A Brief History of Bebop

Written by Cameron K
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Bebop 1

Bebop was a term used to describe the nonsense syllables used in scat singing which was a popular vocalising style around the late 20s in the US. It had originated in Ragtime music and was taken into mainstream jazz by Louis Armstrong. Many artists recorded scat music including Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. Released from the constraints of formal words, nonsense words and meaningless syllables allowed the human voice to be used as an effective instrument for vocal improvisation. Some of the nonsense words like "doo-wop”, “razzamatazz,” “skoobie-doobie-do,” “hi-de-ho” and bee-bop-a-lula,” survived to enter the common lexicon.

Bebop 2Bebop, rebob or bop developed as a unique form of jazz in the late forties and was characterized by fast tempos (rhythms) and improvisation based on harmonic structure (pitch – cords) rather than melody (the tune). By the early forties Bebop was becoming well established in the Harlem Clubs of New York (Minton’s Playhouse, Dan Wall’s Chili Shack, and Clark Monroe's Uptown House). Circumstances conspired against swing and the big bands and beboppers were smaller (usually four to six musicians), with complete emphasis on instrumentalists and improvisation. People came to hear bebop, not just dance to it. The early pioneers were Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Bebop came of age when young musicians like John (Dizzy) Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk (piano) started to explore more advanced harmonies, complex syncopation (back beat), altered chords, and chord substitutions. This new style music marked the transformation from entertainment into art.

Dizzy Gillespie was a self taught trumpeter who imitated Louis Armstrong. He established himself as a trumpet soloist with Cab Calloway's band but after hours he and other jazz musicians retired to night clubs to jam. Dizzy Gillespie developed the enthusiast’s music into a musical genre others could enjoy (he just took out the hard bits) including many younger musicians, like Miles Davis.

Charlie "Yardbird" Parker was a self taught alto saxophone player who had an unremarkable early career as a jazz musician. However when he started to hang out at Minton's Uptown House in Harlem and jam with Gillespie things started to happen. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie formed a small group which arguably played the best bebop ever heard. Unfortunately the Bird was an adrenalin junkie and lived life to the full becoming addicted to narcotics. His unpredictable behaviour inevitably led to break up of the band as his mental health deteriorated. Charlie Parker did make a comeback and reformed the quintet with Miles Davis taking the place of Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker always loved the Blues and made sure this style featured in his music. He also experimented with “strings” which certainly gave greater appeal to bebop.

Thelonious Sphere Monk was the resident pianist at Minton’s Playhouse and regularly jammed. His piano playing was extraordinary and his compositions are now recognised as seminal to modern jazz.

/Thelonious Sphere Monk

By the early 1950s the standard structure and format of the bebop music was almost completely exhausted. Jazz musicians were again forced to explore new directions and several luminaries rose to prominence. Miles Davis (trumpet), and John Coltrane in particular experimented with orchestration and developed a less aggressive yet still hard edged form of bebop which came to be known as the cool school. Simultaneously, others musicians expanded developing other forms of jazz including modal jazz, free jazz and avant-garde jazz.

Blood Sweat and TearsBebop was fundamentally instrumental but by the early fifties, Beatnik poets, like Allen Ginsberg were drawing on jazz rhythms using jazz musicians to accompany their recitals. Gradually the Beat Generation merged vocals back into jazz and although they despised each other the new rock and roll musicians successfully incorporated bebop influenced solos into their sets. The title of Gene Vincent’s, Be bop a lula, hit of 1956 almost certainly came from "Be-Baba-Leba", by Helen Humes (1945), which later became a massive hit for Lionel Hampton with his version"Hey ! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop." In 1959, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five entered the pop charts confirming jazz was once again back as a popular musical genre. For all the criticism leveled by many established jazz musicians at Bebop’s inception (and that included the progenitor Louis Armstrong who condemned the new music as noisy and unswinging). Bebop had not just become an art form but the biggest single influence on all popular music in the last half century. The traditions of Be Bop jazz crept stealthily into jazz rock fusion with artists like Chicago (Transit Authority), Blood Sweat and Tears and Van Morrison carry it into the 60s and beyond.

Worth a listen

Cab Calloway
Minnie the Moocher (1931)

Coleman Hawkins
Salt Peanuts (1944)

Dizzy Gillespie
Blue ‘N’ Boogie (1945)

Charlie Parker
Orthnithology (1946)

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious (1947)

Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane
Two Bass Hit (1955)

Gene Vincent
Be bop a lula (1956)

Dave Brubeck
Take Five (1959)

Chicago Transit Authority
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (1969)

Blood Sweat and Tears
Spinning Wheel (1969)

Van Morrison
Moondance (1970)

Article Kippen C. 2014 Cameron K's blog Retrieved from
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Cameron K

Cameron K

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