Preceding Bebop, the swing era spanned between the 1930s and 40s and was arguably at its peak functioning as popular music of the time.
Swing and Big Bands styles were predominant at this time as they offered entertainment for previously repressed individuals. The style became a symbol of hope and dreams of freedom. When America joined World War II in 1941, it is said that the culture of swing jazz musicians went to war with the rest of society as many musicians were drafted.
Because of this, many Big Bands began to dissolve. Additionally, other war-imposed expenses were problematic for Big Bands. Examples of these include rationed Gas, Reduced Club hours and also an entertainment tax. These expenses caused Big Bands to become more constraining on musicians and as a result, many musicians became frustrated and left.
The Recording Ban spanned from 1942 to 1944. The Ban prohibited commercial musicians from recording and distributing new records. Due to the Recording Ban, many musicians were failing to make a living and were forced to leave the scene.
While the agreement was eventually met, the years in between the recording ban were Bebop’s formative years. In 1944, when the Recording Ban was lifted, Bebop had become a fully developed style of Jazz. It is proposed that the Early Bebop founders were helped by the Recording Ban as they no longer had to focus on commercial success and were able to experiment.
Minton’s Playhouse was widely regarded as one of the predominant Bebop birthplaces. Established by Henry Minton, Minton’s Playhouse was located on 118th Street in Harlem.
Minton’s Playhouse permitted entry to coloured musicians and let Musicians hold extended jam sessions in small ensembles; the result of these Jam sessions was the artistic form of Jazz now known as Bebop.
Charlie “Bird” Parker and John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie are widely regarded as the Founding Fathers of Bebop. Charlie Parker (Charles Parker Jnr) was born on 29 August 1920 in Kansas City. Growing up in one of the hot beds of American Jazz culture, Parker soon became fascinated with Jazz in his mother buying Parker an old second-hand Alto Saxophone. Young Parker’s most notable influence was Lester Young, It is said that Parker would memorise many of Young’s solos. At age 16, Charlie Parker arrived at a Jam session which would result in humiliation and his burning passion to improve. Many of the musician’s from Count Basie’s Big Band appeared at the Jam Session, in particular, drummer Jo Jones.
Many Accounts retell the end of the Jam session caused by a frustrated Jo Jones “lifting his cymbal off its stand and sending it crashing to the floor”. Leaving the Jam, a humiliated Parker announced “I’ll fix those cats. Just wait and see”. After that, Parker practised relentlessly to improve his technique albeit fuelled by many different types of drugs including heroin.
“In some ways, he was like Picasso, ever searching for new ways of expression”.
It was upon meeting Dizzy Gillespie that Parker’s Rise to fame began·.
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (Born John Birks Gillespie) was born on 21 October 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina. The nickname ‘Dizzy’ was given to him due to his unusual playing techniques. Gillespie was self-taught and was believed to have a different view of technique than his other contemporaries. By age 22, Gillespie was a member, arranger and composer for the Cab Calloway Big Band. However, in 1941 due to the growing restrictive atmosphere of the ensemble and a personal misunderstanding with Calloway, Gillespie was removed from the band. While still playing in other Big Bands, Gillespie had found sudden artistic freedom. With this freedom he began to start experimenting with the ethnic styles of Cuban and African music. In this time, Dizzy Gillespie was attending jam sessions in New York and playing with other open-minded musicians such as Charlie Parker.
Parker and Gillespie met as members of the Earl Hines Big Band in 1942. The men admired different aspects of their contemporaries’ musical prowess; Parker, Gillespie’s tone and harmonic knowledge and Gillespie, Parker’s flexibility. Parker and Gillespie were again united when they played in the Billy Ekstine Band 1944. Fragments of a style yet to be proclaimed Bebop would start to develop through Gillespie’s arrangements for Ekstine and additionally through Parker and Gillespie’s playing. Since playing such bands, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker formed a close musical partnership. The two began to attend Jam sessions together in nightclubs such as Minton’s Playhouse to collaborate on new musical ideas. Moreover, the two men complimented each other’s playing styles. Gillespie was said to be extroverted on stage, Parker was there to support him with a laid-back approach to playing.
While working at Dan Wall’s Chili House in Harlem 1939, Charlie Parker claimed he had a major epiphany. He believed there could be a new way to play Jazz. Parker claimed “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.”
