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Bebop, known as “modern jazz” to the musicians who created it, was an innovation that still defines the genre today. The radical overhaul of rhythm and harmony, a new jazz vocabulary developed in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Derived from the advanced soloing of swing age masters Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and others, bebop was characterized by complex harmonies, asymmetrical phrasing, melodic rhythm techniques, and predominantly fast tempos.
I asked Jay Thomas, Seattle jazz icon, multi-instrumentalist and bebop lover, to tell me what this change meant for jazz musicians:
“So many breakthroughs in technical harmonic language have happened with bebop,” Thomas said. “It’s the method of finding lines and melodies, and including all of the Western harmony that came from people like Debussy and Chopin, and people like that. But there was always blues running through it, because that it was African American. It was like, on the shoulders of this great Harlem Renaissance.”
Countless musicians participated in the bebop revolution, but music was largely defined by a handful of unique artists who helped create it.
One of the first innovators of bebop, Charlie Christian was a member of the Benny Goodman Band from 1939 to 1941, and he helped establish the electric guitar as a solo instrument in major bands. Christian was influenced by horn players, and by using tension and release, and an endless series of single-note phrases, he paved the way for the great bebop players to come.
Pianist Thelonious Monk often played alongside Charlie Christian at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. His music emerged from stride piano and church organ, developing a unique percussion technique and unconventional melodic ideas. Monk’s compositions didn’t catch on right away, although his style and many of his songs were fully formed by the mid-1940s.
Perhaps no other figure claims the bebop throne. Charlie Parker was a jazz virtuoso, an icon for musicians and fans alike, including emerging poets of the Beat Generation. His almost endless hours of practice led to complete control of his horn and time to explore the confines of harmonic structure. Yardbird’s incredible talent was matched by a flair for melody and a love of the blues.
Although one of the first inventors of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie’s mastery of the style took years. His charming personality and hip character perhaps helped raise the profile of bebop more than any other jazz player. His Latin jazz and big bands expanded rhythmic possibilities and sound colors. His sense of humor and a good hook created some of the bebop-era standards, like “Salt Peanuts”:
Other major contributors to bebop include drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Bud Powell, and on the West Coast: Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and many others.
There was a backlash: Louis Armstrong didn’t get it, calling the music “weird”, saying “you’ve got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to”.
Bebop eventually came into its own, though the early exposition still took the music less seriously. Here is Dizzy Gillespie in the 1947 musical film “Jivin’ in Bebopjoking with MC Freddy Carter before launching into his song “Oop Bop Sh’bam” (listen to the audio version of this story).
Jazz musicians of all ages still play bebop today. The expansion of language changed jazz forever. The indefinable complexity, beauty and freshness of music always challenges and delights musicians… and jazz lovers too.
KNKX Celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month
Throughout the month of April, we will illustrate different styles of jazz through time that make the history of jazz through storytelling and music. From the early 1900s to 2022, we will travel from Dixieland to Modern Jazz, from Big Band to Hip Hop.
Listen to episodes every weekday at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on 88.5 FM and KNKX.org. See all stories from the KNKX History of Jazz project.