New York in the 1940s saw an explosion of musical creativity: small ensembles playing heavily reharmonized tunes, often at a flurried pace, and relying very heavily on improvisation – this is the music we know now to be bebop.

Two of the main pioneers of the era were Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, known for their blistering fast legato passages, but others such as Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and, latterly, Al Haig, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis contributed greatly to the idiom.

Stemming out of jam sessions in the now famous Minton’s playhouse in Harlem, bebop is cited as a reaction to the commercialisation of swing, which had become dilute and (some might say) trite.

Swing’s popularity had peaked during World War 2, perhaps due to its positive, upbeat and optimistic message; it appealed to generation at war. Bebop saw a move from jazz being considered merely an entertainment to an art form.

Where big bands had confined musicians to arrangements and rigidity with predictable harmonies and melodies, bebop tore off the shackles allowing musical freedom and expression not heard in ensembles of this size before.

Cowboy Bebop

Sadly there are few recordings of the early bebop era. The 1942-44 musicians’ strike led to a distinct lack of recordings full stop from this period but it may have contributed to bebop becoming music for musicians, too: writers not having to cater for commercialised white audiences were allowed to delve into what they wanted to do.


Minton’s, West 118th St., Harlem, New York.

Music typical of the bebop era (roughly 1940 to 1950) would be based on well known tunes or changes with improvised, substituted and altered harmonies and coupled with frenetic swung eighth and sixteenth note melodies borrowing little or nothing from the tune on which they were based.As creative and complex bebop may seem, scratch a little below the surface and it can actually be quite easily understood. It’s interesting to observe as free though it may sound to lay people, the style is actually regimented and bound by loose rules and clichés.

One of melodic devices created out of this strict playing style were the bebop scales which we’ll look at first.

Diatonic Scales

Ordinary diatonic scales contain seven notes, and this is true whether these are major, minor, dominant or one of the modes. Let’s look at C major: it contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

As a framework for melodic lines this is fine, and it goes a long way towards providing a lot of the harmonies found in bebop, but one issue you can run into is soloing. If you were to run up this scale in straight eights you get this:

Our C note falls on the last eighth note of the bar so, if we were soloing over a ii V chord progression, we’d either land on our tonic early or carry on up to a D which wouldn’t have the same melodic strength.

The same is true of the minor scale. Here’s C minor (notice the key signature has three flats: Bb, Eb and Ab):

Bebop Major Scale

The bebop major scale has a chromatic note (highlighted in red) added between the fifth and sixth degrees. Now, our C note (or tonic) lands nicely on the beginning of the next bar. Notice all of the important scale tones (1, 3, 5 and 8) are on downbeats:

Bebop Dorian Scale

The Dorian scale is the second “church” mode. If you’re unfamiliar with modes there’s a plethora of information about them elsewhere but, simply, you can understand them as playing a scale from a different starting and ending position.

C Dorian is the second mode derived from the key of Bb major (or Ionian, as a major scale is known in mode world). The scale degrees of C Dorian are the same as the minor scale just with a natural sixth (so A rather than Ab).

The bebop Dorian scale has another note added between the third and fourth degrees, again highlighted in red. This might seem confusing as it has both a major and minor third but it’s all about emphasis and context.

N.B I’ve listed the scale degrees in relation to the major scale, not the key signature:

Bebop Dominant Scale

Like the bebop Dorian scale the bebop dominant is also derived from a mode, this time the Mixolydian scale which is the fifth mode.

C Mixolydian is derived from the key of F major; it’s the same as a major scale only with a minor seventh degree (so a Bb instead of a B).

The bebop dominant scale has a chromatic passing tone between the flattened seventh and the octave (or seventh and eighth degrees):

Bebop Melodic Minor

Finally we have the bebop Melodic minor. The Melodic minor is not a mode but can be as equally as confusing. In the classical world (with a small “c”), you’re taught that melodic minor is two different sets of notes: it’s one thing ascending and another descending.

This means 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ascending and 8, b7, b6, 5, 4, b3, 2, 1 descending. This is understandably a bit of a pickle for some people. In the jazz world we normally ignore the descending version of the scale, which makes life much easier.

C Melodic minor, like other minor scales, would be derived from its relative major, Eb.

The bebop Melodic minor contains a passing note between the fifth and sixth degrees. This can make the note a bit tricky enharmonically, as I would describe it as a G# but we have an Ab in our key signature. Nevertheless it’s a sharp five, not a flat sixth:

If that didn’t quite sink in, there’s a fantastic satirical yet informative video by the excellent jazz-banter account Simon Fransman (I am led to believe he is also a composer, but hey, jazz memes and all). He neatly describes all of the above in this short video:

Donna Lee

Let’s start putting these scales into practice. Donna Lee is a composition recorded in 1947, often attributed to Charlie Parker but likely to have been written by Miles Davis (according to some sources).

My first contact with the tune was Jaco Pastorius’s bass and conga duet from his eponymous 1976 album; when learning the track, I found this oddball vocal led version by Leo Masliah very useful to help me memorize the melody.

Like many bebop tunes of the era the chords changes are based on a standard, in this case Back Home Again in Indiana, with a seemingly improvised melody played in unison by the horns. The harmony comes from the pianist (Bud Powell in this recording) with heavily extended and substituted variations of the original chords:

Here are the first eight bars of the head in the key of Ab major. The melody consists of long passages of legato eights (the first phrase is twenty four notes long!) so accenting the downbeats is important to keep it flowing and swinging.

