Social Origins of Bebop

It was no coincidence that jazz’s rise to prominence was at the juncture of World War II and the increasing demands for social equality from Blackamericans, many of whom including those that were jazz musicians, participated in the war and wanted their public and political due. These were the tumultuous times that would give birth to jazz, or more correctly, bebop. And from this unique American musical form would come a art form that would challenge and resist the status quo of dominant white thought regarding the inferiority of blacks as well as incubate new a consciousness of black intellectualism.

To appreciate bebop’s stance in history, one must observe the history that precedes jazz; specifically, the history of Blackamericans and their ascendance out of slavery and a culture that, as of the 1940’s, was still pro-Jim Crow, either de jure in the North or de facto in the South. For many black musicians, bebop was a means of both insulating and protesting against a cultural system that produced signs and signifiers of black inferiority. These sentiments were gelled in the minds of Blackamerican musicians after returning from World War II, a war that was supposed to have been fought against the notion of racism. And yet, many blacks felt that hypocritically, that same government that sent them off to war still perpetrated state-sanctioned discrimination against Blackamericans, and turned a blind eye to public hostility; both physical and psychological. Thus, it was no coincidence that bebop took musical form with high tempos and hard driving polyrhythms, characteristics that would define its sound, struck back against the ideology of the dominant white culture just as percussively and psychologically as they perceived themselves to be attacked.

Jazz’s musical roots come primarily from the blues, a form of folk music that has its roots in Africa, and secondarily, swing, big band and ragtime music, coming out of the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much like its musical forefather, jazz lamented over its existential crisis of being subjugated by a dominant white power. Unlike the blues, however, bebop was not to remain a catharsis, sung in waiting for the hope of salvation through the benevolence of God. Rather, rather jazz sought to beseech the wrath of God, its music being fueled with the anger and rage of a people’s mistreatment for some three hundred-plus years. This anger was so prevalent in the music, that by the latter part of the 20th century, bebop and its alternate forms, such as post-bop and avant-garde, were perceived as “the angry black man’s music”. This collective anger is evident in the recounting of how jazz was perceived even as late as the 1970’s, by Ed Michel, a music produced for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, Impulse!:

By the seventies “it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,”.

Not content to site on the sidelines, jazz throughout its history would comment time and time again on social justice topics ranging from the plight of Blackamericans in the prison-complex system (such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, an album in direct reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots) to such lamentations of the past as John Coltrane’s Song For The Underground Railroad.

At the transition point between jazz and swing/big band music, was a desire on the part of these musicians to be taken seriously. Many felt that as members of swing bands, they were forced to take a back seat to the audience — a predominantly white audience at that. Their music was reduced to a sort of ambiance, where particularity of the musician was inconsequential. Billy Ekstine, who led one of the most famous jazz ensembles during the 40’s and 50’s, commented that many popular songs were re-arranged with fast tempos where the audience could not dance to them, forcing them to pay attention to the band as the primary focus.

As jazz musicians sought to stake out their territory as concert-style performers, with a captive audience, they encountered many forms of social resistance along the way. In the 1940’s, many jazz musicians (primarily Blackamerican) were not allowed to perform in white-owned clubs in the South. One way of circumventing the problem was by embracing Islam as a sidecar expression of their jazz identities. Through becoming Muslim, and taking Muslim names, many Blackamerican jazz musicians found they could enter white-owned establishments, play there, eat there, etc. Such incidents were not confined solely to the South. In Delaware, Oliver Mesheux, a trumpeter, was initially detained from entering a white club but when presenting his race identification card, which was marked “W” for white and with his newly assumed name, Mustafa Dalil, he was allowed to enter .

Striving for a more genuine reception did not come without its backlashes from the dominant white constituency. Many whites saw bebop as an illegitimate musical expression. It was castigated as a jumble of sounds, too unintelligible for the human ear. In her 1921 article, Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation, Anne Shaw Faulkner describes jazz as evil and that it was the natural expression of bizarre Negro dances; a voodoo accompaniment to “half-crazed” barbarisms . The allegations about bebop were consistent to popular conceptions about blacks during this period: that Blackamericans were linked to barbaric practices, were intellectually degraded and morally abject. Some even took it so far to allege that jazz and bebop could have a morally toxic affect on the more scrupulous Anglo-Saxons, converting them to the “savage” tendencies of blacks and other minorities. To hear that bebop was anti-Christian or even anti-civilizational was not unheard of.

But it was not simply the dominant cultures perceptions that bebop sought to combat. It was also the system of exploitation that many if not most black musicians had to deal with in the early 20th century. Socially, Blackamericans had few rights and musicians even fewer. Many were forced to play without contracts and had little legal power if their rights were infringed upon. Economics proved to be one of the crucial points that younger musicians in the bebop movement sought to countermand. They also criticized their older Blackamerican counterparts as being complacent to accepting these terms from the white-dominated music industry. Younger musicians saw musicians who came out of the established system as acquiescing to white dominance, giving up their rights to control their own musical destinies. The importance of economics cannot be over emphasized and was one of the many reasons younger black jazz musicians jumped ship from the swing bands to the small combo bebop ensembles. Feeling less restriction, both socially and artistically, many felt they had a greater influence on how they were to be compensated economically as well as their artistic endeavors taken more seriously.

As much as post World War II sentiments played a role in the development of bebop, it cannot be reduced as nothing more than a reaction to it. Rather, it was itself symbolic of the changes that abounded at this time. With increasing numbers of Blackamericans moving north in search of better socio-economic prospects, this newer generation was exposed to bourgeoisie culture and the various intellectual and artistic movements, especially in Harlem, the birthplace of bebop. This flux created new potentialities for alternate modes of expression of blackness in America, modes that would not be housed in the dominant white and black middle-class cultural values.

