Bebop: How Black Jazz Musicians Created a New Genre

todayFebruary 25, 2022 140 6

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By Jared Dudley
Music Journalist

In 1941, throughout New York City, the next generation of jazz musicians gathered night after night, performing experimental sessions that would last well into the early hours of the morning. Having already been regarded as some of the best performers in the world, the musicians had no problem filling seats for their official concerts and disregarded the commercial viability of the music made during their late-night sessions.

They were tired of the conventional swing jazz and attempted to expand the boundaries of the genre. At the time, this experimental music, created by players like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Parker, was known amongst the club scene as “musician’s music.” Soon, the new sub-genre would set the world on fire and adopt a catchier name derived from scat singing: it would be known as bebop.

Much like the structure of the early sessions themselves, bebop was formless. Swing music rose to national popularity during the 1930s due to the genre’s danceability. Improvisation was common in the melodies, but swing jazz ensembles would almost always stick to a refined structure. The emphasis of the off-beat created foot-tapping jams that got crowds across the country into a groove and formed the backbone of popular music from the time.

However, that danceability came with restrictions. The music would have to be predictable so that even the most casual music enjoyers could join in at dance halls and concerts. The music could not change tempo sporadically, or be too fast in general, lest you risk dancers losing the beat.

For those pioneers of bebop in 1941, these constraints proved to be too restrictive. While enjoyable in its own right, swing music had stagnated jazz. This sentiment was shared among many of the top musicians in New York City. They gathered at Minton’s Playhouse, a popular jazz venue in Harlem, to begin informally recording their late-night sessions.

Bebop was stuck with the early label of “musician’s music” due to its lack of danceability. It featured extraordinarily complex syncopated rhythms, articulate improvisation, and lacked a traditional harmonic structure. In stark contrast to swing, the experimental jazz sounded sporadic and nervous, even hostile to new listeners. It was nearly impossible to dance to music that seemingly changed tempo and key at a whim. Bebop required intensive listening by audience members to find beauty in the chaos of sound.

There was little marketability in this fresh style of music, so it was largely ignored by record labels in the early 1940s. It was made purely for the musicians who wanted to push the boundaries of what was thought to be possible with their instruments. However, the “musician’s music” quickly made a meteoric impact on the NYC jazz scene.

There was much confusion over what to call this emerging style, as the onomatopoeia-esque words “rebop” and “bebop” were used interchangeably during the time. My favorite story of how the bebop name stuck comes from Dizzy Gillespie, best known for being one of the greatest trumpeters to ever live. Gillespie stated that his audiences coined the term, after hearing him scat nonsense words along with the music. “People, when they’d wanna ask for those numbers and didn’t know the name, they’d ask for bebop.”

By 1946, bebop had become an established movement at the forefront of jazz. More musicians began cementing the sound first created by Charlie Parker and his peers. Bebop was playing at larger venues and gaining significant radio exposure. Major record labels caught on that there proved to be a market for this “modern jazz” and Gillespie became the first musician to sign a deal with RCA Bluebird to record bebop tracks, most notably “52nd Street Theme,” a piece originally composed by Thelonious Monk.

As the ’40s rolled into the ’50s, the sound became more refined and gave way for further experimentation. In the late 1950s, free jazz, a purely improvisational sub-genre pioneered by Ornette Coleman on his aptly titled 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, was the new avant-garde sensation of the music world.

Through the genius of jazz pioneers, the genre cemented itself as a historical testament to the creativity and ingenuity of Black American artists. They were at the forefront of the music world and influenced a manifold of works during their lifetime and long after. The inspirational lineage of countless artists can be traced back to those initial sessions at Minton’s Playhouse where young jazz players with a new sense gathered. Eager to play jazz as freely as they wished, they competed with each other until at last, they created a new genre itself and set the world on fire.

Written by: ktsw899

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