Bebop or bop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody. It was developed in the early and mid-1940s. Hard bop later developed from bebop combined with blues and gospel music.
The creation of the musical language of bebop is generally credited to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and others who took part in jams after finishing more formal gigs elsewhere. Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, and the many small jazz clubs on West 52nd Street in Manhattan were important areas where musicians were free to improvise as they wished, free of what some considered the restrictions of an audience expecting smooth, danceable versions of popular songs.
Several earlier swing-era musicians are often cited as especially influential in the development of bebop, including saxophone players Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and guitarist Charlie Christian.
Much of this development took place around 1943, during a recording ban caused by a labor dispute of the American Federation of Musicians.
Consequently, bop emerged to the wider public somewhat fully-formed in 1945; and the reaction was, at least partly, incomprehension. Bebop never achieved the popularity of swing, and was criticized by some contemporaries for being too technical. (Cab Calloway opined famously that bebop was nonsensical "Chinese Music.") Gillespie was quoted as saying that this demanding technique was exactly his goal, to elevate the music to a level where only the most elite musicians could participate.
Though, like many older jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong expressed a dislike for bebop, he was revered by many boppers, who sometimes "quoted" his musical phrases by incorporating fragments of Armstrong's recorded improvisations in their own songs.
Many bebop tunes were based on chord progressions (also called chord changes) from popular songs, which allowed recording artists to avoid paying copyright fees. The chord changes to the song "I Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin were so often used that they are often referred to simply as "Rhythm Changes." Jazz musicians had always improvised solos over chord changes, but writing entirely new compositions based on existing chord changes was an innovation.
Bebop composers and improvisers, particularly Charlie Parker, stylistically employed frequent use of upper chord tones, i.e., ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, creating a more colorful and rich harmonic sound than past jazz styles.
Bebop is also heavily characterized by the flatted fifth. The flatted fifth, one of the two strong dissonances on the diatonic scale, was a relatively new addition to popular music at the time. Although it had occasionally been used for passing chords or special harmonic effects in the 20s or 30s, the feature had never played an integral role in the foundation of a style to the extent it does in bebop. After roughly a decade, the flatted fifth would become a “blue note” just as common as the undetermined thirds and sevenths in traditional blues (Brendt 15).
Bebop differed drastically from the highly organized compositions and “solid, yet springing 4/4 propulsion” of the swing era, and was instead characterized by fast tempos, complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and rhythm sections that laid down a steady beat only on the bass and the drummer’s ride cymbal (Rosenthal 12). The music itself was jarringly different to the ears of the public, who were used to the bouncy, organized, danceable tunes of those like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller during the swing era. Instead, bebop appeared to sound racing, nervous, and often fragmented. Everything was condensed, and no notes except the absolutely necessary were added. As one bop musician said, “everything that is obvious is excluded” (Gitler 16), which often amounted in the music going above the heads of listeners. The style was also highly dependent on improvisations, which even include non-traditional solo instruments such as the drums. In the playing, a theme would be presented in unison at the beginning and the end of each piece, with improvisational solos making up the body of the work.
The typical bebop combo consisted of bass, drums, and piano, with two horns. Perhaps the classic 1940s bebop combo was Charlie Parker on alto sax, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, Percy Heath on bass, and Bud Powell on piano.
The name bebop (also called rebop) is an onomatopoetic imitation of a characteristic quick two-note phrase that was played together by the lead instruments to introduce a solo or end a song.
Berendt, Joachim E. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond. Trans. Bredigkeit, H. and B. with Dan Morgenstern. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1975.
Gitler, Ira. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Rosenthal, David. Hard bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York : Oxford University Press, 1992.
Other notable musicians identified with bebop: