Bebop is a style of jazz created around the era of the 1940’s. It was based around smaller groups of musicians of about 4 to 6 musicians rather than around 10 or more which big bands usually consisted of. This allowed for more solo opportunities and improvisation. The music composed was more complex e.g. harder melodies and involved more difficult chord progressions. Great examples of these are Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Base lines became more detailed rather than just a “walking bass” and there was more emphasis on the role of the rhythm section.
Bebop was made to keep the listener interested and have odd phrases of timing. Furthermore it was not suitable for dancing unlike the swing era which was before bebop. Within this essay I will go into depth about all of these topics and hopefully you will have a greater understanding of each.
The bands in bebop became a lot smaller.
When this happened it opened up many more opportunities for solos and improvisation. Before the bebop era there was swing. In swing the bands were bigger, usually consisting of around ten men. Then when Bebop emerged the bands shrunk and consisted of around 4- 6 players. This blended nicely with the new complex style of music. There were fewer instruments and as a result of this it would not get too messy with riffs interfering with other riffs.
The music written was more complex and created more difficult chord progressions. Swing had been around for many years and a change needed to be made. The listeners wanted more and bebop would give the listeners that interest that they desired as it was a new style. It was a new creation. The tempo increased greatly and kept the listeners entertained. However it was not the ideal type of music for dancing.
Bebop was more than just more complex melodies however.
The base line became more detailed. Rather than a “walking bass” it would have odd phrases of timing, as did the rest of the music. Good examples of musicians that created odd phrases of timing were Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. The rhythm section played a more important role. From the perspective of the rhythm section, the main difference between the bebop and swing is that the generally faster tempos of bebop require a lighter approach. Drummers such as Max Roach and Kenny Clarke began keeping time mainly with their ride cymbals instead of the bass drum or hi hat. Pianists stopped concentrating on constantly marking the beat or playing full chords and instead played more sparsely.
Original compositions in bebop tended to be based on blues progressions. They also tended to be based on simple progressions from popular songs, most notably George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Often the melodies resembled improvised solos such as long streams of 8th notes in arpeggiated and scale chord patterns. The arrangements are almost invariably simple head arrangements, as the emphasis was again on the improvisation, not on the composition.
Dizzy Gillespie was one of many artists that played exceptional music during the Bebop era. Considered one of the best artists of that time, he created styles of songs and music that no one had thought of creating. Odd phrases of timing and more difficult and tricky chord progressions; he mastered it all. Dizzy’s real name was John Birks Gillespie. He was born into a family of ten in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917. Dizzy played trumpet, piano and also sang on occasion. He received a music scholarship to the small agricultural school, the Laurinburg Institute, Laurinburg, North Carolina at the age of 12. He later left the school and joined the Frankie Fairfax Band in Philadelphia in 1935 and played there for 2 years. After that (1937) he played in the Teddy Hill Band in New York. After a short time with this band including a tour around Europe he moved to the Cab Calloway band in 1939 until 1941, when there was an on-stage occurrence that, although resolved, prompted Dizzy to leave the band. During a concert, a band member shot spit balls at Cab’s back when he faced the audience. Cab accused Dizzy of being the culprit and upon Dizzy’s convincing denial, the two began to fight. Dizzy grabbed a knife and actually cut Cab. Although the two made up after Jonah Jones and Milt Hinton came forward as the perpetrators, Dizzy was fired. After this Dizzy passed from band to band until he began to make less appearances. He was known for experimenting with unconventional chromatism, discordant sounds and placement of accents in melodies. Dizzy died of pancreatic cancer in Englewood, New Jersey with his wife Lorraine in 1993.
Another excellent composer and bebop artist during the bebop era was Thelonius Monk. Born on the 10th of October 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonius was only four when his mother and his two siblings, Marion and Thomas, moved to New York City. He began to play piano in church when he was a boy sometimes touring with an evangelist. By early 40’s he was working as the house pianist at the Harlem Club, Minton’s Playhouse. For a brief period he was the pianist in Lucky Millender’s band until he joined Coote Williams’ Orchestra in 1944. This orchestra made the first recording of Monk’s ballad “round about midnight”. At this stage Thelonious was mainly unknown to the public.
He played in Coleman Hawkins small group during 1944-6 and by then word of his talent had got out. Monk’s style was unique.
It was a combination of old and new styles. He could sound like Stride piano masters and there was a powerful Duke Ellington influence at work but what he played was angular. He played themes such as “Off Minor”, “Epistrophy”, “Misterioso” and “Well you needn’t”. In 1951 he was imprisoned for a probable trumped-up narcotics charge but was falsely arrested and released soon after. After a few decades physical illness, fatigue, and perhaps sheer creative exhaustion convinced Monk to give up playing altogether. On February 5, 1982, he suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness; twelve days later, on February 17th, he died.
In conclusion bebop was one of the more successful stages of jazz. With so many great artists emerging at this time exceptional music was being produced. Hopefully within this essay you now have a greater understanding of the characteristics of bebop and a more thorough understanding and knowledge of a few artists who were present during this time frame.