America’s Troubled Past
Stereotypes regarding blacks and those of African heritage predate the arrival of African slaves to the North American continent. For centuries, descendants of the Diaspora labored both literally and figuratively under the perpetuated myth that blacks were inferior to whites.
A 1738 clipping from an advertisement featured in a Philadelphia newspaper, American Weekly Mercury, offering slaves for sale.
And while there were remarkable figures down this track of history that resisted and gave lie to the prejudices that whites held against blacks but it would not be until the dawn of the 20th century that America and her dominant culture would be shook up. From the dance floor, to the band stand and finally to the radio waves, a new artistic movement was giving rise to a cultural movement that would resist these stereotyping. But it was not to settle solely for resistance; it clamored for change. A decisive change that would see Blackamericans as equals in their own land and it was jazz that would provide that vehicle. This new religion of cultural resistance would come to be known as bebop. It would have many priests and priestesses, but without a doubt, its pope would be known as Charles “Yardbird” Parker”.
From the Dance Floor to the Band Stand
Much of Charlie Parker’s early life remains shrouded in hearsay and mystery but without a doubt, he is the high priest of the bebop movement, at least in terms of its sound. Parker is solely responsible for taking the jazz sounded that preceded him and altering its sound such that it became undanceable. Parker, and many black musicians of his era, felt that their musical endeavors were not being taken seriously – mere entertainment for whites to dance to. By spreading up the tempo, introducing complex harmonic and melodic tendencies and even reworking classic show tunes [much to the chagrin of the original authors!], Parker formulated a new musical expression that would become known as bebop.
Bebop, like other artistic movements, was not conceived in a vacuum. World War II played an important backdrop that informed the mood of many musicians that came up around this time. When America was pledging herself abroad to fight racism, many blacks felt that she was double dealing under the table in the way blacks were treated by both her citizens as well as the government.
Dizzy Gillespie – Preaching the Gospel of Parker
If Charlie Parker was the high priest of bebop then Dizzy Gillespie would one of the early disciples that would spread its gospel. A musical genius in his own right, Gillespie would come to be seen as the movements leader as Parker’s drug dependencies would hamper his latter career and indeed lead to his early demise. And like many other black jazz musicians, much of Gillespie’s music would have an Afro-centric flair to it. One of his most famous compositions, A Night In Tunisia:
Bebop would provide a framework from which Blackamerican jazz musician could recreate themselves, both imaginatively at first, and later, in the avant-garde movements, physically as well. Many black jazz musicians saw bebop as a mode of expressing blackness – a modality that the dominant political, social and cultural climate would not allow.
Resisting the Dominant Culture
Like all power artistic movements, it is only a matter of time until the dominant society will seek to legitimize [deeming it “cool”, attending jazz clubs, etc.] the art as well as the artists, leading to justification. With the gradual acceptance of jazz by the dominant culture, many black jazz musicians sought to keep pace with the wave legitimization, moving into new areas of musical and artistic expression.
Bebop and Intellectualism – The Rise of Afro-Centric Music
Bebop also provided its artists modes of expression that could blend eccentrism, intellectualism, black pride and host of other ideas that would challenge popular consensus of what constituted blackness. Upon seeing the gradual acceptance of bebop, the music would change pace again, moving off in new directions, with the avant-garde being one of its most cerebral expressions.
If one of bebop’s initial contentions was to move the attention from the dance floor to the band stand, avant-garde sought to move the music entirely out of preconceived notions of harmony and structure. Highly cerebral in nature, the avant-garde movement could be compared to other European artistic movements that refused to be canonized as seen here in this 1969 performance of the Miles Davis Quintet from their Bitches Brew album:
Preaching To the Masses
Many bebop musicians saw their music as more than simple rebellion. They also saw within it a healing force and an educational one, as we see in this interview with Archie Shepp:
John Coltrane – Bebop’s Gnostic Saint
Religion and more specifically, spirituality, played a significant role in the growth and development of both the genre and the musicians. Through the medium of bebop and the explorations of black intellectualism, black jazz musicians appropriated and took from multiple religious and spiritual traditions from Islam to Hinduism. John Coltrane, one of the iconic masters of bebop, his best selling album remains A Love Supreme, which is infused with spiritual-like chants and whose liner notes contained translations from the Qur’an.
Bebop indelibly left its mark on the artistic landscape of not only the United States, but the world. This phenomenon of black music would eventually grow and prosper far beyond the borders of America. Its reception in Europe was hailed as genius by many, while it took America many years to finally realize this. In fact, many Blackamerican jazz artists moved abroad for either a time [Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell to name two] or permanently like such luminaries as Johnny Griffin. While largely forgotten in modern times, bebop has left behind a legacy of musical genius infused with cultural rebellion as well as fostering a safe haven for black intellectualism to grow and prosper.