Styles & Forms | Bebop | Jazz

Though it was often referred to as a musical revolution, bebop was actually a natural evolution of jazz, involving innovative approaches to harmony and rhythm that advanced the music forward to a modern era.

Traces of bebop began to emerge during the early 1940s, in orchestras led by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. Those adventurous impulses were further developed in Harlem nightspots such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House, where the architects of an iconoclastic new movement conducted experiments with time, tempo and extended techniques.

An Iconoclastic New Movement

It was there that drummer Kenny Clarke began to employ new methods on the kit – implying time, accenting in unpredictable ways and generally colouring and embellishing the music spontaneously from measure to measure, rather than keeping strict metronomic time in the manner of swing-era drummers. It was there that pianist Thelonious Monk began to map out sophisticated harmonic modulations and new melodic contours around familiar songs. In the same spirit of discovery, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker began to effectively eliminate bar lines by soaring over the chord changes with impunity, injecting their lines with a stream-of-consciousness creativity that cascaded effortlessly through their horns. These young modernists were, largely, reacting to clichés that had begun to saddle big bands towards the end of the swing era. Their ambitious efforts at developing a new lexicon of expression coalesced into a new kind of music that was publicly unveiled on ‘Swing Street’, the vibrant strip of nightclubs that lined 52nd Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues in Midtown Manhattan.

A Divisive Movement

With the emergence of bebop around 1945, the jazz world was suddenly divided into opposing (and at times hostile) camps: those who thrived on the new music and those threatened by its incursion. Some old-guard icons, such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong and bandleader Cab Calloway, readily dismissed bebop, branding its frantic tempos, eccentric rhythms, advanced harmonies and discordant melodies as undanceable and indecipherable. But others, such as tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, successfully made the transition from the old into the new.

John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, with his outrageous stage persona, became a figurehead of the rebellious new movement. Aside from his peerless virtuosity as a trumpeter, Dizzy was also a beloved showman throughout his long and illustrious career. Gillespie, along with his kindred spirit and musical partner Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, whose blinding speed and dazzling facility placed him a cut above every other improviser of his day, unleashed a torrent of new ideas (some of which were based on pre-existing chord patterns from swing-era standards) that set a new standard for instrumental virtuosity and changed the course of jazz.

Born in South Carolina in 1917, Gillespie began playing trombone at the age of 14, before switching to trumpet the following year. He played with Philadelphia’s Frank Fairfax Band, before he joined Teddy Hill’s Orchestra in 1937, filling a spot formerly held...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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