is it important to understand Bop? Bebop stands at a fundamental change in Jazz. Before Bebop, during World War II, North America (and large parts of Europe) had danced the Lindy Hop to Swing Jazz respectively Big Band Jazz. People like Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller had been the popstars of the time and Jazz had dominated the billboard charts.

After the war, Swing’s popularity rapidly declined and Bebop became the most popular Jazz genre. And with this, Jazz became “Modern Jazz”, largely what we know today.

“Ko-Ko” was one of the very early Bebop tunes:

If you have ever listened to Swing music, you can appreciate how different this is. Bebop is more complex with a lot of room given to improvisation and much faster. There is no steady four-to-the-bar pulse, perfect to dance to, anymore and no catchy refrain.

There were multiple reasons why Swing lost popularity and also drivers for the development of the Bebop. Two important ones had little to do with the music itself. One was that after the war, people were looking for something new and different, wanting to forget the war times.
And the fight of the African-Americans in the US for equal rights became stronger. This was also reflected the developments in Jazz. With the complexity and speed of Bebop talented player could really shine. This allowed the new generation to separate themselves from the mass of lesser skilled (white) Swing musicians. At its peak of popularity, Swing had become dominated by white player, although African-Americans had developed the style (as all the Jazz styles before).

These two were leading the early development of Bebop:
parker1951

Parker (left), also known as ‘Bird’, was certainly the idol of the Bebop scene, probably the most talented of the new breed. But Parker was a difficult character, had drug problems and died at the age of 35 already.

Because of this, it was rather Dizzy Gillespie, who became the ‘face’ of the Bebop.

If you want to explore the ‘Bird’s’ music further, check out “Chasin’ the Bird”, “The Essential Charlie Parker” or “The Complete Dial and Savoy Recordings”. With respect to Dizzy, head for “The Complete Victor Recordings”, “Gillespiana” and “Groovin’ High”.

As you can see from Gillespie’s picture at the top of this post, Bebop was not only about music. Bebop musicians, as well as fans, also distinguished themselves via their personal style. Beards, glasses and hats became important clues. It was the birth of the ‘hipster’.

Here is another central figure of the entire Bebop and Hardbop era:

Thelonious Monk was unconventional in many aspects. Certainly also in his music, which is not everybody’s taste and not immediately accessible.

And this is also true for Bebop in general. Indeed in the transition from Swing to Bebop, Jazz had lost large parts of its audience. In the 1950s first the pop vocalists (e.g. Frank Sinatra) and then rock music (Elvis Presley) took the charts by storm. I.e. if you have not liked the tunes above really, you are not alone with your view. But please bear with me a bit longer, it will become easier!

Bebop was a fundamentally different new start for Jazz. Bebop did not want to depend on the taste of the masses. It was played in small clubs by small ensembles, typically consisting of saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and piano; a music to listen to, as opposed to dance to. Musicians became rather explorer and were not anymore primarily entertainer. And, as already mentioned above, the African-American musicians showed a not seen before self-confidence. In Bebop, all traces of minstrel had gone.

But some felt that his had gone too far. For them, there was too much emphasis on improvisation over standards. In order to win a larger audience back, the music had to be better planned, more memorable and less “intellectual”, was their view. Without refuting the fundamental innovations of Bebop, a revitalisation of the blues and gospel elements of the earlier Jazz together with catchier refrains should make the music again more accessible.

What came out of this development was called “Hardbop” (no idea where the name came from…). And probably like nobody else, the “Jazz Messengers” stood at the origins of it. The Jazz Messengers were led by Horace Silver (piano) and Art Blakey (drums).

To the contrary to some Bebop tunes, this is much less an improvisation orgy, but rather an arranged (and partly also composed) piece. A strong influence of blues and gospel are evident.

Although the music changed in the transition from Bebop to Hardbop, it remained very relevant in the fight against racism.

“Freedom suite” is a concept album, written by Max Roach (music) and Oscar Brown (lyrics). It is one of the most important political Jazz records, describing the history and current situation of the African-American people in the US. The music on the record meanders between Hardbop and Free Jazz.

At the end of the 1950ies, John Coltrane had become one of the most influential Jazz musicians. “Giant Steps” is a cornerstone in his career and also a key record for that period of the Jazz history.

While Bebop and Hardbop are obviously siblings, I hope these sample of recordings show the development of the music over a period of roughly 15 years. Bebop wanted desperately to be different at the beginning, with a young guard hitting hard to show-off and to crowd out the lesser skilled Swing musicians.
Over time, the music lost some edges but gained variety when the new elements got developed further and classic elements of Jazz were added back in.

“Bop” enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. But many elements of the music remain important in Jazz.

Thanks for having read until here!

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Bop

  1. Excellent points on hard bop being a traditionalist recoil from the intellectualism of bebop. I would argue though that records like Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” were a return to the harmonic intellectualism after hardbop — Coltrane’s expansion of harmonic vocublarly by working with major thirds as intervals initiated an renewed interest in music theory that was seen in that most reliable of period markers in jazz, Miles Davis’s group, in this case the second great quintet, which initiated post-bop, the period we are in many ways still in.

    Have been enjoying your writing.
    Cheers!

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