Bebop: a Controversial Transition to Modern Jazz

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Bebop: A Controversial
Transition to Modern Jazz

Nathan Marketich

Music 0711
Professor Leon Dorsey
Recitation TA: Alton Merrell 1:00
December 10, 2010

The decade of the 1940’s was an important era in the history of jazz. The 1940’s was a transition from traditional jazz into modern jazz. Leading this transition was the introduction of the Bebop period in Jazz. Bebop created controversy in the jazz world for being a contradiction to traditional jazz and was widely disliked by many audiences across America. Despite its controversy, Bebop, also referred to as “Bop,” was one of the most important eras in the history of Jazz. The technical creations by some of Bebop’s greatest musicians influenced future generations of jazz musicians and transformed the jazz world into the modern era.

The word Bebop, according to Bebop artist Dizzy Gillespie, came from people trying to sing the unique melodic leaps. The singing created a distinct “bop” sound that led to it being referred to as bop or Bebop music (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 14). The rhythm and technicalities of the Bebop style were unlike any other used in jazz before. This completely different method of jazz led to the popular accusation that Bebop was not jazz and many traditional jazz artists dismissed it as such. And since Bebop could not be danced to, it was largely dismissed by the public as well for not being jazz music. Although it is true that Bebop was not classical jazz and was not typical “dancing” music, it was in fact the first type of modern jazz to be recorded. The flatted fifth is the most important interval of Bebop and in traditional jazz the flatted fifth would be considered erroneous. Also characteristic of Bebop are the nervous and racing phrases that appeared as melodic fragments. Bebop music left out “every unnecessary note” giving it a distinct irregularity that had not been present in jazz before 1940 ( Berendt and Huesmann, p.15). Other technical characteristics of Bebop uncommon to traditional jazz were the Bop improvisations composed mostly of eighth-note and sixteenth-note figures which created jumps and twists within the music. There were also abrupt changes of direction and large intervals between notes. The rhythms in the lines were fast and unpredictable and were marked with an unprecedented amount of syncopation (Gridley and Cutler, p.137).

The era of Bebop followed the most popular era of jazz before 1940, the Swing era. The swing era had become a popular culture phenomenon due to its relationship to dancing. The large audience attracted by “Swing dancing” allowed the Swing style of Jazz to move into other areas of culture other than music and dance. The word Swing became a marketing device for consumer goods from cigarettes to women’s clothing. The Swing style conformed to the commercial demands of audiences and as a result became consumed by endlessly repeated rhythms. These rhythms became cliché and too trite for some jazz artists who wanted to created a more technical and modern style. The Swing style had become too commercialized and, as often is the case in jazz, the evolution turned in the opposite direction in the form of the Bebop period (Berendt and Huesmann, p. 14). Thus Bebop was formed as an intended contradiction to the Swing era. The contradiction to Swing music was so strong that Bebop music faced opposition and was accused of not even being jazz music.

Bebop was founded during World War II by young African American musicians who were tired of the repetition and lack of original creativity of the big bands popular in the Swing era. These musicians wanted to create a new style of music that was played by small bands and featured creative solos and irregular rhythms. The founders of Bebop believed their music could not be as easily copied by big bands led by white composers and would be an exclusive type of jazz. This style began to form in 1940 from the improvisation that took place during the after-hours...
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