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Why I Love Bebop

(written April, 2001)

    What intrigues me most about bebop is its crazy juxtapositions: its contradictory elements that somehow, like a great juggling act, magically hang in the air together.

    Bebop has a fascinating combination of contrasting textures. On the one hand, if you listen closely to the rhythm sections of bebop bands, you'll be surprised how extremely "blocky" the playing is. Bud Powell and other pianists of the time would frequently play for three or four measures in a row just big, clunky chords on 1 and 3, the strong beats of each bar. Sometimes the left hand would not even play chords, but two-note intervals in the baritone region outlining the voice-leading of the key notes of each harmonic progression in a bare, skeletal, structural way that would make any classical theory teacher of suspensions and resolutions smile.

    What about the rest of the rhythm section? Bebop drumming is mostly simple and four-square, and you'll often hear an uninterrupted walking bass line. A few years later, the Bill Evans Trio, with its more spacious harmonies and more flexible and lightly syncopated styles of piano, drums, and bass playing, began the liberation of the rhythm section that was made complete by all the fabulous players in Miles Davis' various groups in the 60's and beyond. By comparison, bebop had, at base, a blocky harmonic sound and heavy chord voicings.

    Yet this blockiness was intentionally so, made to contrast with the quicksilver, agile, fast-moving and zany improvised single-note lines going on all around these structural elements. Bebop's light-fingered, super-fast triplets, breath-taking chromatic and whole-tone scale runs, and arabesques of notes in new curved shapes jazz had never heard before, gave jazz a dexterity and a light virtuosity that served as a perfect counter-weight to the heavier elements in the harmonic realm. Indeed, maybe Charlie Parker and company wouldn't have soared so spritely over the more complicated and sophisticated piano, bass, and drum styles that have become the norm today at clubs and restaurants everywhere.

    There are all sorts of other marvelous balancing acts going on in bebop as well. Sure, they "discovered" the ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths that increased the color and expressivity of jazz's vocabulary, but their piquant and unexpected chords and melody notes were set in forms that were old-fashioned and, after a while, predictable. Wild spontaneity in the immediate moment, in the small-scale, was balanced by large-scale forms that were regular and easy to understand.

    If they took some melody such as Cherokee, which was comprised of super-simple whole notes going up and down, the boppers would perform it at an off-the-metronome lightning-fast pace so that their instrumental virtuosity gave the music an excitement, a visceral thrill, an irrationality that balanced the normalcy and plainness of the base melodic and harmonic ideas of the song.

    The play of heavy and light, simple and complex, detail and structure, plain and colorful: it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the major figures of the bebop movement had an appreciation of painting and the visual arts.

The Boppers as Romantics

    Thinking about bebop and how it compared to the jazz that preceded it reminds me of studying the classical music of the early romantic composers (the generation starting with Beethoven in the early 1800's). In this period, the ideal of unity and cohesion in music, which had dominated Western art for countless centuries, was suddenly replaced by upstart composers who celebrated heterogeneity and dramatic contrast. Several referred to a need to return to the wildness and irrationality of Nature.

    Where before, a composer would start any individual piece by establishing one particular texture and sound-language and sticking with it to the end, now this very basic assumption was undermined: musical textures that were stark opposites were allowed to coexist. Beethoven and the following Romantic composers, by undermining these assumptions of what you might call "ear security," created a new music that could possess a sense of strong psychological tension (and with tension, the opportunity for resolution) that wasn't there in medieval, Renaissance, baroque, or classical-period music of earlier centuries. Even more importantly, romantic music changed the way people listened to music, and in many ways bop did the same for jazz.

The Culture of Bebop

    Bebop began in late night jam sessions at Minton's in Harlem, and when we say late night, we're not talking about 11 pm. It started as musicians' music, experiments and innovations by a generation of instrumentalists who valued both thoughtfulness and spontaneity in music. It was well pointed out in Ken Burns' jazz documentary that "Dizzy" was (probably intentionally) mis-nicknamed, as Gillespie was without a shadow of a doubt a man of great intelligence.

    Burns' series claims that bebop grew out of free-lance musicians' frustrations with the aesthetics of their nightly big-band gigs, where they were expected to wear identical suits and partake in a fairly formal performance presentation. I don't know if this claim is historically accurate, but listening to the music, it rings true to me on a gut level. Big bands aimed more and more for a unified and smooth sound without unrehearsed surprises, much as Mozart and other composers of the classical period wanted music to flow like beautifully-hit billiard balls, to use one of Mozart's own analogies.