The list of bebop’s influential musicians would be beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be prudent to name a few important names. On any list, Dizzy Gillespie would rank quite high. Gillespie was the primary musician who, while not inventing the style (that would Charlie Parker), made it famous and known to the greater world. Gillespie, who grew up in the South, was confronted with the realities of a white supremacist construct. He saw bebop as a form that could transcend the racist system he was subject to: “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival”. Other musicians, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson to name a few, would continue to champion the ideal of bebop as a means of resisting dominant values and asserting their own political voice according to their own proclivities.

Bebop also championed a new era in black intellectualism. A musical form that required the technical mastery of a musicians chosen instrument, it also placed demands on the musician to have advanced knowledge of music theory. Bebop was a musical form that borrowed not only from its past, namely the blues and ragtime music, but also from European classical music. Bebop musicians were free to study and interpret the musical works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name a few, and many were classically trained musicians.

Beyond all of the prerequisites that a bebop musician had to master was the relation of bebop to the newly-conceived mode of blackness. Bebop musicians saw themselves embarking on a new modality of blackness that would incorporate an intellectual astuteness with a sophisticated urban sensibility. Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer, was of the opinion as to how he saw the relationship between bebop and blackness: “Whatever you go into, go into it intelligently.” Bebop helped in swear in a new era of black intellectual consciousness and many of the prominent poets and writers of its time, such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, were both affected by and contributed to it. Ellison saw bebop as a cultural revolution, where the world was opening and up and society could now present a whole new set of circumstances and opportunities.

This intellectual rebellion manifested in both the music and the mode in which the musicians carried themselves. Along with the idea of shattering preconceived white ideas on the supposed mental inferiority of blacks to white, bebop musicians fostered an environment where there music and their fans tackled intellectual matters. From the choice of songs titles to the style of dress (horned-rimmed glasses, goatees, suits and the like), all this constituted a new way of the bebop musician carrying his or herself, a direct affront to white-held beliefs on the nature of blackness.

Bebop’s rebellion against social norms did not come without a darker side. Along with the sophisticated musical styles also came a lifestyle that was never able to successfully detach itself from alcohol and drug use. In fact, some practitioners of the art even embraced drug abuse as part and parcel of being a bebop musician. Sadly, many prominent young musicians spent the better part of the careers behind bars due to drug charges (Dexter Gordon missed most of the 50’s and Frank Morgan most of the 60’s). In fact, Charlie Parker, the founded of the bebop sound, died due to complications of drug use. But for better or worse, all of these social attitudes cemented bebop as being wholly against the status quo of early and mid- 20th century America.

As is the case with many art forms, bebop ran the risk of appropriation from the dominant culture. Initially an underground movement, eventually bebop won itself a wider audience. Whites would travel uptown to Harlem to hear the performances of the masters of the form by the 1950’s came about. By the 1960’s, bebop was fully appropriated by whites as a “hip” and “cool” aesthetic, interwoven into a the lifestyle of urban whites. In reaction to this, bebop would shift its gears again and seek to recreate itself in the form of post-bop and the avant-garde jazz movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as bebop had done away with ragtime sensibilities, so had free jazz, avant-grade and post-bop done away some the canon that bebop had forged in the 1940’s. New structures of music were introduced such as modal forms, heavily tinged with eastern sounds and rhythms, as well as the free jazz and avant-garde movements which contained little of the harmonic and melodic structures of bebop. It was also to these movements that many of the pro-black and culturally-resistant bebop musicians would migrate to. Initially trained in the bebop form, they felt that bebop had been compromised with its ascendancy to white acceptance.

Much of bebop’s sensibilities can be understood as the resistance of blacks to the labeling of the dominant culture. As has been mentioned, whites had many preconceived notions of blackness that did not sit well with this new crop of young musicians. Bebop sought to break those stereotypes. And even after bebop itself had begun its assimilation and appropriation by whites, many of these musicians moved to new musical expressions such as the alt-bop movements of free jazz and avant-garde in an attempt to avoid being labeled. Gone was the tradition of reinterpreting old show tunes. Instead, much of the music became quite conceptual and cerebral; so abstract, that in fact, a clash ensued between the old and new guard. The likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, their musical efforts were criticized as sacrilegious to the tradition of bebop. This sentiment only fueled the alt-bop movements to continue in their vain. Only with breaking ties completely with the past, with a tradition that had sold itself off to the dominant culture, could they remain to jazz’s roots.

In its current form, jazz today resembles little of the insurrection of its formidable years. This is due in part that society itself has changed in some ways. With the passing of various civil rights acts, changes in social mores and overall improvement of life for many Blackamericans, jazz and more specifically, bebop, drifted from the limelight. Even at the height of bebop’s popularity, bebop commanded the attention of only a percentage of Blackamerican imagination. In fact, while bebop was enjoying its largest number of patrons, most Blackamericans were turning their attention to rhythm and blues. And yet, as we see today, black youth culture will always seem to find a voice. As many Blackamerican families continued to suffer from economic deprivation and social neglect, it would be black youth that would grab the world’s attention; only this time it would be hip-hop as the musical form. Of which the relation between the two “bops” can only hoped to be explored in another paper.

Citations and further readings:

  • Kahn, Ashley. The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. London: Granta Publications, 2006.
  • Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. To Be Or Not To Bop. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
  • Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal. August 1921: 16-34.
  • Porter, Eric. “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Bebop.” American Music Vol 17, No. 4 (1999): 423-27.

2 Comments Social Origins of Bebop

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