Bebop, sometimes referred to as bop, was an influential jazz style that emerged in the early 1940s. It was particularly associated with African-American musicians, prominent among whom were trumpeter John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, drummer Kenny Clarke and many others. Although drawing upon earlier jazz practices, principally from the Swing Era, bebop embodied a profoundly experimental moment in the development of jazz. Its leading innovators challenged prevailing trends in commercial swing music and diverged from the shift towards rhythm and blues that occurred in American popular music after World War II. Fundamental to later developments in jazz, bebop signaled an intention to move jazz away from the popular culture of the day and closer to the intellectual status accorded to art music.
Several oral histories indicate that the terms ‘bebop’ and ‘bop’ were first linked to Dizzy Gillespie’s onomatopoeic verbalization of the music. Syllabic phonemes common in jazz by the early 1940s – be, doo, dee, da, bop, and others – stem from scat vocals of the 1920s and early 1930s, such as Louis Armstrong’s vocal improvisations on his recordings of ‘Heebie Jeebies’ and ‘West End Blues.’ By the 1930s, Cab Calloway and others had crafted entire performance approaches around such sounds (for example ‘Zah Zuh Zah’). Gillespie and other early beboppers performed in Calloway’s group, providing an important link to the emergence of syllabic phonemes in early bop culture. Combined with humor and irony, such onomatopoeia helped to codify ‘bebop’ within the jazz press and fueled humorous, and often troubling, depictions of the bop subculture.
Although bebop was to become part of mainstream jazz discourse by the mid-1940s, it initially developed on the margins of the New York jazz scene. After-hours jam sessions in Harlem and Midtown Manhattan acted as laboratory-like social spaces for musicians to explore ideas that departed from the codified expectations of swing. The most important jam sessions were held at Monroe’s Uptown and the musician-owned Minton’s Playhouse, both small cabaret-style jazz clubs in Harlem that catered to musicians and a devout clientele interested in intimate performances. Pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke led the ‘house’ trio at Minton’s. Older, more established musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams and others participated in these jam sessions, providing important inter-generational influences that rooted bebop innovation within a larger historical framework.
Many bop musicians began their professional careers performing with Swing Era big bands during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Historically important big bands include the Billy Eckstine Orchestra – Eckstine was particularly supportive of young beboppers – and the blues-inflected Kansas City-based band led by Jay McShann, which featured Charlie Parker in the early 1940s. In general, however, the increasing codification of the ‘swing’ style and the growing commercialization of Swing Era jazz prompted many young musicians to seek alternative contexts to explore new musical ideas. As bebop became more common in New York, the clubs along Midtown Manhattan’s famed 52nd Street (known informally as ‘Swing Street’) played host to many bop acts. By 1943, several bop pioneers held regular engagements along 52nd Street, including Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie (DeVeaux 1988, 150–1).
The late 1930s and early 1940s witnessed several developments in the American popular music industry that impacted on bebop’s emergence. A dispute over royalties between the major radio networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Mutual) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) led to a 1941 strike preventing ASCAP controlled music from being played on the radio. Although the radio networks created an alternative to ASCAP by forming Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI) in 1939, virtually all major jazz composers and music publishers were members of ASCAP and subject to having their music withdrawn from radio play. This was coupled with a ban on recording instituted by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 1942 by its president James C. Petrillo. Lasting nearly two years, Petrillo’s ban was aimed at implementing a more thorough royalty collection process for radio broadcasters and juke box owners. The ban prevented AFM members – which included virtually all of the emerging beboppers – from recording, thereby putting intense pressure on record labels to sign agreements that would ensure a higher portion of royalties were granted to musicians. Many of the successful big bands of the time were forced to reconfigure under the name of vocalists, who were not among the ranks of AFM union membership.
Economic pressure brought on by World War II further complicated matters, leading to the rationing of shellac – a key material in the production of 78 rpm records - and stress on the jazz market. For the development of bebop, the ban created a historical schism. Many of the young musicians associated with bop’s emergence were first recorded while playing with popular dance bands just prior to the ban. Indications of an emerging stylistic shift can be heard during occasional solo sections of swing arrangements in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The crucial years of 1942 through 1944 went largely undocumented on recordings. When the ‘Petrillo ban’ was lifted in 1944, bop ‘suddenly’ appeared on recordings, creating the illusion that it sprang to life fully formed, and thereby masking its gradual evolution toward small ensembles and new melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.
Leading up to and during this period, the market share of the three largest jazz-oriented record labels – Decca, Columbia and Victor – was challenged by several new companies, such as Capitol Records and the Royale and Varsity imprints of the U.S. Record Corporation. These and smaller boutique labels like Dial, Hit, Commodore, Blue Note, Savoy, Bluebird, Signature and others were more accommodating to the new bebop style. Some of the labels, such as Ross Russell’s Dial, were specifically focused on releasing bebop recordings.
