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


Walking With My Feet 10 Feet Off the Beale

April 21, 2009

by Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In his 1991recording Walking In Memphis, Marc Cohn reflects on the history of the blues.  The references to the general history of this music form are straightforward but arranged in such a way to draw upon the ghosts of the past.  Cohn’s blue suede shoes pays respect to the Carl Perkins 1955 song titled the same that marks, for many, the transition to rockabilly and rock and roll.  The Delta Blues is the home of the blues.  The delta blues is the epicenter of the blues.  The Chicago blues, St. Louis blues,  and the songs coming out of other cities following the Great Migration out of the South call back to the delta.  And then there is W.C. Handy.  With his 1914 St. Louis Blues, W.C. Handy would start a lengthy career that would eventually earn him such titles as the Father of the blues and “the  Beethoven of Beale Street.”


I recently read an article titled  “Make My Getaway”:  The Blues Lives of Black Minstrels in W.C. Handy’s Father of the Blues” (Gussow, 2001).  Much of the article is devoted to understanding the ways in which Handy navigated a culture of racial oppression.  Whether on the stage performing minstrels or singing the blues in clubs, Handy neither shied from giving voice to the struggles of black men and women nor did he make this art a platform for being an activist for civil rights.  His approach is contrasted with other artists, such as the literary giants Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright who wrote more to inform and promote a move to justice.  It is for this reason that 100,000 copies of Handy’s autobiography Father of the Blues were sent to overseas military personnel and Wright’s Native Son remained on the shelves or libraries and people’s homes back in the States.  While Handy’s approach was more palatable to the racial majority, and the power structure of the segregated military that supported troops reading his autobiography, Gussow argues, and I agree, that it would be shortsighted to identify Handy as either complacent or submissive. In his work and his life, he voiced opposition to racial divisions.  He stood for racial justice.  And based on his personal experiences such as nearly being lynched, he realized when and how to be speak of the struggle and when to accommodate in order to survive another day.   

Excerpt from Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy — won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be 

Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way  I feel


To watch Marc Cohn play his song , see the YouTube clip below:


Getting an understanding on world conflict

January 21, 2009

I recently read an article in the Smithsonian  –Inside Iran’s fury by Stephen Kinzer, Oct 2008- providing an interesting insight into  Iran-U.S. relations.  If nothing else, this article is a great reminder that present international relations are still shaped from history often forgotten and that justification of current actions is often deep rooted in past experiences of unfairness and oppression.  For a lot of Americans remembering the ’80s, Iran-U.S. relationships were shaped on Nov 4, 1979, with the beginning of the U.S. hostage crisis.  However, for Iranians these relationships are still shaped by events dating even further back in history, in the 1950s, and the undermining through western interventions of their country’s attempt to democratize and free itself.  According to the writer of this Smithsonian article, “This chasm of perception reflects the enormous gap in the way Americans and Iranians viewed – and continue to view – one another.  It will be hard for them to reconcile their difference unless they begin seeing the world through each other’s eyes.”

To read Stephen Kinzer’s reflective and provocative article:

 — log into our library web page and click on the link e-Journals,  under the heading Research Tools.

— click on COCC Barber Library electronic journal collection and do a search for Smithsonian.

Academic Search Premier is one of the databases that will allow you to search and locate the article.  Use the Search within this publication link in the green menu bar of the database.

— type in the title of the article: inside iran’s fury 

—  in the list of results you will see the article available in “HTML Full Text”


Still interested in critical viewpoints on events that shape our world? History in Dispute, one of our library’s series (Reference collection, call# D20.H543 2000), is a publication that presents challenging perspectives on important issues throughout time around the globe.  Each entry offers an introduction to the controversies surrounding a historical event accompanied by expert written articles arguing differing points of view.

Resources such as these give an opportunity to reflect on and try to understand our world’s conflicts before we consider what those best ways may be to confront or resolve them.

Inauguration Day coming right up!

January 15, 2009

Come and watch it! It’s happening TUESDAY, 1/20/09, at noon (Eastern Standard Time)! 

Our library will be broadcasting live coverage of the Presidential Inauguration in one of the Oregon Rooms, second floor of the library.  Join us in the morning hours, Tuesday, 1/20,  to watch the festivities, if you happen to be on campus!  

Since 1901, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has been responsible for the planning and execution of the swearing-in ceremonies and the luncheon of the inauguration of the President of the United States at the U.S. Capitol.

The theme of the inauguration was published Monday this week:  We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Musical performers scheduled for the event include Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Heather Headley, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, John Mellencamp, Usher Raymond IV, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor,, and Stevie Wonder.  Jamie Foxx, Martin Luther King III, Queen Latifah and Denzel Washington will be among those reading historical passages.


Get detailed schedules of inauguration events at the U.S. Capitol:


See the swearing in ceremony on closed captioned streaming video (on Jan 20th):

Almost as good as being there:

We’re getting ready!  See flickr photostream of inauguration preparation activities:


Inauguration weather:


Items you may not bring to the inauguration ceremony:


What’s for lunch?


Want to get involved?

President-elect Obama Asks You to Be a Part of the Inauguration

Inauguration Blog:

What’s next?

President-elect Obama believes that we, as Americans, have a responsibility to help our communities and fellow citizens. His “Renew America Together” program is available at::


Video of past inauguration lucheons:

President Reagan’s 1981 Swearing In Ceremony:

President Kenedy’s 1961 Swearing In Ceremony:

I Do Solemnly Swear”: A Half Century of Inaugural Images:

Swearing In Chronology:



The Library of Congress goes social

January 18, 2008
Mme. Currie and 4 students (LOC)
Mme. Currie and 4 students (LOC)

Originally uploaded by The Library of Congress

There’s been lots of buzz around the new joint project between the Library of Congress and flickr, the photo sharing site we blogged about last year.

The Library of Congress has uploaded several thousand photographs from their collection and invited the public to help tag the photos, to leave comments, and to otherwise enjoy a color photo collection from the 1930s & ’40s as well as a black and white collection of news photos from the 1910s. There has already been an amazing response to the photos–over 1 million views in just two days!

These photos are just a small sample of the many fabulous LOC digital collections like the American Memory Project and the Veterans History Project, but the social features made possible by flickr make this project into something else entirely.  It’s beautiful when history meets technology!