History of Bebop

The Beginning

The Bebop Era emerged from Swing Band musicians looking for a deeper way to connect to each other, the music, and the audience. During the 1920's and 30's, the main form of entertainment was dance that was provided by touring Swing Bands such as the Jimmy Dorsey Big Band, Artie Shaw, and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. My 90 year old grandmother use to reminisce about going down to the town center in Dayton, Ohio to dance, hang out with her friends, and see the Jimmy Dorsey Big Band perform. These 15 to 20 member big bands would usually feature the band leader and incorporate intricate arrangements of classic tin pan alley musical themes. Since this music was catered to dancing, tempos rarely reached above a marching pace, 120 bpm. These ensembles were large and often a burden to keep fully occupied. In addition, most of these bands were predominantly white, with the occasional black musician filling in. Because of the racial hierarchy during these Jim Crow days, musicians were compensated unjustly. Due to this segregation, and a need to express music in a new, distinctive way, African-American musicians would get together at after-hour jam sessions to work out new material. It was from these jam sessions a new style was emerging that would be later identified as Bebop.

Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Hill, 1947, Courtesy of William P. Gottlieb
Map of New York City and the location of Minton's Playhouse

The majority of these after-hour jam sessions occurred in Harlem, New York City. One of the most influential jam session occurred at Minton's Playhouse located at 210 West 118th Street, New York City. It was owned by a tenor saxophonist by the name of Henry Minton, who was also the first black delegate of the Musicians Union in New York City. Unlike today, almost all working, and non-working, musicians had ties to the Musician's Union, also known as the American Federation of Musicians. During this period of american music, the Union frowned upon jam sessions and fined any Union musicians associated with them. One of the reasons for this was that royalties and performance fees from clubs could not be collected at these informal gatherings. Because Henry Minton was a delegate for the Union, he was able to ensure that musicians would not get in trouble for having jam sessions at his club. And because of this, a new scene began to emerge, one where musicians could vent about their unfair treatment with a particular Swing Band, and work towards the music they were inspired by which included Lester young, and Coleman Hawkins, two tenor saxophonist that began to explore the concept of the "melodic line" in their improvised solos. Through jam sessions, such as the one at Minton's Playhouse, a new music that exhibited faster tempos, incorporated unusual chord progressions, and required musicians to be masters of their instrument, commanded listeners to listen, and not dance.

Lester Young
Shoe Shine Boy
Oh, Lady Be Good

But, what were the musical influences? What were these jam session musicians striving for? And, how did they know they were going in the right direction? Up until this point, improvised solos unusually elaborated the melody of the song. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young began to explore different tones, ones that were not part of the melody, but were part of the harmony. In 1936, Young recorded two influential solos with pianist and band leader, Count Basie. "Shoe Shine Boy" is up tempo hit with Young displaying a virtuosic command of his instrument and creating new improvised melodies that strayed from the original melodic theme. His solo over this song was committed to memory by the young alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who later became a pioneer of the Bebop sound. Also, in 1936, Young created an improvised solo over the George Gershwin song "Oh, Lady Be Good." This solo is regarded as one of Young's best improvisations with countless references to it as an influence by later generations of jazz musicians. Alto saxophonist and one of the few still living legends from the Bebop Era, Lee Konitz was given a blindfold test by the pianist of the Bad Plus, Ethan Iverson. One of the tracks from this blindfold test was Young's solo over "Oh, Lady Be Good." Not only did Konitz know the track within seconds, he sang and played the whole solo verbatim.

Although, Young is cited as a major influence by Bebop musicians, historian find Coleman Hawkins version of "Body and Soul" to be the predecessor to the Bebop revolution.