Bebop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way.

Thelonious Monk

This week we’re learning about bebop and some of the artists that brought forth this revolution in jazz. In the early 1940’s, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker were part of a group of musicians who created bebop.

Monk’s strangely beautiful and unpredictable harmonies were an excellent contribution to the pyrotechnical and asymmetrical lines of Parker and Gillespie that helped birth modern jazz.

Bebop!

Bebop was born in Harlem, NY, in a nightclub called Minton’s Playhouse, which was run by multi-instrumentalist/band leader/club manager Teddy Hill. This was where musicians came to jam with one another after their gigs ended. These late night sessions in the early 1940’s proved to be the breeding ground for modern jazz; Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian, and others were among the stars that frequented Minton’s Playhouse. During these sessions, the seismic shift from big band music to bebop was created, and harmonic sensibilities and the rhythmic vitality of the music would never be the same.

Jazz historians draw a line between early and modern jazz with the creation of bebop, as the language of bop was revolutionary in every way. The asymmetrical phrases, rhythmic vitality, extremes in tempo (ballads got much slower, up tempo tunes got as fast as any music ever performed) and the creative/advanced harmonic approach of this music were so far away from the music of early jazz that early jazz performers could not share bandstands with these musicians. Also, frustrated over race issues and white musicians making more money on jazz than the black creators of jazz, Gillespie and his pals came up with a new way to speak (i.e., words like “dig,” “cat,” and “jive”), dress and comport – these musicians stood proud in ways that hadn’t been seen in the entertainment industry before. Sadly, due to a Musician’s Union strike, there was a recording ban in 1942-43, and aside from some bootleg recordings, there is little to document the beginnings of this music.

Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982)

Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was a singular, brilliant talent whose contributions to jazz cannot be underestimated. He is one of the most recorded jazz composers, second only to Duke Ellington; however, while Ellington was responsible for over one thousand works, Monk only wrote about seventy compositions in his lifetime, showing how influential his work was and is. His music is beautiful and unpredictable, full of dissonance, creative and rhythmic turns, and non-traditional harmonies, which make his work fun to play for the performer and enjoyable for the listener. Check him out playing one of his most beloved tunes, “Round Midnight.

In 1948, Thelonious Monk recorded four of his most famous compositions—”Epistrophy,” “Misterioso,” “Evidence,” “I Mean You” and two jazz standards “All the Things you Are” and “I Should Care.” These were rereleased four different times with differing accompanying tunes as Genius of Modern Music, Volume I.

He was self-taught, and his piano playing is almost painful to watch, given all that he was “doing wrong” with his hands. Even so, while Monk was no Art Tatum (a widely regarded jazz pianist), he was able to navigate around the instrument quite well, and his comping was as interesting as has been heard in the genre.
You can watch him play “Don’t Blame Me” here.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993)

Dizzy Gillespie, born John Birks Gillespie, was one of the most important and influential characters in the jazz story for many reasons—he was one of the finest technicians ever to play trumpet, he helped usher in modern jazz, he created a counterculture in the 1940’s, and he brought Latin/Afro-Cuban music to the jazz pantheon.

The youngest of nine children, Gillespie taught himself how to play trumpet and trombone, and idolized Roy Eldridge, an earlier trumpet virtuoso. He got his break in 1935 with Teddy Hill, then joined Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in 1939, and it was with Calloway that Dizzy acquired his nickname for his general mischievousness; however, Dizzy was fired a couple years later by Calloway for his adventurous approach to soloing, as well as for a spitball incident that escalated into a knife fight.

In 1943, Gillespie met Charlie Parker in Earl Hines’ big band, and the two also played in Billy Eckstine’s big band before forging out on their own and creating Bebop. Some of Gillespie’s most famous tunes (as well as some of jazz’s most famous tunes) came from this period, including: “A Night in Tunisia, “Salt Peanuts,” “Groovin’ High,” and “Woody’n You.”

“A Night in Tunisia” was originally titled “Interlude”; however, Gillespie claimed some “genius” called it “A Night in Tunisia” and the name stuck. This song was one of the first, and arguably most successful, early Afro-Cuban selections in the genre. This memorable melody was recorded with lyrics by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Chaka Khan and others. Here’s a recording from 1946 by Charlie Parker, with a fantastic solo break.

The last recording of Gillespie and Parker together was a 1953 concert recording of the Quintet’ – Jazz at Massey Hall, which also included Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. This live album ranks as one of the seminal recordings in jazz’s history. Check the full album out here.

With his unnaturally puffed-out cheeks, his bent horn (the result of an accident on the bandstand, which Gillespie so loved he incorporated into future horns!), and his razor sharp mind, Dizzy was an outstanding ambassador for the music.

Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920 – 1955)

Even though it was a short and troubled life, Charlie “Bird” Parker changed music’s history through his incredible technique and inventive mind. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker dropped out of school at age 15 and joined the Musicians’ Union. He was famously chased off of a bandstand several years later for performing at a level so substandard that Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him to remove him from the stage, but instead of buckling under such humiliation, Parker went to work.

He was largely self-taught, and perhaps didn’t know better than to practice jazz licks in all 12 keys (a practice not done before him–most tunes reside in flat keys and that’s where more neophyte improvisors prefer to reside). Coupled with his technical prowess, this made Parker’s mind much more fluid and agile than his contemporaries.
After moving to NYC in 1939, Parker attended some late night jam sessions at clubs like Minton’s and Monroe’s where he was part of the birth of modern jazz.

Unfortunately, Parker was an addict, and many early bop players followed suit; so large was the specter of Charlie Parker that others thought that they could only perform like him if they aped not only his playing but his lifestyle also. Sadly, the coroner estimated Parker’s age to be twenty years older than his age of 34 at the time of his passing. While Parker left far too soon, he did leave some of jazz’s most important recordings: the 1953 concert Quintet’ – Jazz at Massey Hall and Charlie Parker with Strings.
From Charlie Parker with Strings, here is “Just Friends.”

As always, more jazz fun will be coming your way next week. In the meantime, here are some final tunes to check out:

Thanks for joining the hippest cats around & learning about bop!
Be well, stay safe & share the music!