In the above examples of bebop scales I’ve highlighted the additional note(s) in red; however from here on in I’ll be highlighting the chord tones in red, so don’t get confused. This is so we can see more easily what’s a passing note and what’s outlining the harmony. As ever, if you’re unfamiliar with the chord names above the notes have a read of this:

The melody to Donna Lee is comprised of a combination of arpeggios and scalic and chromatic runs, and we can see a number of instances where the chord tones land on the main downbeats.

Let’s take a look at Charlie’s solo, picking up from the end of the 32 bar head – bar 1 is indicated by a double bar line:

Here, Parker seems to be drawing from similar places in his musical lexicon as with the main melody. We can see this in his melodic language and phrasing in which he often uses chromatics as passing tones to reach his tonal goal.

In addition there are similar arcs to his phrases: long legato passages that twist and turn, typical of the bebop idiom.

You can see the rest of the solo transcribed here. Note it’s for alto sax though, so be careful to transpose it to concert pitch if you’re looking at it for guitar or piano.

A Night in Tunisia

Written by Dizzy Gillespie between 1941-42, A Night in Tunisia is one of the tunes synonymous with Dizzy and the bebop era as a whole. It’s been recorded by everyone from Bud Powell to Art Blakey, Victor Wooten to Wes Montgomery and Stan Getz to Dexter Gordon:

This is a simpler melody to get your head around, played on a V i vamp in D minor with a iiø V i turn around at the end (the Eb7 is a tritone substitution for the ordinary V in D minor, which would be A7 – more on tritones another time):

Compared to Donna Lee this melody is much easier to get our heads around – rather than feeling like an improvised line this is more clearly constructed. Below is an extract from a Charlie Parker performance of this piece:

Transcription source.

You might have noticed that I’ve avoided listing C as a chord tone for the D minor chord. This is because most recordings I’ve heard use a D minor 6 chord, which contains a B natural, that would clash with a C.

We can hear allusions to the melody in bars 5 and 7. Outside of that there’s a more frantic approach compared to the solo in Donna Lee, which is down to the slower tempo that allows for smaller rhythmic divisions of notes.

There are less chord tones, too, and numerous examples of Parker using chromatic enclosure around notes which has a more clustered feel rather than the more obvious up/down direction of Donna Lee.

Au Privave

Charlie Parker wrote Au Privave (oddly with no real English translation) in 1951, the tail end of the ‘classic’ bebop era but a great tune nonetheless:

This is a 12-bar blues in F so the chords outline four bars of F, two bars of Bb, two bars of F, two bars of C then a turnaround in F at the end:

Unlike both Donna Lee and A Night in Tunisia, Au Privave’s melody is characterized by angular, staccato notes which jump up and down and has far fewer legato phrases (except bars 4, 10 and 12, but even then they’re quite short):

Thanks Katja Steffens for this transcription.

The first thing I noticed about this solo is the freer phrasing when compared to the melody, which we’ve already noted to be jagged and syncopated.

Notice the thematic approach in bars 4 to 5 and 5 to 6. The line starting on F and ending on G is recontextualized over the Bb-7 chord by changing the D to Db. Like both aforementioned solos there’s plenty of chromaticism when resolving lines.


The last track we’ll look at is George Shearing’s Conception. George was a fantastically talented blind pianist with classical training and Conception is popular for it’s frantic changes that shift through various keys:

Here’s the A section. This is 12 bars in duration but probably debatable as to whether or not it’s a blues. We’re in Db, starting out with a iiø V I, then instantly shifting to A major before a chromatic descent to resolve to Db. Towards the end of the head (bar 9) we have a ii V I IV in E major culminating in a ii V I in Db:

Despite the melody being a bit fiddly at first glance there are actually a lot of repeated phrases (bars 4 and 5, 7 and 8).

Some of the enharmonic spellings are sometimes a little confusing – for example the Bbb in bar 2 is a concert pitch A, and the G# written in bar 4 when the key signature indicates a Gb and Ab – but once you get your head around the tune it’s not too bad. Arguably there should be two Bbbs in bar 1, but for simplicity I (and most real books I’ve seen) have left it as an A.

Conception was also recorded on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool album as Deception, but it contains a few differences the original; the following version, however, is from 1950 and is truer to the original composition. It boasts a roster of Art Blakey on drums, Jackie McLean on alto, Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, Tommy Potter on bass and Sonny Rollins on tenor, the latter of whose solo we’re going to look at – it kicks in around 2.17:


Miles et al play this in C but the original is in Db, so here’s Sonny’s solo up one semitone. Apologies in advance for any enharmonic errors – it’s fiddly changing keys this often! Here’s the transcription source:

We can see many of the ideas discussed above used in this passage – a heavy reliance on both chord tones and scalic and chromatic runs and a mix of legato and more jagged lines – but at the pace the changes are moving it’s hard to know exactly what the soloist was thinking.

There’s also a similar lick employed over the Ab-7 and Ab7 chords in bars 5 and 8. Here’s some interesting commentary from Dr Lewis Porter on George Shearing, with many references to Conception.

…and Finally

I’ll leave you with some short but excellent videos on the bebop scale by the New York Jazz Academy, which helped solidify the point of the scale to me, and in particular I found the lessons on octave displacement very helpful. It’s a great channel in general so definitely worth subscribing to: