There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”

With its characteristic (manic) jam sessions, “complex, dissonant harmonies,” “rhythmically unpredictable skeins of accompanying (piano) chords,” and Kenny Clarke-style “dropping bomb” techniques on drums[1], what compelled bebop? On the surface, necessity might not seem to apply to the development of bebop, which soon mellowed into cool, then heated up again into hard bop. However, like any human invention, new music styles develop in response to friction and influences in the environment, in much the same way that a pearl forms through abrasion inside an oyster.

Like layers of stone and sediment in a geological formation, the environmental forces that led to bebop took years to foment. Musicians carved pieces of earlier styles (from folk, to rag, to blues, to swing) into new iterations, mixed ideas with new ways of thinking, layered on new ways of playing, and innovated with new technologies. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who are credited with launching the bebop movement, had worked in big swing bands and naturally were influenced by the music they grew up hearing and playing. Thus, like a family genealogy, jazz tradition has a lineage, a kinship, which identifies it as jazz, yet allows for mutations in its offspring.[2]

One way to gain perspective on the development of bebop is to look at the historic timeline, say between 1929 and 1949, a time leading up to and into bebop. This was a time in which the United States had experienced extremes‑ from the Great Depression (1929) to World War II (1939-1945). It’s hard to imagine what it was like to have come of age during a timeline that included the great depression and a world war. Yet Dizzy Gillespie, one of bebop’s greatest innovators (and others) was born in 1917[3], which means he lived through the depression and World War II and would have been influenced by these events. Viewed against this backdrop, it becomes easier to understand the disruptive arrival of bebop and the modern jazz movement, which occurred roughly at jazz’s mid-point (the 1940’s,) where almost overnight big bands declined, swing became a style of the past –– and bebop rushed in to take its place.

Yet, what led to this cataclysmic change that appears on the timeline like the ruining of Pompeii or a sudden ice age? As a cultural construct, music reflects and expresses the underlying psychosis of the time, something that people may not be able to express in any other way.[4] In other words, music does not develop in a vacuum; instead, it percolates and bubbles up, shaped by outside, human forces. There is perhaps no greater social disruptor than war. War is a time of trauma and upheaval, of great stress and chaos. The jubilation of a war’s end is soon replaced by uncertainty, and an underlying feeling of tension and trauma leading to the need to begin a healing process. Indeed “the war transformed the economy, speeded the pace of life, and spurred the demand for civil rights.”[5] Yet, listen to bebop and you’ll hear how it communicated this upheaval as it began in an unsettled fashion (bebop) and then fragmented into shards of cool and hard bop, each expressing their own restlessness.

For example, “Ko-Ko,” with its very fast tempo, accented by Parker’s “constantly shifting accents and disrupting two-note rhythm” on alto saxophone, punctuated by Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Curley Russell on bass, Argonne “Dense” Thornton on piano and Max Roach on drums, hints at disruption, war trauma and healing with its ghosted notes, cross-rhythms and countermelody. Originally known as “Cherokee (1938),” Parker and Gillespie transformed the tune in an improvisational departure, played by their 52nd Street band while recording at Savoy. Even the song’s formation is a portrait of bebop, as an ad hoc, chaotic group recorded the piece, and yet, still managed to create a masterpiece. (Deveaux, 2009, 288) Were it not for the talent of its performers, “Ko-Ko” would likely have been “broken,” like a wounded soldier returning from war. The song was such a departure that it demanded a new name: bebop. (Deveaux, 2009, 288).
In The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History, Scott DeVeaux states: “By any measure, (the mid-1940s) 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[6], Thelonious Monk, and others, came into being.” (Deveaux, 1997, 1) “One of the most influential trumpeters in history, Gillespie is usually given chief credit, along with (Charlie) Parker, for developing the genre of bebop during the early 1940s.”

It’s important to note that bebop is more than a transition (or evolution) from one form of music or tradition to another (from swing to bebop, for example). Instead, it’s a fulcrum, the launching pad for a revolution. Creative people experiment, responding to environmental factors, often on a subconscious level. So as musicians searched for a way to express their discontent, their restlessness, a desire for something new, a desire to heal, they began to experiment, morphing swing (and other jazz and blues) elements into new forms of music. Some (feeling that swing had become too commercial and mainstream) became almost nostalgic, hungering for the old jazz styles; while others wanted something entirely new and different for a new generation. That was bebop.

