Bebop's Birth into the Jazz Scene

Bebop jazz was born from the unique difficulties faced by jazz musicians during World War II. Because of limitations on many aspects of the jazz world, the growth of bebop coincided with the breakdown of big band jazz as the leading style.

Jazz, like any art form, constantly evolves. The current generation matures and a fresher new generation comes of age. Innovative and vital musical ideas become mainstream or completely tapped out when players exploit the full range of possibilities.

In its prime, big band swing, which grew out of New Orleans and Chicago jazz, became commercial music for dancing and entertainment. Bands such as Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's still had some of their most creative years ahead of them, but for the most part, by the beginning of World War II, the best musicians looked for a fresh approach.

Swing loses its vitality and audience

The birth of bebop coincided with World War II. The war adversely affected many aspects of the entertainment world:

  • The draft removed tens of thousands of American men from swing jazz's ballroom scene, as well as from the bands.
  • Gas and rubber shortages curtailed road trips — the means by which many bands made their livings.
  • Midnight curfews shut down clubs and ballrooms during their prime hours.
  • An amusement tax as high as 20 percent in some cities raised the cost of operating venues.
  • Racism made it tough for black musicians to tour; they had to stay in separate hotels, eat in different restaurants, and were excluded from performing at various venues.
  • From 1942 to 1944, the recording ban removed new records as an important source of a big band's income and exposure.

The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) instigated the recording ban in a dispute over royalties. The ban applied only to instrumental music. The AFM ordered its members not to record until major recording companies met demands that royalties be paid not only for the sale of records but also for use of the music by radio stations and on jukeboxes. The process took two years before all the big recording labels met the demands and recording resumed. Unfortunately, this lapse meant that most of bebop's important early performances were never caught on tape.

Some big bands did survive, however. For instance, Count Basie and Duke Ellington kept their bands going through the '40s, '50s, and '60s. But for every band that managed to keep going, several broke up. Even the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, redirected his energies to performing in small groups instead of leading a big band. Eventually, too, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and other leaders found ways to bebop with their big bands.

Bebop's distinct traits emerge

Bebop was revolutionary music that emerged in New York City beginning around 1940. Whereas big band swing had the faith of the American masses, bebop went against the grain with its 180-degree shift of priorities.

Some young boppers appreciated the swing of bands led by drummer Chick Webb or pianist Count Basie but preferred the more innovative music of Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw's orchestras. They also studied the music of pianist Art Tatum and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins who had already explored advanced harmonies, altered chords, and chord substitution — all hallmarks of bebop.

Bebop marked a departure from swing in every essential element. Here are its characteristics:

  • Improvisational: The song's melody was only stated once at the beginning and end. Improvisers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie traded improvisations, replacing the battling horn sections of big bands.
  • Small-group music: Bebop often utilized a rhythm section of bass, drums, and piano, plus trumpet, and saxophone.
  • Speed: Bebop played at break-neck speeds; even on slow ballads, the solos sped wildly.
  • Brash and harsh: To the unskilled ear, the music sounded this way, even if it was actually carefully structured.
  • Complex rhythms: Musicians improvised rhythmic patterns around the basic beat and around each other.
  • Rapid series of chords: Instead of being built around just a few chords as in New Orleans jazz and most big band swing, bebop used rapid series of chords, many of them altered from their standard form. Passing chords, inserted between the basic chords, added texture and complexity.
  • Drastically changed role for the instruments: Bop drummers shifted primary timekeeping duties from bass drum to cymbals and snare, lending the music a lighter, effervescent aura. They began playing multiple overlapping rhythms (polyrhythms).

Bebop becomes a statement of black identity

For some black musicians, bebop became a statement of black identity, at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning. The NAACP organized its Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1939. Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son gave a bleak account of conditions for blacks in America. In 1941, Bernard Rustin, who later organized the March on Washington, launched a New York branch of the Congress on Racial Equality. In the past, white musicians appropriated the best ideas from black New Orleans and Chicago jazz. White swing bands including Benny Goodman's enjoyed commercial success with music that included many ideas and players taken from African-American big bands. Black bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson even became Goodman's arranger.

As the black beboppers staked new ground, they risked rejection by their public, peers, and critics to make music so fast and technically demanding that it was difficult to understand and nearly impossible to copy. Compared with the sweet, melodic sounds of big band swing, bebop had little commercial potential.

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