    Big bands were successful in attracting large audiences of dancers, but some of the musicians felt creatively starved. Jazz's origins - the blues and New Orleans traditional jazz - was anything but smoothly polished, and bebop musicians wanted to bring back the "edge" and excitement of spontaneous improvisation. Sure, Ben Webster's solo on Duke's "Cottontail" is fabulously inventive, but you can listen to several Ellington Orchestra recordings of that tune with Webster's solo nearly identical each time. Could this have been a result of making sure their large audience "got what they wanted"?

    So, the jazz musicians got off their band jobs that paid the rent and got together to play freer music, music that more honestly reflected their personalities. What do bebop tunes sound like? To me, they sound like a mess of short fragments. The tunes "Bebop" and "Oleo" are great examples of the phrasing style; lots of little 3-note and 2-note phrases strung together, with the occasional long phrase for contrast or surprise.

    I can certainly believe that this style originated from jam sessions, where free association reigns. We don't naturally think in large, beautifully constructed Shakespearean sonnets; we think in dribs and drabs, one short thought running crazily after another. Bebop's basic rhetoric may be frantic, but doesn't that more truly mirror our society, the way we think and feel?

    Burns portrays Dizzy Gillespie as one who badly wanted bebop music to have a mass audience, but failed in his attempts to accomplish this goal. Was Gillespie a tragic figure? I saw Dizzy at a club in New Haven, Connecticut in 1981, and it was a fairly sad scene: Diz had to resort to "Salt Peanuts" to get any reaction from the small, mostly bored audience. They say Dizzy had his wild side and was willing to dance around on stage and be an extrovert, but I don't think his personality was cut out to do this for extended stretches of time, as Armstrong, Ellington, and others could.

     On some recordings you can hear Dizzy speaking, and there's something in his tone of voice that reminds me of a fellow at a party who knows he's supposed to small talk, has the intelligence to pour on the fake charm, but his heart isn't really in it. Popular audiences may have their shortcomings, but they're quick to pick out the people who genuinely love to perform for the masses, and those who try to retain some distance, who aren't quite sure if they want to pay the price of "selling out.".

    Bebop's music was born in after-midnight jam sessions for a small circle of friends. It's not really big-stage music, it's domestic music, and perhaps Dizzy, deep down, knew that trying to create a mass market for bebop was not really possible.

Bebop's Revival

    It is a commonplace in the classical music world to quote the composer Gustav Mahler's comment "my time will come." Jazz educators report that young students are particularly interested in bebop, a trend that Don Glasgo, writing in the most recent issue of Jazz Improv magazine, traces back to Wynton Marsalis and other young players of his generation's interest in hard bop and in recreating past jazz styles they found admirable.

    Glasgo points out that jazz schools "know how to teach" hard bop, that teachers "know how to distill, isolate, analyze and quantify bebop ... take this lick, learn it in all 12 keys. Use this approach for playing bebop scales. Memorize it, practice it, internalize it ... we send students out knowing how to imitate and assimilate, but without knowing how to innovate. Why? Because it's very difficult to teach innovation, and we end up teaching what is easiest to teach: in this case, a codified style from 1945-1955."

    Glasgo blames the recording industry's financial interest in reissues and jazz education programs around the country for young jazz players living in the past, but I wonder if there isn't something inherently modern in bebop's deconstructionist style, the MTV way it makes a mosaic out of so many ungraspable fragments. Is it a coincidence that the word "cool" has re-entered the younger generation's vocabulary to such endemic proportions? Dizzy is everything modern clothing ads promote with such success: energetic and stylish, talking in a language that's a bit mysterious, a language one understands only partially, as if in a half-asleep dreanworld. Without mystery, there is no cool, and Dizzy certainly had his fair share of unfathomable weirdness. Back in the 1950's, of course, weirdness was a personality trait that prevented you from achieving popular success. Ironically, perhaps Dizzy would have a better chance of making millions from his music today than in his own time.

    For those of us who can do without modern marketing of style over content, we can simply enjoy bebop's significant contributions in the musical fields of harmony, rhythm, phrasing, and textures. Thanks to the combination of their innovative ideas, their high-wire individual virtuosity, and the strength of their improvisational skills, bebop music has an excitement to it that has rarely been matched. There's a method to the madness of bebop, and we all know it even if, huffing and puffing, we can't quite keep up with Bird and Diz no matter how many times we go to the gym.

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)