Upon some further experimentation, Parker realised to achieve his vision he would modify the musical components of ‘Cherokee’ through using chord extensions as a melody accompanied with original chords. This Resulted in Parker’s “Ko-Ko”. While Recording Ko-Ko under Savoy records in 1945, Parker and his ensemble was warned by the label not to include the original ‘Cherokee” melody (whether altered or otherwise) to avoid copyright issues. These unique creations would later be known as ‘Contrafacts’ and grow to be a respected method of musical composition.
The characteristics of Bebop present a difference to that of the Swing Era. The label of ‘Bebop’ originated from a phonetic imitation of Bebop’s sporadic melodic lines. While the general public coined the label Bebop, many musicians of the time entitled their style ‘modern jazz’. The characteristics of Bebop showed a discernible advancement in musical theory and improvisational techniques as musicians began to implement new changes into their music.
Such music focused on the musical elements of Rhythm, Harmonic structure and Improvisation. Many Musicians began to compose Contrafacts through the process of substituting original melodies with complex rhythmical and increasingly chromatic new melodies as well as reharmonizing original chordal structures. Composers additionally began to substitute unusual chords into harmonic progressions to add texture to a tune; this was implemented by adding dissonant chords and adding Tritone substitutions. Additionally, from this new style developed a stronger focus on individual improvisation. Solos evolved into extended, multiple-chorus solos. This view of improvisation set light on individual achievement without the need of complex arrangements. While the freedom in ensembles was refreshing for musicians, public audiences were not as receptive to the new style of Jazz. To the general public, Bebop sounded uncontrollable and vulgar. Moreover, audiences found it hard to relate to the new style as Bebop as it was awkward to dance and sing to.
Jazz had additionally become linked to excessive drug usage and drinking as well as problematic issues like racism. Many Beboppers of the time began to use heroin as an intravenous drug. Charlie Parker was among these people. The radical increase of drug and alcohol issues resulted in many musicians to be taken into rehabilitation therapy. There were many reasons for these Jazz musicians to turn to drugs for release; some include the need for mental stimulation to improve performance and to dullen emotions. The distribution of drugs in the late 1940’s became so prominent that a rumour began to spread that heroine usage would make a musician play like Charlie Parker. In response to such claims, Gillespie belittled the use of drugs to enhance musical performance. It is said that in Los Angeles, the first three melody notes of Bird’s ‘Parker’s Mood’ were whistled as a code within the drug community to buy and sell drugs.
The public wasn’t receptive to the idea of bebop. While Swing was performed to entertain an audience in large groups, Bebop was thought of as a musical form of art, expressed by each individual. Bebop additionally was aimed to challenge musicians with a focus on refined technique and a strong push on improvisation.
Due to the unhealthy habits of Popular Bebop musicians and racial tension of the time, the public began to associate Bebop with drug use and Civil Rights ‘Propaganda’. This made various nightclubs hesitant to advertise performances and denied Bebop promotion.
Moreover, Bebop also overlapped with protest as African Americans began campaigning for equal rights in what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Much of the public perceived Bebop as a new form of protest music where in reality the Bebop musicians wanted to create a music unique to their heritage where they could challenge the social stereotypes of what was considered a ‘coloured’ musician while additionally demanding to be taken seriously as virtuosic Musicians, despite race and colour. East Coast record companies did not offer help to the struggling art form as they would only record Bebop with white artists. In reality however, it should be known that many more Swing musicians were involved in radical political activism compared to those of Bebop musicians. Moreover, Bebop musicians were commonly known to reject social normalities of westernized Christianity in favour of an Islamic tradition. By taking on new identities, they could no longer be regarded as African American people and instead stand against segregation by challenging racial identity.
After the Recording Ban had been lifted in 1945, Bebop began to circulate the public eye. The Recording Ban made Bebop seem like a sudden outburst of protest. The public was bewildered when Bebop came into prominence as it was considered renegade in comparison to the sweet music of the Swing Era. However, Despite the unfavourable public opinion of Bebop. Bop musicians continued to play their new style. Despite the negative public view of Bebop, the style became a defining era of Jazz.
“By creating a new music, adapting a renegade style, asserting their intelligence, and demanding to be treated as artists, young African-American musicians forged a cultural politics that challenged all at once the banality of popular swing music, the complacency of older musicians, and a system of economic exploitation and cultural expropriation by whites in the music business. In doing so, they helped forge a subculture that distanced itself from and challenged the mainstream.”