Sunday, December 13, 2009

Modern Jazz 101: The Bebop Era

Ever gone to a record store or jazz club and been intimidated (perhaps deliberately so) by the names and buzz words bandied about? What follows is the first of an irregular series adapted from my SCPS courses to help familiarize new listeners (particularly those making their way here from The Epoch Times) with the richness of modern jazz. Far from exhaustive, it is merely designed to give readers a few names and terms so they can hold their own with vinyl hounds and jazz snobs.

Jazz before the Bebop era seems even further distant than chronological years would suggest. It summons images of frayed photographs from the Ken Burns documentary. However, with Bebop, jazz became self-consciously modern, establishing cultural archetypes that continue to shape the way the general public perceives the music. While the clubs are no longer smoky, it is a style that still holds its currency. One can expect to hear jazz largely based on Bebop and the schools of jazz that directly evolved out of it in most of the major Manhattan jazz clubs on any given night.

Although dates are never conveniently discrete for any artistic movement, one could argue the Bebop era per se began in 1945 when alto-saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker recorded “Ko-Ko” and ended in 1953 with the great Massey Hall jazz concert, featuring a quartet of perhaps the five most influential Bebop musicians, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus.

As legend goes, something about the Charlie Barnett Big Band’s recording of “Cherokee” was stuck in Parker’s head. Eventually, it clicked, spurring Parker to compose “Ko-Ko,” a new piece of music based on the chords of “Cherokee.” Suddenly a new avenue of artistic exploration opened up in jazz. Instead of merely embellishing the melodies statements, solos starting using the underlying chords in a sort of sub-atomic alchemy. While Bebop melodies were considered idiosyncratic at the time, they were still recognizable as such. Unfortunately, they were not conducive for dancing, which took a pronounced toll on jazz’s popularity.

Some listeners did return to the music though. In fact, many were attracted as much by Parker’s personality as the music itself. He became the original tortured genius of jazz. Most non-jazz listeners are well aware of Parker’s notorious drug habit and his erratic lifestyle. In truth, many of the stories that still circulate regarding Parker were exaggerations or pure fabrications. The worst offending gossip may well have been Ross Russell, a record producer who recorded Bird for Dial Records and later wrote a sensationalistic book on the alto-player (however, Russell also wrote an under-rated jazz novel titled The Sound, which was also highly informed by Parker and his fellow boppers, but more sympathetic to the challenges of a musician’s life).

Of course, this revolutionary music was threatening to some established musicians, both aesthetically and economically. The big bands were already struggling in large part due to a wartime tax imposed on dancehalls. Many clubs now found it safer to book bebop artists with their small but loyal fanbase, rather than take a chance on a big band with perhaps a larger but less dependable following. Bebop was also difficult for many players to adapt. One prominent exception was the great swing tenor-saxophone player Coleman Hawkins, whose own playing many argue had been drifting into bebop waters for years. He was not Charlie Parker, but nothing musically ruffled the Hawk.

Despite his unassailable importance to American music, Parker never recorded for a major label. Still, he did record for one reputable producer, Norman Granz, who documented some of the finest swing jazz ever waxed on his Verve, Clef, and Norgran labels. Many of Granz’s records have a distinctive, instantly recognizable look thanks to his frequent use of cover artist David Stone Martin whose style seemed to elegantly combine modernist painting with whimsical caricature.

Martin’s art would eventually grace the covers of Bird’s most commercial release, Charlie Parker with Strings, the success of which would inspire a host of “with strings” albums, establishing an enduring jazz marketing gimmick. (Quick trivia: the only other musician to solo on the Bird string sessions was pianist Bernie Leighton.) The original intention was to showcase Parker in a romantic setting and that it does. While the strings can be syrupy sweet, happily Bird is still Bird. It is an album you can safely listen without any fear of scorn from the jazz police. This is not necessarily the case with some “with strings” imitators.

Parker tends dominate any discussion of the Bebop area, but his friend and musical cohort Dizzy Gillespie deserves near equal billing. More than anyone, Gillespie recorded, notated, and codified the revolutionary music he and Parker developed. Though he had a dramatic life as well, his wife was considered a stabilizing influence on him. As a result, unlike Parker, he had a long and productive career, well into the 1990’s.

Seeking to reconnect jazz with average listeners, Gillespie was the driving force in attempts to adapt the music of Bebop for traditional big bands. However, his greatest contributions might be his more successful fusions of Bebop and Afro-Cuban music. Collaborating with Cuban musicians like trumpeter-arranger Mario Bauzá and the ill-fated percussionist Chano Pozo, Gillespie popularized a Latinized jazz many called Cubop.

In 1953, Parker joined his colleagues for the now celebrated Massey Hall concert, which was recorded for Debut Records, the label owned by his former band-members, legendary bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. Though probably most closely associated with the Bebop movement, Mingus and Roach would also help shape the later Hardbop and Avant-garde schools of jazz.

Parker however, would be dead in less than two years. Yet his influence would continue to be pronounced and persistent, reflected in the scores younger musicians who followed in his footsteps, including one notable trumpeter. A young man from East St. Louis who idolized Parker, he was decent with Bebop’s breakneck tempos, but really excelled on slower, more lyrical standards. His name was Miles Davis and like the White Rabbit, one can follow him through the following four decades of jazz history, usually defining and even personifying many of the major musical innovations to come.