This week, I'm going to write about a crucial point in Jazz history. You can learn more about this era in "Come In and Hear the Truth: Jazz and Race on 52nd Street" by Patrick Burke, a professor of mine at Wash U and a knowledgeable and insightful expert on the culture of Jazz (an opinion and shout out that is unsolicited, but much deserved). This week is part one, about the cultural occurrences that led to the beginning of Bebop. The next installment will be about the musicians and their personal inspirations for new musical expression.
Jazz music, along with all art forms, has developed expansively over time. During the World War II era however, Jazz went through its largest and most drastic advancements. The music had never changed so much as it did from Swing to Bebop. The Jazz scene was due for change, however. Swing had been the popular form for quite some time. But World War II hit the big band swing scene hard and made it difficult for bands to make enough money to continue. Because of supply rationing and the draft, everything, from sidemen to shellac for records, was in short supply. Finally, a ban by the American Federation of Musicians on the recording of instrumental music and an entertainment tax against the same instrumental music in 1944-45 made it nearly impossible for bands to survive. Many musicians went unemployed or into the army. The only bands left became desperate for audiences, since they could only perform live and could not record. These bands became bigger and heavier, and featured over-complicated, under-fulfilling arrangements. Jazz fans were losing their attachment to the increasingly poppy swing and were primed for something, anything, new.
A population of jazz fans, generally the older and whiter ones, took to the old New Orleans style and heralded characters such as Bunk Johnson and Sydney Bechet. They felt that Jazz had grown beyond it's means and intentions and should revert back to earlier styles. But a whole different generation of Jazz musicians, generally, young, black, and well educated, were out of organized groups and created the jam session, a nightly all-night rehearsal/performance in underground bars and clubs in New York City on 52nd street and in Harlem. These musicians were frustrated by the Jazz scene and the general state of America and needed to just be themselves. The early 40s presented the perfect breeding ground for what would come to be called Bebop.
These nightly jam sessions were more for the players than the audience, only a few recordings of any of these sessions exist. The musicians got the chance to play whatever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, for however long they wanted, without any restrictions from the public or record companies. Feeding off of each other, they broke musical boundaries and began to conceive of Jazz in a new way. No longer would they play strictly arranged, pleasing popular pieces. Instead they create their own style, highly sophisticated, extremely complicated, and very expressive.
I'll get more into the musical stylistic details in part 2, but I'm going to use two different recordings of the song After You've Gone, to highlight some of the differences in Jazz brought forth by the change in performance scenarios.
Benny Goodman was know as the 'King of Swing' and the reason why is immediately obvious as you hear the beginning of Goodman's recording of After You've Gone- the song has got a rhythm that makes you wanna move. It is, however, very organized. With the exception of the band leader, Benny Goodman, each individual musician operates as part of a section and always plays at the same time as his section mates, with the lone exception being the odd solo not taken by Goodman. The drums, bass, and piano form the rhythm section and retain a solely rhythmic function throughout the song. They pretty much maintain the swing beat, while the horn and wind sections either accompany a soloist or trade off playing the melody and harmony. Besides for the instrumentation, the song's arrangement is very strict and leaves very little room for individuality. The solos are all a prescribed number of measures and the horns and winds often play in a call-and-response pattern which leaves no room for alterations. The song is very pleasant and poppy, but doesn't have much depth or complication to it.
The second version of After You've Gone, by Charlie Parker, sounds immediately different from the first. This is a small group not a big band, so individual musicians took the role sections used to hold. The lone exception is the rhythm, which is still comprised of two members, a drum set and bass, but has lost the piano, which is now allowed to express its melodic side and play solos and accompaniments. The rhythm itself is driving and relentless, not made for dancing but instead to challenge the musicians' skill. Similarly, the solos are long and very difficult. The solos are split pretty evenly between the horn and wind players, who now solo exclusively and rarely accompany each other. They go on for a seemingly indeterminate amount of time- until the the soloist has said what he is going to say and is ready to move on. The rehearsal atmosphere of the jam session was largely responsible for this change in the approach to soloing. In big bands, musicians would have to compete with at least a dozen band mates for just 8 measures of soloing time in a song that was no longer than 4 minutes at a concert. But in a small group jam session, there were a lot more opportunities to solo, since there were only a few other soloists with whom you could split time and the all night the jam sessions meant that songs could go on for as long as the artists wanted.
This increased opportunity for expression combined with an increased influence to be expressive led the musicians to re-imagine how they played the music and lead to this drastic shift in the playing and conceiving of Jazz music. Before Bebop, Jazz was a thought of as a low-brow art form, an inferior style of dance music that was only for the poor and uneducated. But with the sophisticated shift in philosophy that accompanied bebop, Jazz became considered the cultured, heady, and hi-brow art it is thought of today.
Please check back next week for the next 'Music Monday' from SumofChange.com.
Please email me at Malasky@SumofChange.com for questions/comments/corrections/sources