Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bebop: Some Writings About The Music and Its Origins

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I didn’t like it the first, few times I heard it.

My ear couldn’t follow it.

It sound so cluttered; everything seemed to clash with everything else in the music.

None of the melodic mellowness and rhythmic certainty of the Swing Era big bands led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, or Harry James was anywhere apparent.

Just flurries of notes, often played at breakneck speeds with lots of harmonic dissonance.

Even its name was oft-putting – “Bebop.” What was this stuff with the funny sounding name?

© -Marshall Stearns/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

From the few histories of Jazz then available, I looked up the chapter on “Bop” in Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz and it noted:

“In terms of melody, bop seemed deliberately confusing. Unless you were an expert, there was nothing you could whistle, and if you were an expert, there wasn't much you'd want to whistle. Yet a great many bop numbers were based upon the chord progressions of standard jazz tunes such as 'I've Got Rhythm,’ the 12-bar blues, 'In­diana,’ and, of course, 'How High the Moon.’ The piano, guitar, and bass would play the same accompaniment to 'Indiana' as they might ordinarily, for example, and the soloist would improvise as usual—but nobody would play the tune. It wasn't exactly new to jazz, but bop made a practice of featuring variations upon melodies that were never stated.

To take the place of the melody, bop evolved a framework of its own, a written or memorized unison chorus in bop style, played at the beginning and at the end of each number. It was generally quite complicated and, some­times, even memorable. If you could manage to whistle the original tune at the same time, it would fit in a bop-pish way. In between, each musician took his solos in turn.

Charlie Parker, like Dizzy Gillespie and other early boppers, … , knew exactly what he was doing. He dated the first occasion when he began to play bop in December 1939, at a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 14Oth streets:

‘... I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes [i.e. chords] that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there's bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn't play it.

Well, that night, I was working over Cherokee, and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive.’

This is an accurate and fairly technical description of what took place.

Since bop was played by small groups which permitted experimentation, the riffs or repeated phrases of the swing bands died out and a longer solo line became possible. The bop soloist now started and stopped at strange mo­ments and places, reversing his breath pauses, and some­times creating a long and unbalanced melodic line which cut across the usual rests. No more running up and down chords as in the Swing Era.

In terms of rhythm, bop made some radical changes. On first hearing, even a sympathetic listener might well have been dismayed. 'If that drummer would quit banging that cymbal,' the traditionalist objected, 'I might be able to hear the bass drum.' In point of fact, there wasn't any bass drum to hear—at least, not the heavy 'boom, boom, boom’ of Gene Krupa's day. Instead, the hiss of the top cymbal dominated the music (once in a while, in the early days, the cymbal nearly drowned out the soloists), changing phase to fit the inventions of the soloist. The bass drum was reserved for explosions, or special accents, and the string bass—alone—played a steady, unaccented four-to-a-bar. The beat was there but it was light, flowing, and more subtle.

Many listeners were left painfully in the lurch and any resemblance in bop to the heavy march rhythm of Dixieland was entirely unintentional. To the soloist in bop, however, these changes were an enormous help. They gave him a new freedom and a new responsibility.  …” [pp. 229-231].

To one who was new to the music of bebop, it’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic “freedom” left me bewildered and confused.

But Stearns’ description of some of the things that were going on in bebop at least gave me some starting points.

Of course, around the time that Stearns was researching and writing his book in the mid-1950s, bebop was still in its infancy.

Charlie Parker had just died, but most of the originators of bop were still around.

My ear soon caught up to Bebop’s complexities and, throughout its many later manifestations, I began a life-long love affair with the music.

Fast forward a half century later and there many more books are on the subject of Jazz in general and bebop in particular.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles would like to call your attention to two of these: the chapter entitled Modern Jazz: The Birth of Bebop in Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz [Oxford University Press] and Scott and Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History [University of California Press].

Now in its second edition, Ted’s excellent account of the growth and development of Jazz offers these introductory thoughts on the growth and development of Bebop [pp. 200-205].

© -Ted Gioia/Oxford University Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

‘Long before modern jazz emerged as a dis­tinctive style, an ideology of modernism had been implic­itly embraced by the music's practitioners. From its earliest days, jazz had been an forward-looking art, continually in­corporating new techniques, more expansive harmonies, more complex rhythms, more intricate melodies. …. whether they expostulated about the future of music or merely announced its arrival through the bell of their horns, the leading musicians of early jazz were modernists in the truest sense of the term. They were admired—or chastised, as the case may be—as daring exponents of the new and bold.