While swing had been the domain of big bands and a dancing public, bebop was a more introverted music with fewer musicians and a sparse rhythm that didn’t inspire dancing. It sprung out of social and economic issues that occurred post WWII, some that almost derailed jazz for a time: “Blackouts, late-night curfews, and a 20% entertainment tax closed ballrooms, dance halls, and nightclubs all over the country. The rationing of rubber and gasoline drove many bands off the road, a shortage of shellac curtailed the recording of music, and some companies stopped making jukeboxes and musical instruments for a time because they were unnecessary to the war effort.” (Deveaux)[7]

With war-time and post war events nearly strangling the music industry, bebop was a natural outgrowth. It started underground in response to the diminishing number of performance venues, while railing against “circumstances of large-scale instrumental recordings during the war” (Deveaux, 1997, 4.) It was a new form of art meant for “dedicated fans” rather than the masses. Bebop dared to go counter culture, creating a style of performance that was intimate and isolated “from the mainstream music world.” With its improvisational style, bebop also dared to fly off the composed page, creating something entirely original on the spot.

Like its predecessors, bebop was mainly an African American response, a kind of “anti-assimilationist movement towards white America, which (mostly) expressed the frustrations of African Americans in the music industry and society,” states Jason Waters, in African American Identity with Subculture (Bebop and Hip-Hop) “The formation of Bebop came about as a means of breaking the restrictive musical barriers of Blues and Jazz. Bebop was about freedom of expression through improvisation, dissonant chords and rapid tempos. It attempted to prove …a complex layering of intellect and masculine assertion.”

And it was controversial. Like the misconceptions about war trauma, bebop also got bad press. “Like ragtime, hot jazz, swing, free jazz, blues, rock, and rap – or, for that matter, twelfth-century polyphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – bebop was initially attacked as unmusical and immoral,” states Robert Walser. “Some jazz critics and musicians condemned the new style, but more damaging was the sensationalistic media coverage it received. (Walser, 1999, 278-302)

Indeed, with all of its complex origins, not to mention the music’s own complexity, bebop is difficult to describe or pin down. “A man can speak of the ‘heresy of bebop’ for instance, only if he is completely unaware of the psychological catalysts that made that music the exact registration of the social and cultural thinking of a whole generation of black Americans,” stated Bakara Amiri, a jazz critic. “The blues and jazz aesthetic, to be fully understood, must be seen in as nearly its complete human context as possible. People made bebop. The question the critic must ask is: why? But it is just this why of Negro music that has been consistently ignored or misunderstood; and it is a question that cannot be adequately answered without first understanding the necessity of asking it.” (Amiri, 1963, 11-20).

Springing up out of oppression and angst, at its core, bebop was a balm for war, which, as the populace began to heal, was soon transformed by some into cool, and then hard bebop. As the peak of pain began to subside, by the 1950s cool became a slower, more laid-back, less dissonant version of bebop, (also featuring more white musicians, and becoming known as a West Coast style.) One of Gillespie’s and Parker’s protégé’s Miles Davis soon began to create his own response to the times, leading to cool music such as “Sippin’ at Bells,” while Lennie Tristano and Tadd Dameron took a different route, Tristano more improvisational, Dameron rarely improvising. Then, as further transformation took place, iterations happened, moving towards hard bop (becoming an East Coast style), which was similar to bop, but edgier, (also piloted by Davis) with “Walkin” and the likes of Art Blakey and Horace Silver, with his amazing “The Preacher” piece. In the timeline was also Dave Bruebeck[8], who pioneered a new time signature. Later John “Trane” Coltrane, whose career launched in 1955, and, who played tenor, soprano, and alto saxophones and was a composer, surpassed even Davis with his accomplishments, leading to modal jazz and the avant-garde movement. In his short career, he also had played in different bands with Gillespie, Parker and Davis, gaining some of their “DNA.”

Looking at the ways in which the horrors of war affect society, leading to social and cultural upheaval, we can begin to see how a rebellious music like bebop could form, and transform, always restless, never settling down, into cool and hard bop, appealing to the needs of a generation. Just as the “widespread social trauma,” after World War I in Europe created the social disillusionment that led to many “artistic, literary, philosophical, musical, and cultural movements.”

In Trauma and Recovery, the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror, Judith Lewis Herman states: “The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving an event. The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called ‘doublethink,’ and which mental health professionals, searching for a calm, precise language, call ‘dissociation.’” (Herman, 1-2)

As dialectic to trauma, comingled with the oppression of African Americans, bebop, with its complicated alternations and dissonance was the American response to social and economic pressures following World War II, forever changing jazz – and history!

[Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30.  1950. Oil on canvas, 8′ 9″ x 17′ 3″(266.7 x 525.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music” – Adlous Huxley, English writer.

In his simply titled book Jazz, John Fordham remarks, ‘If swing was jazz that went to the public with open arms, bebop was jazz that turned its back on its audience.’ The period 1945-1960 in the history of jazz opens with the birth of bebop, and concludes with styles so rich and varied that categorization itself defies their musical purpose” Cool Jazz and Hard Bop, 1945-1960.

“…New York painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was an unquestionable leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His work …Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (above) exemplifies the careful balance between accident and control that characterizes both his art and the improvisational jazz of the period. Pollock…was an avowed jazz fan, often attending live performances at New York’s Five Spot club. Critic Ellen Landau notes the influence of jazz on Pollock’s painting: ‘As early as 1945…one prescient critic compared the ‘flare, spatter and fury’ of Pollock’s paintings to modern music…Pollock loved jazz…’rocking and rolling’ for days on end to Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, Dixieland, and bebop.’ …Abstract expressionism (which emerged in New York City in the mid-1940s) celebrated the ‘accidents’ that occur while painting and the glorification of the act of painting itself. The movement was also the first important school to declare independence from European styles and to influence art abroad.” (O’Meally 178-179)

Primary Sources
Associated Press. (2012) “Jazz mourns a master: Dave Brubeck’s distinctive beats redefined tradition,” Wenatchee World. Nation. Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012. P. B6.
Bakara, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi).(1963) “Jazz and the white critic,” Down Beat, August 15, 1963, pp. 16-17, 34; reprinted in LeRoi Jones, Black Music, Quill, New York, 1967, pp 11-20.
DeVeaux, Scott. (1997) The birth of bebop: a social and musical history. Berkeley: University of California Press. Ellison, Ralph, cited in The birth of bebop.
DeVeaux, Scott. Jazz, marking time in American culture.
Herman, Judith Lewis. (1992) Trauma and Recovery, the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Harper Collins.
O’Meally, Robert G., ed. (1998) “Cool Jazz and Hard Bop: Painting and Picturing the Jazz Experience.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 178-179.
Walser, Robert. (1999) Keeping time: readings in jazz history. New York: Oxford University Press. Excerpt from Dizzy Gillespie’s Autobiography To Be, Or Not … To Bop, with Al Fraser. New York: Doubleday, 1979. From pp.278-302 and facing p. 483.
Waters, Jason. (2010) “African American Identity with Subculture (Bebop and Hip-Hop).

Belgrad, Daniel, (1998) The culture of spontaneity: improvisation and the arts in postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
DeVeaux, Scott and Gary Giddins. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

[1] Kenny Clarke’s “breakthrough” technique shows how drumming styles changed with bebop, characterized by the ride cymbal sound and the bass drum, a break from the “heavy” swing beat.
[2] The bebop generation included such names as Bird (Charlie Parker), Diz (Dizzy Gillespie,) Klook (Kenny Clarke), and Monk (Thelonious Monk)
[3] Charlie Parker was born in 1920, so grew up in the same time period as Gillespie.
[4] In her article, “The Relationship Between War and Music: A Rally of Words,” Anna Winwood states: “Throughout time, music has been a key tool for people to express and relate their feelings. Many emotions are portrayed through music. These emotions may vary from sad and depressed to happy and reminiscent. Music has a way of capturing and sharing all of these emotions and feelings. This is ever so present in war and violence. It has been recorded that for centuries, when soldiers were going into battle, they would do so in song. If they were to win the battle, they would sing songs of joy. If they were to lose the battle, they would sing songs of mourning. Regardless, music and war have always been closely tied together.”
[5] Deveaux and Giddons. Jazz. P. 274.
[6] Dizzy Gillespie died in 1993, and Miles Davis died in 1992, two witnesses to bebop’s birth, who are no longer with us.
[7] From “Jazz, marking time in American culture,” On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians ordered its members to stop making records- other than the “V” discs intended for servicemen- until record companies agreed to pay them each time their music was played commercially. Capitol and Decca record companies settled, Victor and Columbia records held out, but musicians would not return to the studios for over two years.
[8] Sadly, Bruebeck passed away Dec. 5, 2012 of a heart attack, one day before he would have been 92.

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