By the mid-1950s, bebop musicality was prevalent in many jazz contexts, in both small groups and big bands. Although rhythm and blues largely replaced Swing Era jazz as America’s popular music in the years after World War II, many bebop musicians achieved varying degrees of success in the music industry. Figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis led extremely successful groups over the following decades.
The musical trademarks of bebop include rapid tempos, emphasis and alteration of chord extensions, angular phrasing, heightened group interaction, and virtuosic improvisation based on cyclical harmonic structures (‘chord changes’). These and other elements evolved in large part from Swing Era jazz practices. Indeed, many fundamental aspects of bebop were continued relatively unchanged from preceding trends in the music, such as the prevalence of swing drum rhythms, the ‘walking’ bass line, the ‘head arrangement’ common in jazz from Kansas City, the dominance of solo (rather than collective) improvisation, and the use of 32-bar and 12-bar song forms. The continued evolution of solo improvisation in bop reflects the gradual development of the jazz soloist, whose roots trace back to early jazz in New Orleans.
Despite such continuities, bebop also departed from many of the jazz orthodoxies of the early 1940s. One of the most striking differences was the frequent use of fast tempos, sometimes reaching more than 300 quarter notes per minute. In part, this reflected a shift in the social function of jazz from being principally one of providing accompaniment to dancing (in the Swing Era) to one of providing opportunities for individualized listening. Faster tempos also embodied new technical challenges that illustrated new kinds of virtuosities associated with bop. A related phenomenon was ‘double time’ phrasing (improvising at twice the given tempo of a song), which had its roots in flashy ‘trick’ playing developed by certain musicians of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Kansas City saxophonist Buster Smith (who had a profound influence on Charlie Parker).
Taking forward earlier approaches to jazz improvisation pioneered by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and others, bebop musicians tend to emphasize the extensions of chords: the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. They frequently alter these extensions, creating more chromaticism, harmonic color, and tension in the music. These strategies are found in improvisations (Example 1) as well as composed melodies (Example 2).
Bop musicians also developed a new, more angular approach to melodic phrasing. This includes wide intervallic leaps, such as that heard throughout the melody of Dizzy Gillespie’s and Kenny Clarke’s ‘Salt Peanuts’ (Example 3).
A heightened level of interaction between performers – especially during improvisation – also emerged in early bop practice. In her influential book Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (1996), Ingrid Monson uses the linguistic metaphor of ‘conversation’ to describe the interactivity common in bebop. This interactivity is supported in part by the expansion of instrumental performance practices that emerged in the early and mid-1940s. The piano accompaniment (‘comping’) for soloists became more varied, communicative, and in dialogue with the emergent, real-time structure of solos. Bop pianists such as Monk, Powell, Al Haig, Tadd Dameron, Sadik Hakim, Duke Jordan and John Lewis developed highly personalized comping styles that have remained influential among contemporary jazz pianists.
The performance practice of the drumset also expanded tremendously during the early years of bebop. Although basic swing-style eighth notes continued to function as the basis of many jazz drum grooves, the snare drum, bass drum and general level of interaction with other members of groups were transformed by early bop drummers, principally Kenny Clarke. Clarke moved away from playing ‘four on the floor’ (quarter note patterns) on the bass drum common in swing bands; instead, he played the bass drum in a looser, more spontaneous and improvised fashion, using it and the snare drum to accent and encourage soloists. Clarke also introduced the phenomenon of the ‘bomb,’ a sudden load accent from the drumset intended to catalyze and encourage group energy and interaction. This kind of interactivity was a key element in the performance styles of other bebop drummers, such as Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Stan Levey.
Drawing upon the tradition established by small group pioneers like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and others prominent during the 1930s, beboppers were inventive interpreters of jazz standards. A striking example of this is Charlie Parker’s 1948 recording of ‘Embraceable You.’ While using the harmonic structure of the song, Parker omits the melody and instead offers a remarkably creative and varied improvisation, in effect creating a new piece. Such a radical reworking of well-known standards through the use of improvisation is presaged by earlier examples, such as Coleman Hawkins’s 1939 recording of the classic ‘Body and Soul,’ which similarly dispenses with the original melody.
Bop musicians also recreated jazz standards by modifying chord structures and replacing recognizable melodies with highly complex, technically dazzling improvisation-like melodies. Well-known examples of this include Parker’s ‘Ornithology’ (based on ‘How High the Moon,’ a Broadway show-tune of the 1940s written by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton), Miles Davis’s ‘Donna Lee’ (based on ‘Indiana,’ written in 1917 by James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald and popularized in jazz during the 1920s and 1930s), and Gillespie’s ‘Groovin’ High’ (based on ‘Whispering’ by John Schonburg, which was Paul Whiteman’s theme during the 1920s) and ‘Hot House’ (based on Cole Porter’s classic ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’).