It is easy to lose sight of just how remarkable this modernist bent was, given its context. ….

Almost from the start, jazz players embraced a different mandate, accepting their role as entertainers and pursuing experimentation with an ardent zeal. This created a paradoxical foundation for jazz, one that remains to this day: for the jazz musician soon proved to be a restless soul, at one moment fostering the tradition, at another shattering it, mindless of the pieces. ….

Given this feat, the rise of a more overt modernism in the early 1940s should not be viewed as an abrupt shift, as a major discontinuity in the music's history. It was simply an extension of jazz's inherent tendency to mutate, to change, to grow.  ….

[One] irony is that modern jazz sprang from none of …  [its] roots. True, it drew bits and pieces of inspiration from … [earlier forms of Jazz] , but it sounded like none of them. Instead, the leading jazz modernists of the 1940's developed their own unique style, brash and unapologetic, in backrooms and after-hours clubs, at jam sessions and on the road with traveling bands. This music was not for commercial consumption, nor was it meant to be at this embryonic stage. It survived in the interstices of the jazz world. …

What was this new music? Early modern jazz, or bebop as it soon came to called, rebelled against the populist trappings of swing music. The simple riffs, the accessible vocals, the orientation toward providing background music to social dancing, the thick big band textures built on interlocking brass and reed sections— these trademarks of prewar jazz were set aside in favor of a more streamlined, more insistent style. Some things, of course, did not change ….

True, the beboppers preferred the small combo format to the prevalent big band sound, but the underlying rhythm section of piano, string bass, drums, and occasionally guitar remained unchanged, as did the use of saxophones, trumpets, and trombones as typical front-line instru­ments.

But how these instruments were played underwent a sea change in the context of modern jazz. Improvised lines grew faster, more complex. The syncopations and dotted eighth-note phrasings that had characterized earlier jazz were now far less prominent. Instead, long phrases might stay on the beat for measures at a time, built on a steady stream of eighth or sixteenth notes executed with quasi-mechani­cal precision, occasionally broken by a triplet, a pregnant pause, an interpolation of dotted eighths or whirlwind thirty-second notes, or a piercing offbeat phrase. The conception of musical time also changed hand in hand with this new way of phras­ing, otherwise this less syncopated approach might have sounded rhythmically life­less, a tepid jazz equivalent to the even sixteenth notes of baroque music. …

The harmonic implications of this music also revealed a newfound complexity. …

But more often, the harmonic complexity of modern jazz was implicit, sug­gested in the melody lines and improvisations rather than stated outright in the chords of the songs.

Yet, there was also a core of simplicity to this music. Arrangements were sparse, almost to an extreme. Renouncing the thick textures of the big band sound, be-boppers mostly opted for monophonic melody statements. ….

The boppers were not formalists. Content, not form, was their preoccupation. Instrumental solos were at the heart of each performance, sandwiched between an opening and closing statement of the melody. ….

The celebrated histories of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie might lead one to believe that this musical revolution took place only on the front line, an upheaval among horn players. In fact, much of the changing sensibility of modern jazz was driven by the rhythm sections. …. Each instrument in the jazz rhythm section, in fact, underwent a transformation during these years. The pulse of the music became less sharply articulated, more pointillistic. Sudden accents— the so-called bass drum "bombs" dropped by bebop percussionists or the crisp comping chords of pianists and guitarists—now frequently arrived off the beat or on weak beats. The spitfire tempos required impeccable timekeeping and unprece­dented stamina. After the onslaught of modern jazz, the rhythm section would never be the same.

… Bebop was [also] defined by its social context as much as by the flats and sharps of its altered chords. Outsiders even within the jazz world, the modern jazz players had the dubious distinction of be­longing to an underclass within an underclass. Remember, this was a musical revo­lution made, first and foremost, by sidemen, not stars.  ….

Thus, the birth of modern jazz took place at a strange crossroads: drawing, on the one side, from the pungent roots and rhythms of Kansas City jazz, on the other delving into the rarefied atmosphere of high art.”

Not surprisingly, with almost seventy-five years having elapsed since the earliest expression, Bebop has had a number of full length books devoted to it in recent years.

