Bop – Virtuoso becomes “King” Once More


In 1942, the figure heads of jazz were all moving into a comfortable middle-age. Goodman was 33, Basie–38, Armstrong, 41, and Ellington was the ripe old age of 43. They had found their sound, their musical expression for the exercising of their creativity, and the language for their generation.

But a new wave of younger musicians was growing dissatisfied with the structured musical confinement which was big band. It may have been Ellington and Armstrong’s music, but it didn’t provide the creative outlet that they needed to be satisfied as musicians.

The first voices of the new sound found their initial gigs behind music stands filled with carefully written swing charts. They soon found that although playing the same notes of the same songs night after night paid the bills, it wasn’t enabling them to expand as musicians.

Minton’s Playhouse – considered by many to be the birthplace of bop. Bop pianist and composer Thelonius Monk on far left.

In the late night jam sessions after the clubs closed, several of the younger players would remain to experiment with new, unusual jazz sounds. A young sax player and a trumpet player would throw musical ideas back and forth, at times challenging, other times inspiring one another. On occasion, a young drummer would sit in, providing a pulse which was even if oddly accented. The chords provided by a young pianist or guitar player were progressive, dissonant, and often downright jarring. A walking bass line in the tradition of Basie’s band connected rhythm and harmony, offering an almost invisible foundation to the sparse rhythm section. But it was what was on top- the improvised solo lines – that was revolutionary.

It was called bebop, and it was built on the progressive harmonies of Ellington, the rhythmic coolness of Basie, and the virtuosic wizardry of Armstrong – all in a small combo setting. In retrospect, we can see how the three masters of the big band era set the stage for this style, but at the time, bebop, or abbreviated simply as “bop,” was viewed not simply as a variation of big band, but as a radical, even offensive, challenge to the jazz establishment.

Band leader Tommy Dorsey said that bop “set music back 20 years” and called these new visionaries “musical communists.” Armstrong said bop was filled with “weird chords which don’t mean nothing…you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to.”

There were also some sociological reasons why bop developed. Young black musicians, many returning from the war, were reluctant to move back into a highly structured, class-based working environment which put you in a matching uniform and scheduled your day into rehearsal-times, travel-times, sleeping-times, and performing-times.

The first generation of jazz players in the ’20s and ’30s were grateful for an opportunity to perform, for most had experienced homelessness and hunger. These new musicians took it for granted that there were gigs to play and money to make.

For them, traditional jazz had become so mainstreamed into American culture that it no longer spoke relevantly of the struggle of the individual African-American. For some, the collective nature of the big band created an “invisibility” to the plight of the single black man. Bop offered a musical outlet which was both their language and non-traditional. In a sense, it was the jazz version of James Brown’s soul, George Clinton’s funk, or Grandmaster Flash’s hip-hop. A theme which was an essential part of music history once again demonstrated itself: dissatisfaction opened the doors to creativity, which led to a new language.

Though Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie disliked bop to varying degrees, they all provided necessary creative tools for its invention.

In his experimentation with expanding the harmonic language of jazz, Ellington redefined consonance, that term which referred to the “acceptability” of simultaneous sounds in a chord. As we have seen, prior to Ellington, chords were limited to three and occasionally four notes. By expanding the definition of consonance to include occasional diminished and augmented 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, the model was provided for bop musicians, particularly pianists and guitarists, to continue stretching the envelope of harmonic inclusion. Chords which were considered “mistakes” and quickly corrected in Chicago and Harlem in the early ’30s, were sustained and repeated as part of the regular musical vernacular for bop music.

To follow the alphabet/language metaphor used earlier, the bop musicians were creating a harmonic slang which made sense only in its own culture. The chords which jarred the traditional jazz society were the “sick,” “rad,” “phat,” and “booty” of their day.

In addition to expanding the harmonic envelope, the bop musicians engaged a more fluid evolution to their chord progressions. Traditional jazz musicians gave certain chords length, sustaining them long enough to unfold a portion of the melody. Bop musicians spun through chord changes like steps on a series of ascending and descending spiral staircases, never staying too long in one place, lest boredom set in.

To this expanded harmonic language and ever fluid chord progressions was added a laid back rhythm which, taking a cue from Basie, emphasized minimalistic playing with unpredictable accents by the drums, walking lines by the bass, and comping by the piano.

Bop was nothing without the pyrotechnic displays by the soloists. Like watching a video of a flying kite at 10x the normal speed, the improvisational solos created by these artists were spinning, diving, soaring, swooping, and whirling in every possible direction and at with every whim of the next gust of air. Armstrong was right when he said that it had weird chords and there was no melody. He was right when he said there was no danceable beat, but he was wrong when he said that it had no meaning. For the early pioneers of bop, it meant liberation from the shackles of the big band charts.

The pioneers of bop had unusual names – names which set them apart from the crowd, just like their music:  Thelonius, “Bird,” “Dizzy” – confusing, simplistic, flighty – just like their music.

Some say the genesis of bop happened as early as 1940. At that time, in a small club in Harlem called “Minton’s Playhouse” jazz musicians would gather on Monday night (their free night) to jam, listen, and eat and drink free (if they were willing to play). Monday nights at Minton’s were so jammed with musicians and their instruments that there was no room for the non-players.

In an effort to provide some stability from one soloist to another, the manager at Minton’s put together a house band to play the changes behind the upfront melodies. He started with drummer Kenny Clarke, whose drumming was characterized as lighter than big band, but filled with contrasting rhythmic ideas where snare, bass, and cymbals worked independent of one another – a polycurrent style distinctly different from the steady pulse of swing jazz.

Minton’s manager hired Thelonius Monk, an eccentric, but imaginative piano player who was influenced by both stride and gospel piano; he placed abrupt, sudden space between his odd, highly dissonant chords.

John “Dizzy” Gillespie had been playing in big bands for 3 or 4 years, but offstage he had been experimenting with a more scientific study of jazz solos. As a result, he got into trouble on many occasions when his musical daydreams became reality in the middle of a concert. The pianist for one of these bands, led by Cab Calloway, recalls,

             “From time to time Dizzy would just take off in double time. Man, it was wild…Cab was very meticulous about music and he’d get mad as hell. ‘What the hell you tryin’ to do with my band?’ Cab would holler at Dizzy. Dizzy would just smile and all Cab would say was “Just play it the way it’s written!”

Dizzy lived for the Minton’s sessions, opportunities for him to play out some of his ideas in double time with fresh harmonies and in unfamiliar keys. There was an acceptance of stretching for the new, striving for the different.

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