Interestingly, bebop arrangements tended to be less complex than those developed by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and other pioneering jazz composer/arrangers of the 1920s and 1930s. A typical bebop arrangement included an introduction, a statement of the melody, extended solo sections usually based on the harmonic structure of the melody, a restatement of the melody, and a variety of standard concluding devices. In this manner, the majority of small group bebop arrangements functioned as vehicles for improvisation, allowing considerable space for extended solos that tended to vary considerably between performances. This arranging approach has had a profound influence on many subsequent jazz styles and continues to be prevalent in contemporary ‘mainstream’ or ‘straight-ahead’ jazz.
Despite this emergent orthodoxy, individual bebop performance styles vary considerably. These include the melodic lyricism of Gillespie, Parker, Powell and the scat vocalizing of Ella Fitzgerald; the more dissonant, disjunct approach of Thelonious Monk; the understated melodic phrasing of the young Miles Davis; and the highly interactive drum approaches of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Several big bands emerged embodying the new bebop language, such as Billy Eckstine’s band (which featured many of the young bebop figures) and Gillespie’s big band of the late 1940s and 1950s. By the late 1950s, many of the remaining big bands incorporated bop phrasing and harmonies into their arranging and improvisational styles. Several bebop musicians also began incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythms. Sometimes called ‘cubop,’ prominent examples include Powell’s ‘Un Poco Loco’ and Gillespie’s collaborations with Cuban conguero Chano Pozo (for example, ‘Manteca’ and ‘Cubana Be Cubana Bop’). This can be heard as early as Gillespie’s and Parker’s 1945 version of ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ a song that incorporates an Afro-Cuban drum rhythm and alludes to new African diasporic sensibilities activated through jazz.
Soon after the emergence of bebop a lively debate emerged in the jazz press and amongst certain groups of musicians about its legitimacy as a viable jazz style. Despite the important role that older jazz musicians played in its evolution, this debate was typically generational and pitted beboppers, or ‘moderns,’ against the so-called ‘moldy figs,’ musicians, critics and listeners who felt strongly that jazz styles from the Swing Era and the 1920s were musically superior. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and other well-known jazz figures publicly criticized bebop, deriding it as unmusical and cult-like. In a 1948 interview for Down Beat magazine, Armstrong described the ‘weird chords’ played by the beboppers and highlighted a seeming lack of audience appeal, encouraging the musicians to play in a more historically conventional way. Although widespread, such criticisms had little effect on the evolution and endurance of these new performance practices.
Bebop also challenged the norms of Swing Era commercialism and reflected a new identity politics embodied by the younger generation of musicians. By the end of World War II, the Swing Era had seamlessly merged with American commercialism and nationalism. Radio advertisements and live performances frequently used jazz to market products, raise national morale and even sell War Bonds to the American public. Many young musicians felt pressure to replicate the stylistic characteristics common in the music’s commercial environment. Groups such as the Andrews Sisters, with their wartime jingles with a ‘swing’ feel, epitomized the mainstream codification of swing as a commercial music style. Bebop, on the other hand, redefined jazz’s relationship to this mainstream through its subverting of the dominant commercial codes; as Eric Porter argues, ‘bebop garnered new capital for jazz as a music that spoke to observers of social and cultural resistance’ (2002, 54).
One of the earliest historical analyses to interpret bebop in this manner is LeRoi Jones’s Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963). Like other African-American cultural critics associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Jones analyzed the commercial appropriation of swing in racial terms and framed bebop as a strategy to reclaim African-American identity within jazz. Beboppers, in Jones’s view, developed a highly symbolic ‘modern’ identity that challenged persistent racism in American culture and demonstrated a sophisticated intellectualism drawn from a myriad of sources of inspiration (especially literature and classical music) and in dialogue with other subcultures active in New York during the period (the Beats, Harlem Renaissance writers). In his book Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip-Hop, Guthrie Ramsey, Jr also shows how this sense of ‘afro-modernism’ is intimately connected to the Great Migration (the massive internal migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North), the Harlem Renaissance, and a re-theorizing of black identity that occurred during and after World War II.