One of the most comprehensive works on the subject is Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History [University of California Press].

Here are some excerpts from Scott’s Introduction: Stylistic Evolution or Social Revolution?

© -Scott DeVeaux/University of California Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There is a trick to balancing a yardstick. Hold the yardstick out flat, with one index finger under each end. Then bring these fingers in slowly toward the center. They will not slide in evenly: one will be held up by friction while the other spurts ahead until it, too, is caught. But inevitably they will meet at the pivot point of the span and come into balance.

Imagine for the moment that the history of jazz is a solid, linear object, like a yardstick. One endpoint marks the origins of jazz, somewhere in the mists of the early twentieth century; the other, the present. As of this writing, at least, the point at which the yardstick comes into balance falls somewhere in the mid-i94os.
By any measure, this is a crucial period for the history of jazz. During the years 1940-45 the first modern jazz style, shaped by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others, came into being. This music was known as bebop, or simply bop: "a most inadequate word," complained Ralph Ellison, that "throws up its hands in clownish self-deprecation before all the complexity of sound and rhythm and self-assertive passion which it pretends to name/7 But this music was crucial for the evolution of jazz and American music. For Ellison, bebop marked nothing less than "a momentous modulation into a new key of musical sensibility; in brief, a revolution in culture."

As the twentieth century comes to a close, bebop lies at the midpoint of what has come to be known as the jazz tradition. It also lies at the shadowy juncture at which the lived experience of music becomes trans­formed into cultural memory. Inevitably, there will be fewer and fewer witnesses to contribute to—or contest—our ideas about the past. The recent passing of Dizzy Gillespie (1917-93) and Miles Davis (1926-92), among others, underscores our closeness to the physical and psychic re­ality of that history. In their absence we will be left with the image of bebop and jazz that we construct for ourselves.

Even as bebop recedes further into the past, it is unlikely to be dislodged any time soon from the heart of jazz discourse. Tradition, after all, is not simply a matter of cherishing the past, holding its memory sacred. There is some of that in jazz, but not much. What counts, as the musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has argued, is the continuing existence of the past in the present.

In this sense, bebop has a more legitimate claim to being the fount of contemporary jazz than earlier jazz styles. The large dance orchestras of the Swing Era and the improvised polyphony of the early New Orleans groups may hold a place of honor, but musicians no longer play that way. The nuances of the past have largely disappeared, along with the social contexts of nightlife and dancing that shaped and gave them meaning. A jazz orchestra of fifteen or more musicians suggests either nostalgia, the specter of superannuated bodies shuffling to yesterday's dance music, or the academic sterility of the university "lab band/' The small New Or­leans or "Dixieland" combo was long ago ceded to enthusiastic and atavistically minded amateurs. Even the most accomplished modern jazz repertory groups only drive home how difficult it is for a contemporary musician to inhabit the musical sensibility of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Mor­ton, or Jimmie Lunceford.

By contrast, ask any member of the current generation of jazz musi­cians to play Charlie Parker's "Anthropology," or Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," or Monk's "'Round Midnight." It may not be their preferred avenue of expression, but they will know the music and how to play it. Bebop is a music that has been kept alive by having been absorbed into the present; in a sense, it constitutes the present. It is part of the expe­rience of all aspiring jazz musicians, each of whom learns bebop as the embodiment of the techniques, the aesthetic sensibilities, and ultimately the professional attitudes that define the discipline. A musical idiom now half a century old is bred in their bones.

The perennial relevance of bebop is thus not simply a tribute to its enduring musical value. After all, the music of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington enjoys a critical esteem equal to that of Parker, Gillespie, and Monk, and it is better known and loved by the general public. But bebop is the point at which our contemporary ideas of jazz come into focus. It is both the source of the present—"that great revolution in jazz which made all subsequent jazz modernisms possible"—and the prism through which we absorb the past. To understand jazz, one must understand bebop.”

When I was first looking for Bebop recordings, I had to scramble around and piece together a representative sampling of the music.  This was largely due to the fact that many of these records were issued in very limited quantities on obscure labels that soon went out-of-business, or because the recordings were simply out-of-print.

If you are new to the music or wish to revisit if, Bebop Spoken Here is a Properbox [#10] 4-CD anthology that features 97 tracks of Bebop along with a 56-page explanatory booklet. 

You can listen to a selection from the set in the following video tribute.