52nd Street, New York City, c. 1948.
Courtesy of William P. Gottlieb.
With the decline in popularity of swing bands and the rise of singers as pop stars, many jazz musicians in the mid-1940s retreated to smaller groups of five or six instruments that were easier to organize, were cheaper to book in clubs, and provided more freedom for individual musicians to express themselves. The music that began to emerge from these small bands was a sharp break from Swing Era jazz: Unlike the smooth, pulsing flow of swing, these new melodies were typically jagged and uneven, designed to catch listeners off guard. Whereas swing seemed to offer a lighthearted escape from the hardships of the Depression, many listeners and critics saw bebop, as this new style came to be called, as a reflection of the anxiety and uncertainty faced by African Americans in the immediate postwar years.
Regardless of whether or not such anxieties and uncertainties were really at the root of bebop, they were an undeniable presence in American society. Black servicemen, sobered by the experience of fighting in a racially segregated military, returned from overseas to find that few civil rights gains had been made on the home front. “Though I have found no Negroes who want to see the United Nations lose this war,” said the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, “I have found many who want to see the stuffing knocked out of white supremacy. ... American Negroes ... are confronted not only with a choice but with the challenge both to win democracy for ourselves at home and to help win the war for democracy the world over.” And while much of America began to enjoy newfound prosperity, many blacks now faced new displacements and upheavals, from pervasive employment discrimination to poor educational opportunities to increased racial conflict as the country struggled toward greater equality.
New York, specifically Harlem, was the indisputable capital of bebop, and the early practitioners of this new music were mostly young blacks who had migrated to New York from the South and Southwest, drawn by the allure of Harlem’s celebrated African-American arts scene. They were virtuosos on their instruments, and they saw themselves not as talent hired to make dance music, but as true artists driven by their own aesthetic vision. By refusing to play the traditional role of smiling entertainer, they became forerunners of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
The principal creators of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, came of age playing in big bands. As the Swing Era came to a close, they found work on New York’s 52nd Street, one long strip of nightclubs that was home to dozens of small jazz bands. After hours, they headed uptown to musicians’ clubs in Harlem like Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s, which served as laboratories for the development of new musical ideas. Parker and Gillespie began by experimenting with the Broadway show tunes of their day—by now jazz standards—extending their harmonies with complex chords. Then, like their contemporaries the abstract expressionists—painters and sculptors who sought to dissociate their art from the world of things—they created abstractions of these popular melodies and elaborated on them in their improvisations.
Trumpeter, bandleader, and bebop pioneer
Dizzy Gillespie, New York City, c. 1947.
Courtesy of William P. Gottlieb.
Despite mixed reviews on the part of swing fans, it quickly became clear that Parker and Gillespie were setting a new standard for instrumental virtuosity. Parker, for example, might start a solo by playing in the lower register of his horn and then leap upward without warning. He also surprised listeners by where he chose not to play, breaking phrases with a pause at the least expected moments. Gillespie, in turn, explored the far reaches of harmony (and the upper reaches of his horn) and, wisely, taught his fellow musicians how to join him. Bebop’s staggered phrasing, in combination with the irregular accents, thumps, and bass drum “bombs” of bop drummers, made dancing seem out of the question for all but the most accomplished dancers. And yet many fans of jazz heard a logic within the blistering excitement and saw in bebop both a natural connection with the dance-oriented jazz they’d come to love and a sense of freedom that seemed to herald a new age. They understood the humor that peeked out within bebop’s twists and turns and mimicked Gillespie’s hipster fashion sense—string ties and sunglasses worn at all hours of the day or night—just as young musicians mimicked his musical sense.
Page 1 of 4 Next Page