The problem [the decline in popular demand for Jazz music] goes back to the early 40s, when a revolution took place in jazz. At a Harlem club named Minton’s, while the swing era was still in full bloom, a group of musicians began experimenting with a new approach to the music. Bandleader Teddy Hill formed a house band with drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. During nightly jam sessions others would join them, most notably sax great Charlie Parker, who had gotten his start in the swing bands of Kansas City. Vats of ink have been spilled deciphering the meaning of bebop. If jazz writers are to be believed, it defies easy categorization and requires sets and subsets to understand, but a succinct four-part summary was offered by Neil Tesser in The Playboy Guide to Jazz a couple years ago. First, the beboppers used small, quick combos — most often of trumpet and sax backed by piano, bass, and drums — instead of orchestras. Second, they used more complex chords, exploring “lively, colorful combinations of notes that previous listeners considered too dissonant for jazz.” Third, they often abandoned the melody of a song in order to improvise, relying more heavily on the song’s harmony.
Fourth, beboppers had attitude: “Instead of smooth and hummable melodies designed for dancing, the beboppers created angular tunes with unexpected accents and irregular phrases — and they expected people to listen, rather than jitterbug, to these songs and the solos that followed. The boppers emerged as jazz’s first ‘angry young men.’ They saw themselves as artists first and entertainers second, and they demanded that others respect them and their music accordingly.”
Some of the new jazz was undeniably brilliant, and many of the bebop and hard bop recordings that have been remastered and reissued only seem to acquire more appeal with age. Albums like Parker’s Now’s the Time, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon’s Go, Sonny Rollins Vol. 2, and Coltrane’s Blue Train are timeless, bristling with energy, jaw-dropping improvisation, and deep spirituality. But when they cast their spell, they laid complete waste to the pop-jazz tradition. Bebop offered challenges musicians thought they could never get from traditional swing bands, as well as an improvisational ethic that provided an escape from the tough work of writing strong melodies. Some of the players saw this: In 1949 drummer Buddy Rich fired his band because his players “just want to play bop and nothing else. In fact,” Rich added, “I doubt they can play anything else.” Louis Armstrong, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, once referred to bebop as “crazy, mixed-up chords that don’t mean nothing at all.” Before long swing had become a joke. Producer Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary Listen Up that as a young musician he once hid backstage from bebop trumpeter Miles Davis so Miles wouldn’t know he was in the swinging band that had just left the stage.
Suddenly, jazz was Art. Gone were the days when 5,000 people would fill the Savoy Ballroom to lindy hop to the sunny sounds of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Bebop was impossible to dance to, which was fine with the alienated musicians in Eisenhower’s America. (You can bet this era will be well represented by beatnik Burns [in his then-forthcoming multi-part documentary on Jazz].) Even bebop’s own founders weren’t safe from the ideological putsch: when Bird himself made an album of pop standards with a band backed up by a string section, he was labeled a sellout. Then Elvis, to simplify matters greatly, reinvented swing for a new generation, and the Beatles arrived with sacks of great new melodies, and jazz was over as a popular music. Remarkably, beboppers and their fans still blame the drop-off on American racism. Miles once called pop music “white music,” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the Blue Note label, offers that “whites couldn’t appreciate anything that came from black culture.” Yet whites were as responsible as blacks for making stars of Ella, Basie, and other black swing artists. Only two kinds of music were allowed on the radio following the news of FDR’s death: classical and Duke Ellington.
Mark Gauvreau Judge, “Out of Tunes”, Chicago Reader, 2000-08-31.