Monday, July 19, 2010


Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History 

[BerkeleyCAUniversity of California Press, 1997, pp. 364-365]

[Click on the book title for a link to the publisher for order information.]

Coming of age in Jazz when I did, where I did, I “missed” Bebop [what a horrible name for such wonderful music]. I literally had to seek it out after-the-fact and educate myself about the music and its makers. While I was on this quest, there were no books like Scott DeVeaux’s available.  If you have an interest in learning about Bebop or in revisiting it from some fresh perspectives, then this is a book that will help you on your way.  Here’s an excerpt. 

© -Scott DeVeaux, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In the history of bebop, 1945 was the decisive year. At its outset Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were still edgy young professionals, fighting against the odds to make names for themselves in a crowded field. By year's end they were not much better known—not, at least, by the gen­eral public—but they had proved that an idiosyncratic form of jazz en­tertainment could carve out a new niche on the periphery of the music business. On 52nd Street, in concerts in New York's Town Hall, and at Billy Berg's new Hollywood nightclub, Gillespie and Parker found paying audiences for an idiom that showcased their finely honed virtuosity— not within the usual contexts of dance or popular song, but in defiantly dissonant and disorienting original compositions.

And, of course, they made recordings. Their efforts in the studio from the first months of 1945 constitute a permanent record, rich in detail, of the new music's emergence as public phenomenon and commercial com­modity. These recordings include the earliest surviving versions of much of its core repertory—"A Night in Tunisia," "Be-Bop," "Groovin' High," "Blue 'n Boogie," "Dizzy Atmosphere," "Salt Peanuts" (all Gillespie com­positions)—as well as the first collaborations between Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the small-combo format.

Many of these early recordings were obscure when released and remain obscure today. The first recording of "Groovin' High," for example, had such a limited run that in 1976, when the Smithsonian produced a special edition of Gillespie's recordings, only one battered copy of the original 78 rpm recording could be found. Immediately after the transfer to tape, Martin Williams reported melodramatically, "the walls of one of its grooves broke down forever.'

Others, however, have long since earned a firm place in the jazz canon. Performances like "Shaw 'Nuff" (recorded May 11 for Guild) and "Ko Ko" (November 26 for Savoy) are now enshrined on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz as "definitive statements of the new music." What is being celebrated here is not simply artistic achievement. There are, after all, many other fine recordings by Gillespie and Parker. But there is only one pivotal, defining moment: the birth of modern jazz. One can look ahead and see, as Gary Giddins does, all of jazz modernity flowing from this moment ("Ko Ko," he writes, "was the seminal point of departure for jazz in the postwar era"). Or one can cast an eye backward and see the first bop recordings as the desired, and probably inevitable, outcome of a tortuous struggle for self-expression and artistic autonomy, the permanent achievement that marked the end of the Swing Era and announced a new musical age. "With them," James Lincoln Collier has written, "the bop revolution was complete."

That a handful of commercial recordings should stand metonymically in these assessments for all that the bop generation sought to achieve is hardly surprising. Recordings are jazz's enduring artifacts, analogous in this respect to the published compositions of the European "classical" tradition. Because they constitute virtually the only surviving evidence of artistic activity, it is natural to exaggerate their importance as an official record of musicians' intentions. Much of this is wishful thinking. We may understand that improvisation is an inherently volatile act, more process than product; that the recording studio is a poor stand-in for the usual social contexts in which the music was heard; and that the econom­ics of recording affects the process of documentation in myriad, mostly unhelpful ways. Still, we hope that the result faithfully represents re­flexes honed by countless hours of working together on the bandstand and that only the most ingenious and effective routines have been se­lected for preservation. We have faith that it is truly a record of a certain musical reality and that a history of recordings therefore constitutes a history of the music.”