“The language of jazz is built on small phrases — riffs that pass like coveted currency from one musician and one generation to the next. But every now and then, there comes a moment when that tried-and-true vocabulary no longer serves, and by rejecting it, an artist arrives at a statement that nudges or catapults the music in new directions.” – Tom Moon, NPR
In order to talk about bebop, we need some historical perspective. So we’ll start a few years before the beginnings of the bebop era, in 1939.
At this time, swing music was still the predominant form of jazz. Big bands criss-crossed the country playing in dance halls and mostly played the same style of music that had been popular since the 1920s. Improvisation was kept to a minimum in favor of rhythms and melodies that catered to the dancing crowd. When players did improvise, it was usually in short burst using fairly simple methods rooted in the blues.
Now, I want to state that there is nothing wrong with this. I love swing music and there’s much to learn from studying and playing it. However, as is always the case, some younger musicians decided that this type of music wasn’t really speaking to their reality. And so they started to tinker, finding other ways to play the same swing songs they’d been hearing for years.
Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins is credited with making a recoding in 1939 that changed everything. At the end of a fairly-traditional recording session, he decided to play “Body and Soul,” a true standard of swing music and the most recorded jazz standard of all time.
A couple of things set this recording apart: First, he barely plays the melody, only eluding to it for a few seconds at the beginning before taking off on his improvisation. Second, he plays very complex harmonic stuff, using the “upper structures” of the chords, something that’s too complicated to get into here, but was completely new at the time. Third, he does what is called “double-timing,” where he plays twice as fast as the original tempo of the tune.
These things were unheard of at this time, and many critics and fellow musicians screamed that he was playing nonsense, killing the tune, playing “wrong” notes, etc. But there was a crop of younger musicians, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and others who heard this and were inspired to push the music to new places, and that’s how bebop was born.
I’ll give you two versions of the song to check out. First is a very standard version from 1930 from Paul Whiteman. This hit #1 on the charts that year:
Beautiful, but pretty tame, right? Now here’s Hawkins just nine years later. See if you can hear the melody at the beginning and then tell when he veers off from it:
This still may seem tame to you, but in 1939 it was quite revolutionary. Some liken it to the first appearance of rap music and how that shook up the whole musical landscape. That’s what a profound effect this single recording had on jazz. This is one of those solos that just about every jazz musician, especially saxophonists, can play note-for-note.
Tomorrow we’ll jump into the bebop era in ernest with some Charlie Parker.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.