Bebop: The New Jazz Sound

Pre-History: The WWII Era

In the early 1940s, Big Band Jazz performed in Dance Halls supplied America with popular music. In Big Bands, it is important that every musician in the band adhere to the sheet music in front of them in order to maintain a cogent sense of time.
The rigid nature of Big Band sheet music did allow for a soloist to improvise during specific segments of the song, but out of the dozens of musicians required to play Big Band charts (trumpets, alto, tenor and sometimes baritone saxophones, bass, drums, piano, trombones, vocalists, assorted percussion and showcased instruments like Benny Goodman’s Big Band clarinet), only a select few were allowed to solo.
Bebop emerged during the WWII era since many big band musicians were drafted into the Armed Forces. With fewer Bebop musicians demanding pay for the night’s work, jazz became capable of being played in smaller venues, allowing for the experimentation of new sounds played on these classic instruments.



Bebop came onto the scene when jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, (John Coltrane, Miles Davis) Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker found that a smaller ensemble of musicians could play an equally powerful jazz music while simultaneously allowing every member of the “combo” to improvise throughout the song. This meant that smaller, intimate groups (or combos) ranging from a quartet to an octet, would gather to produce music.

Typically, trumpet, sax, keyboard, bass, and drum players would unite to play, but vocalists and guitar players would often be included as well. These smaller jazz groups were defined by the number of members required to make the music (the Dave Brubeck Quartet had four members whereas a quintet would have five musicians).

The term “bebop” originated as an onamonapoetic word for the sounds often generated by musicians in this type of music. The gestures and phrasing were often short and rhythmically subtle, while singers would usually scat unknown syllables similar to words, allowing Bebop to pride itself on spontaneity and creativity.

Bebop Through the Eyes of Langston HughesWhere does be-bop come from? “From the police beating Negroes’ heads….. Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club that old club says, ‘Bop! Bop!...Be-bop! … Mop! …Bop! That’s why so many white folks don’t dig Bop…. White folks do not get their heads beat just for being white. But me—a cop is liable to grab me almost any time and beat my head—just for being colored.” ………. “A black man shall see dark days. Bop comes out of them dark days. That’s why real Bop is mad, wild, frantic, crazy—and not to be dug unless you’ve seen dark days, too. The folks who ain’t suffered much cannot play Bop, neither appreciate it.” ………. “…beat out of somebody’s head! That’s what Bop is” (Essay: "Bop").external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSdldeWKh6fRLZxizqOcVfoasBRGH22yMpkrx92X6bFfYNrsMOzzQexternal image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSoGfufj-_ebNNpEE4DhPtcWI-uDlF60PieI0u77NyyZlC-Ej5Bexternal image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRZMlNdNNgm7GwP4CIlOJNjbYzFKlcbCbKGUMN6CbBsq1M9rJLHIwLangston Hughes is known to many as the "Father of Jazz Poetry," because Jazz and Bebop were the driving force in the majority of his writings (Langston Hughes Page). "Langston Hughes' harmonious fusion of poetry and music produced an exciting and provocative new poetic style and art form that sang the blues and crackled with the fire of jazz" (Bonner). "Bop" is a well-known piece of his written work that explains the story of how Bebop came to be through the quote above. Bebop has been known to be very personal for African Americans, but others, such as Whites, have not been able to understand it, because they cannot relate to what African Americans have been through. Bebop tells the story of African Americans being beaten by cops. It is a genre of music that conveys their emotions and tells the story of part of their lives. According to another Bebop artist, Thelonious Monk, "If you really understand the meaning of Bebop, you understand the meaning of freedom" (History of Jazz). Bebop has been used as a way to express pain, suffering, anger, etc. It was also a way to escape their torture. It was a form of freedom in the eyes of African Americans (Bebop).

Behind the Music

It became an expressive musical form drawing much from traditional jazz (big band centered), while just as much drifting from the traditional idiom to establish a musical self-identity. This identity consisted of complex expression characterized by syncopated rhythms (usually emphasizing the 2nd & 4th beat in each bar; opposed to the stronger 1st & 3rd) and especially complex melodies. Melodies were traditionally songlike, or catchy in composition, and audiences could easily recognize them; whereas in bebop, melodies became a bit tougher to remember, because of their unusual intervallic motions, and perhaps also because of the syncopation that blurred the pulse of each note. Duke Ellington's Connection to Modernism
Harmonically, bebop incorporated, again, far more complex chord changes over melodies. Seventh chords are typical of jazz in general, but bebop introduces the alteration of chords, adding other tones above the chordal 7th in order to achieve a different, unresolved texture. This, though, also allows for solo improvisations, which were played over the changes of a tune, that draw from a wider palette of pitch colors. Essentially, altering chords becomes a progressive innovation (figuratively and literally) in the realm of jazz; melodies are also complex for the reason that they are based on tones contained in the many altered chords that are played, and solos are even more complex as players draw from once-different tonalities and mix them into one musical entity. The complexity of bebop can then be seen as a layered one, which is ultimately simply pleasant for listeners and musicians, and delivers captivating, spiritual results.