During the 1940s many beboppers adopted a new sense of style reflecting the modernism and intellectualism central to their music. Gillespie’s now-iconic horn-rimmed glasses, beret and goatee are emblematic of this stylistic trend. Bebop gradually gained the attention of New York’s literary and cultural intelligentsia. For example, poet Jack Kerouac encountered bebop for the first time at Minton’s Playhouse (MacAdams 2001, 47) and as bebop acts began performing along Midtown Manhattan’s famed ‘Swing Street’ (52nd Street), many other young white writers and audiences associated with the burgeoning Beatnik movement became familiar with the music. In her essay ‘The Problem with White Hipness,’ Ingrid Monson argues that this context was ripe with a kind of primitivism built on assumptions about race, spontaneity and masculinity (1995, 398–9). In part, this is evidenced in the Beatnik celebration of bebop (and jazz more broadly) as an easily accessible and adaptable source of ‘authentic’ spontaneity. Interviewed in Ken Burns’s influential documentary Jazz, beat poet Allen Ginsburg illustrates this:
Since the 1940s, bebop has had a profound influence – direct and indirect – on almost all subsequent jazz styles. The 1950s witnessed two of the so-called ‘post-bop’ styles: cool jazz and hardbop. Pioneered by Miles Davis, Gil Evans and other younger members of New York’s bebop community, cool jazz combined the innovations of bop with a new sense of melodic and rhythmic understatement. By the late 1950s, cool jazz had become associated with Los Angeles and included important figures like Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Dave Brubeck (from San Francisco) and others.
Much of the jazz press pitted the West Coast cool jazz scene against an emergent trend in East Coast jazz – hardbop – that combined bop with new kinds of rhythmic and melodic intensity. Many figures associated with hardbop emerged from the jazz scenes of Philadelphia and Detroit, constituting a second wave of beboppers to arrive in New York. Clifford Brown, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Kenny Dorham, Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, Barry Harris, Mal Waldron, Charlie Rouse, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderly and Lee Morgan, were all associated with the development of the hardbop style.
The 1950s and 1960s produced a new generation of jazz musicians who identified with bebop yet took its earlier styles into inventive, previously unexplored directions. These figures had a profound impact on the development of contemporary jazz practice at the time and include trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Heath, pianists Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, guitarists Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery, bassist Ron Carter, drummers Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath and Tony Williams, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and many others. Some of these figures – and others from the earlier generation, such as Coltrane and Miles Davis – played important roles in the emergence of fusion and the jazz avant-garde, linking the bop lineage to two of the most controversial styles to emerge in jazz.
Like all preceding jazz styles, bebop had a major impact on music communities outside of the United States. Well-known bebop and bop-influenced musicians emerged from many countries around the world, including Austria (Joe Zawinul), Canada (Oscar Peterson and Renee Rosnes), Great Britain (Phil Seaman, Victor Feldman, Ronnie Scott and George Shearing), Denmark (Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson), Germany (Albert Mangelsdorff), Japan (Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sadao Watanabe), South Africa (Chris McGregor, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masakela), Spain (Tet Montoliu) and others.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a renewed interest in older bebop performance styles, prompted in part by the institutionalization of jazz in high school and college education and by the heightened public profile of jazz seen in public institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center. Stemming from initiatives begun in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s saw a considerable growth in jazz education in the United States, ranging from degree programs in colleges and universities to a multi-million dollar publication industry (that included performance and improvisation manuals, ‘fakebooks,’ solo transcriptions, etc.) At the same time, an increased level of support from a few major record labels helped create the ‘young lion’ phenomenon, a marketing strategy picked up by the jazz press that raised the public profile of several neo-bop figures emerging at this time, including Wynton Marsalis (who became artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center), Wallace Roney, Gerri Allen, Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, Robert Hurst and others. Other musicians less associated with the ‘young lion’ phenomenon also emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, including influential saxophonists Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Steve Coleman, and trumpeter Dave Douglas. By the mid-1990s, American music industry support for new recordings by these artists had waned significantly. Despite this, important figures continued to emerge who owe much to bebop performance practice. Notable bop-inspired musicians who emerged after the mid-1990s include saxophonists Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, James Carter, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Miguel Zenón, pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Brad Mehldau, Eric Reed, Kenny Werner, Renee Rosnes, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, bassists Christian McBride and Drew Gress, drummers Brian Blade and Eric Harland, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, violinist Regina Carter, and others.
The continued influence of bebop and its varied transformations suggests that it will remain one of the most important historical threads in the development of jazz. Although more commercial forms of jazz emerged in the late twentieth century, such as smooth jazz, bebop remained the strongest point of reference for new musical directions. As both an aesthetic model and a practical compendium of musical style, it has consistently commanded the attention of many young jazz players.
‘“Bop Will Kill Business Unless It Kills Itself First”– Louis Armstrong.’ Down Beat (7 April 1948): 2–3. (Reprinted 1999 in Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, ed. Robert Walser. New York: Oxford University Press, 151–5.)
Erenberg, Lewis. 1989. ‘Things to Come: Swing Bands, Bebop and the Rise of a Postwar Jazz Scene.’ In Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War , ed. Lary May. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 221–45.