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.
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.
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):