Charlie Parker
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Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is considered to be one of the fathers of bebop. He is one of the most well-known musical figures of the modern era who inspired a significant American artistic movement. He also inspired many musicians throughout the years. His musical career began when he first picked up the saxophone at the early age of eleven. He was in the marching band at age twelve, and that was when he was first introduced to the new sounds of jazz. He later played with people such as Jay McShann, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gilespie, etc. At the age of twenty, he led an uprising in 20th century jazz music. Bebop was considered the new jazz. It caught on like a wild fire. Many musicians began to incorporate bebop into their styles of music such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, etc. Although he was such an inspiration to many generations of musicians, like many jazz and bebop artists, drugs and alcohol took over his life. He died at the age of thirty-four due to his addiction (“Charlie Parker…”)

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Miles Davis was most notably known as the creator of “cool” in which he embedded into jazz music. Cool was the musical element of encompassing all time elements into one past, present, and future sounds. In other words, this meant that Davis foresaw ahead of his time in the 1940’s that being “hip” meant being ahead of the crowd, musically, by giving a timeless quality to music, which essentially is the “what’s happening next” factor (Miles Davis). All throughout, Miles Davis was a composer, producer, bandleader and arranger—sometimes even all at once. Davis soon became an early-established musician at two Harlem nightclubs, Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s. Minton’s Playhouse is referred to as “ancient altar of Thelonious [Monk]” in Langson Hughes poem “Neon Signs,” which essentially it was since Monk was an already established musicians at Minton’s before Davis came around (Hughes). Furthermore, this became the place where Davis also first met Thelonious Monk.

Miles Davis - Milestones

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During his time at Minton’s Playhouse, his band consisted of future-revolutionary jazz artists that would later carve their very own place in music history such as Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, and Freddie Webster (Bebop Years). Davis began paying trumpet at the age of 13 and was regarded as the best trumpeter in his music class but was ignored due to racial prejudices at the time in the1940’s. Miles Davis noticed that saxophonist, Charlie Parker, was revolutionizing music in turning jazz into bebop. Furthermore, Davis was a keen ear in hearing at the age of 17 that bebop music altered and changed musical accents in the music, which almost seemed misplaced seemingly to give an unpredictable and surprise element to sound (Jazz Greats). This appealed to Davis as it challenged listeners to new harmonic and melodic complexities in which he wanted to be part of during his first professional gig with the Billy Eckstine band in St. Louis, Missouri just at the early age of 17.

John Birks 'Dizzy' Gillespie“The music of Charlie Parker and me laid a foundation for all the music that is being played now... our music is going to be the classical music of the future” - Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie is one of the first artist in which the music genre Bebop can be attributed to. Throughout his musical career, of playing with big bands, and small groups, he infused Afro-Cuban rhythms with American Jazz. Despite criticism of his genre, Gillespie was also the first Jazz artist be sent abroad by the United States government.

Trademark Trumpet: in 1953 after his trumpet occurred a severe bent due to someone falling on top of it backstage, Gillespie picked up and played the bent trumpet, preferring the way it sounded (this is consistent with the idea of improv in jazz). After this incident Gillespie had all of his future trumpets custom made to include the 45 degree angle bend in the bell, becoming his trademark.
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1917: October 21st, 1917 in Chewra, South Carolina
Dizzy Gillespie was born the youngest of nine children. His father as a bricklayer by week and band leader by weekend. Two years after his father’s death, at twelve years old, Dizzy began to teach himself to play the trumpet and trombone

1932: Based on his talent, Gillespie was accepted to attend Laurinbourg Institute in North Carolina, to fill their open position for a trumpet player in their band.

1935- At 18 years old, Gillespie moved with his family to Philadelphia, PA, where he joined Frank Fairfax’s band. It was in this band where fellow band member Charlie Shaver taught Gillespie the trumpet solos of Roy Eldridge, which would later promote Gillespie as a trumpet player. In response to Gillespie’s clownish behavior and sense of humor, Frank Fairfax’s band members coined his nickname; ‘Dizzy’.

1937- Gillespie moved to New York City and joined Teddy Hill’s Big Band as well as met his life-long wife, Lorraine.

1939- Gillespie joined Cab Calloway’s orchestra, but left a year later after a dispute involving a knife.

1940- Gillespie hooked up with Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clark whee their midnight jam sessions became the the beginnings of Bop.

1944- Gillespie produced small group recordings such as ‘Salt Peanuts’ and Hot House’.

1979- An autobiography, To be or Not to Bop is published by Gillespie.

1945- Gillespie went on to lead several big bands, and some separate small groups, as well as owning a record company in 1951. Financial shortcomings however put an end to this short lived endeavor.

1993- On January 6th, 1993 John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie passes away from cancer of the pancreas, in Englewood, New Jersey- Age 75.


"Bebop Modernism and Change." Chickenbones. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.

Bebop Years: Miles Davis., April 21, 2011. Online. April 22, 2011.

Bonner, Patricia E. (1990). Cryin' the Jazzy Blues and Livin' Blue Jazz. West Georgia College Review, 20, 15-29.

“Essay: "Bop." Langston Hughes. 1949." Essay Reviews. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2011.

"History of Jazz | Black History in America |" Teaching Resources, Children's Book Recommendations, and Student Activities | N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.

Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. United States: Vintage Books, 1959. Print.

Jazz Greats: Miles Davis., 2005. Online. April 22, 2011.

"Langston Hughes Page." Personal Page for Charles Scott Ferry. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2011.

"Charlie Parker - About Charlie Parker | American Masters | PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 June 2011. <>. Sony Music Entertainment, 2011. Online. April 22, 2011.