Bebop Jazz

The second world war changed jazz in many ways. The shortages of war meant it became increasingly difficult for the big bands to move around and play — it takes a bus and a lot of infrastructure to move twenty or so musicians from one town to another. So, new styles of jazz emerged that used smaller groups, and a standard lineup soon emerged with the birth of bebop: saxophone (alto or tenor), trumpet, piano, guitar, double bass, and drums.

Jazz had started off primarily as a form of dance music; the tunes of the early bands were learned by rote and the individual band parts were improvised around the chord structure. Whereas this element of improvisation had been born out of necessity, mainly due to the lack of printed music scores, after the war a small group of pioneering musicians working out of New York sought to make improvisation the 'raison d’être'.

Saxophonist Charlie Parker was a long-time admirer of the florid, melodic improvisation style of Lester Young, and he was keen to develop the art of improvising. Along with a group of like-minded musicians in New York in the 40s — trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, guitarist Charlie Christian, bass players Ray Brown, Milt Hinton and Gene Ramey, drummers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — he developed an exciting new style of music that came to be known as 'bebop'. Parker himself — who was known as 'bird' or 'yardbird' (allegedly due to his prodigious appetite for chicken, which he called 'yardbird') — never used the term bebop as he felt it demeaned the music.

As the music wasn’t intended for dancing the players could experiment with tempo, with the result that they got faster and faster. Some say they used the sheer speed of the music as a way of excluding less talented musicians, who simply couldn’t keep up with them! Whether true or not, it is a fact that bebop music is characterised by prodigiously fast tempos. As bebop was not intended for dancing, it enabled the musicians to play at faster tempos. As well as the faster tempos, bebop is largely characterised by its florid, often asymmetrical melodies underpinned with complex harmonies, syncopation, significantly altered harmonies, including altered, extended, and substituted chords. 

Miles Davis came to bebop and developed his distinctive melodic and harmonic musical language that eventually led to the birth of the cool jazz style.

Key Artists

The list of bebop jazz musicians is large, so here is a selection of a few notable musicians. 

Charlie Parker

Dizzy Gillespie

Charlie Christian

John Coltrane

Bud Powell

Ray Brown

Miles Davis

Clifford Brown

Max Roach

Kenny Clarke

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