Listening to bebop

Bebop was the beginning of modern jazz. Starting in the 1940s, young jazz musicians began to bust out of jazz that was solely a jazzy version of the blues or of standard tunes taken from shows. Instead, they began to explore a music that was both rhythmically and harmonically more complex, syncopated and dissonant. There’s long been a joke that this was done by Black musicians to discourage White ones from copying them. Some truth to that, but also this was the Young Turks saying “Try this, old man” to the players (Black and White) ahead of them in the pecking order of big bands. Bebop’s heyday was from about 1948 to the death of Charlie Parker in 1955. But it’s influence has been permanent — people still play bebop and you can hear its influence today, if not all that frequently anymore.

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Our listening starts out with 3  versions of Embraceable You, a Gershwin tune from a 1928 unpublished operetta that was repurposed for the 1930 film Girl Crazy where Ginger Rogers sang it. I couldn’t find a recording of that. Instead, I’ve used a Doris Day version from the late ‘50s as a proxy for that. Spotify also has a Judy Garland version. So this is a standard as such – not jazzed up. Then Billie Holiday applies the swing treatment, as well as the vocal approach first pioneered by Armstrong. I’ll refrain from describing that – see what you think. Lastly, a late ‘40s version with Charlie Parker on alto. You’ll see how it departs from both of the others after a perfunctory nod to the original. Listen to how Parker ornaments the melody and the melodic line in his solos – about half the notes are just there to approach the key notes from above and below. A little bit like Baroque trills.

After that, Woody ‘n You, a Coleman Hawkins number from the ‘44s. He’s best known for the classic swing jazz Body and Soul, which it’s no exaggeration to say led to the tenor being the main jazz horn, replacing the trumpet. Hawkins was a transitional figure and this cut shows that. While Hawkins is more rooted in the ‘30s, he has some young Turks like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford on this date. You can literally hear both swing and bebop, sometimes on the same solo. Not that there’s a giant wall between the two – bebop is definitely built on swing rhythm.

Next I threw in Bud Powell’s Bouncin’ with Bud. He was a bebop piano giant. This is a ‘49 recording. Fats Navarro on trumpet is like Hawkins as a transitional figure, but the very young Sonny Rollins (tenor) and Roy Haynes (drums) are young beboppers who would go on to become giants of the post-bebop era. Now we’re starting to get into mainstream bebop.

Then we move on to Thelonious Monk, also from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. If Dizzy was bebop’s great trumpeter, and Parker it’s great sax player, than Monk was its most influential piano player. Except almost nobody plays like Monk – so it’s more about influence than emulation. ‘Round Midnight begins to show how bebop translated the blues. Epistrophy and Ruby My Dear show off Monk’s quirky style. The two most notable things are the heavily syncopated rhythms and the extensive use of discord. But as a thought experiment, if you have any old Duke Ellington records, and Duke plays any solos, compare his playing to Monk’s.

Next, Parker’s Confirmation, one of his most famous tunes, from 1946. This is pure bebop. Listen to the keys in the background, you’ll hear there are a lot of chord changes. Bebop is a lot about that.. Yardbird Suite is another typical Bird (his nickname, short for Yardbird) tune. The theme is stated up front, then all the solos are based on the chords behind those themes, not the themes themselves. In other words, alternate melodies to the same harmony. All improvised on the spot. BTW, I think this is the original 1946 version featuring a very young and raw Miles Davis on trumpet.

Then we finish up with Dizzy Gillespie, who was possibly the most virtuousic of them all. I have heard recordings where he plays at around 280 beats a minute, which is actually faster than I can tap my fingers. Diz was a character and an entertainer and songs like Salt Peanuts were part of the whole beatnik culture. Before bebop, jazz was a very social music — people danced to it, couples went to nightclubs to hear it. Early in bebop, as players realized dancers weren’t hitting the floor, they tried ways to preserve it’s entertainment value. Eventually, it seems, they gave up on anything but the pure music. Groovin High is another bebop classic. Night in Tunisia was a pioneer in putting the bass upfront with a heavily syncopated line. Diz also enjoyed music outside the southern Black tradition, and this is an example. Manteca is another, and was part of the first great meeting of Latin and American jazz. Lastly we end with Diz’s version of Duke’s Caravan, and then the original, a ‘30s number, for contrast.