Bebop: Evolution or Revolution?

May 8, 2012

By Tom Barry,  Associate Professor of Social Sciences

From the earliest sounds of jazz coming out of New Orleans and its Congo Square, jazz has undergone much change.  Such changes, as with other areas of life, are a reflection of the historical landscape and its people, emerging technologies related to the production of music, as well as audience desires.

In the early 1930s, swing arose as jazz’s dominate form. As its name indicates, swing music “swings” by putting a shorter beat after a longer beat.  Aside from its music form, swing music was big band music.  Conductors such as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson orchestrated and directed their troupe of musicians.  Audiences were drawn to this sound and the energy coming from a stage with a band leader front and center.  While swing chartered new territory, it was politically conservative.  The major players in the music industry, including various companies located New York City’s Tin Pan Alley, popularized and standardized jazz.  Rather than seeking and rewarding innovation, the industry fostered replaceable, reproducible sounds.  The conservative nature of swing is also visible in the style – dress, mannerisms, and demeanor – of its musicians.

While swing music would get audiences stomping their feet and out on the dance floor, performers desiring artistic autonomy found it quite stifling.  Band leaders, the industry, and the audience directly and indirectly limited musicians to performing the notes on the page, denying them the space to explore and innovate.  Black musicians traded this limitation to gain status, freedom, and wages that were difficult to find elsewhere in a racially regressive society.  But after joining an orchestra, many found the wages were insufficient compensation for the exhaustive touring schedule.  The demanding work schedule, coupled with the inability to find much reprieve while traveling across a Jim Crow South and Midwest, left many in search of other options.

When performing in New York and other Northern urban centers, musicians found comfort in off-the-beaten-path clubs.  Musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk took their desire to experiment, explore, and expand music boundaries of the possible and impossible to the nightclub.  One of the most well known clubs was Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse.  At Minton’s and other clubs, these musicians were able to toss out the restrictions of swing and play what they wanted without being constrained by  either their big band boss or an audience desiring conventional sound.  In the wee hours of the morning, as the sun began to rise, musicians pushed the boundaries of jazz conventions, subverted the hierarchy of composer as Chief Executive Officer and performer as worker, and in the process created a new form of music called bebop.

Much debate exists among academics, critics, and jazz supporters about whether bebop was an evolution, an almost inevitable outcome from the trajectory of New Orleans style jazz to swing and beyond, or a revolution, a sudden, dramatic and paradigm shifting break from jazz and swing.  In The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History, Scott Knowles DeVeaux addresses arguments from both sides of this coin.  Rather than claim he has the answer, DeVeaux seeks to understand each position and who advances it.  Jazz writers, historians, and critics often take the evolutionary viewpoint.  These folks argue that bebop stands on the shoulders of earlier jazz and swing greats by moving the music in new but somewhat easily traceable directions.  The revolutionary perspective is espoused by those who view bebop as a music springing from a well of a racist society and oppressive music industry that brought musicians together who broke conventional musical codes and forged not just new ground but a new planet.

In the end, there is merit for both positions.   It was evolutionary in the sense that bebop musicians used their knowledge of and experience in jazz and swing to take these earlier forms to a new place.  But it was also revolutionary both in terms of its social-political origins as well as how it shattered the institutionalized limitations placed on what musicians could do with their music.

From left to right: Thelonius Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldgridge, and Teddy Hill c. 1947