Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko” is perhaps one of the most important American recordings of all time. It’s widely considered to be the first be-bop song ever to be recorded. And even though it’s a 1945 recording, this is still the template for modern jazz.
So where did be-bop come from? In some respects, it seems like it came out of nowhere, but basically it was a response by a small core of young, very gifted musicians of the Big Band Era who just wanted more creative freedom.
For the sake of brevity and this piece, let’s just follow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Here’s what the Big Band Era sounded like from Gillespie’s point of view when he was playing with Cab Calloway. This 1940 recording is “Pickin’ The Cabbage”:
In the 1930s, a gig in a Big Band was the best money a young musician could make, so forward-thinking musicians like Gillespie and Parker kept those jobs in the Big Bands, but also gathered informally at jam sessions and clubs to share these new ideas.
In describing that period, Gillespie said, “We were creating a new dialog among ourselves, blending our ideas into a new style … There are only so many notes, and what makes style is how you get from one note to the other.”
Here’s a recording from 1939 called “Hot Mallets.” You can kind of hear Gillespie working out how to get from one note to the other. This is said to be the first recording of the emerging be-bop style.
We can hear that this music is rapidly evolving. However, between 1941 and 1944, with the onset of World War II and a recording ban, much of this music was not documented in any way.
There are just a few exceptions. This is a 1941 bootleg featuring Gillespie, made after-hours at a jam session. The track is called “Kerouac.”
In what we now think of as the language of improvisation, this is pure be-bop. The rhythm section is more in the Swing Era, but Gillespie’s taking the improvisations into the future.
Now, let’s go back to where we started, to “Ko-Ko,” the first be-bop recording. And you can hear everything is different from the Swing Era, the rhythms are different, the chords are different, the melodies are different. Be-bop has fully arrived.