Bissell Bop


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Surfing around, I came across Roger Bissell's critique of Bebop Jazz:

Roger wrote it over 10 years ago, so I'm sure it's fresh in his mind ;) In any event, I have some comments.

Before 1940, jazz "concentrated on the melodic elaboration and ornamentation of a more or less familiar tune over the chords associated with that tune..." (SMAATJ, p. 136). Bop, on the other hand, "altered the chords and distorted the melody accordingly. There were also rhythmic and accented refinements and dislocations. When a group of bop musicians had finished with a given tune, it would be unrecognizable even to its composer." (SMAATJ, pp. 136-7)

I don't agree with this. Some may have altered chords or distorted the melody, but this is not part of the definition of Bebop. Technically speaking, Bebop (or Rebop) is what a certain group of musicians (Parker et al) called the music they were playing in clubs in the 40s. Bebop today can be defined as using a song as a foundation for extended soloing (using Jazz rhythms and harmony).

Unfortunately, as Pleasants points out, "what had begun as a device to exclude the square musicians at Minton's and other gathering places of the new elite was sustained in more public performances to exclude the square lay listener, too, the trick being to make a secret of the musical enterprise...[The secret, of course, was] the more or less familiar tune which, with its chord changes, would be the musicians' point of departure, but which would be neither announced nor played," unlike in traditional Dixieland and swing jazz." (SMAATJ, p. 142)

Again, this only applies to some musicians, not to Bebop itself. Most of the Bebop I've ever listened to I bought as records. The records have recognizable tunes (some standards, some originals) and the playing is always melodic and accessible. These musicians made a good living at this. They had to make what they did accessible or they wouldn't eat.

All the ingenuity in the world is artistically irrelevant, if your audience cannot reasonably be expected to perceive and understand your little hidden, creative gems.

I believe an audience can reasonably expect to understand Bebop. When performed at its best, Bebop is beautiful, melodic and exciting. There are multiple ways to enjoy it depending on your musical knowledge. The complete lay person can appreciate the rhythms and the melodies (including the improvised solos - i.e. improvised melodies). The more sophisticated can appreciate the technical abilities, the wit, creativity, etc. of the performer.

Unfortunately, "since in virtuosity, as in athletics, what one man accomplishes will quickly be accomplished by others, the initially exceptional soon became commonplace. With less inventive musicians it also became a bore...desperate but vain exhibitions of familiar and no longer purposeful...acrobatics." As a result, "...since for many in the audience, possibly the majority, executive brilliance had always been the principal attraction...once the initially compensatory virtuosity began to pall" many lost interest in jazz." (SMAATJ, p. 145)

Virtuosity is only one component. The performer is revealing much about himself when he solos. It is not a target to hit, it's an expression of self. Thus, the great soloist does not become boring just as a great orator of language does not become boring.

A lot of it is good—if not great—art, but you really have to hunt for it.

That is true of most art ;) I would add that your hunting will return much great art in Bebop. There is great beauty to be found.

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For instrumental jazz to qualify as bebop (or just bop), it not only has to have recurring chord structures--it also has to have a distinctive approach to rhythm, which can be understood as a reaction against Swing rhythm.

Swing: lots of quarter notes, accents on the 1st and 3rd beats of a 4-beat measure, lots of syncopation

Bop: lots of eighth notes, accents on the 2nd and 4th beats, little syncopation

I agree with your overall defense of bop, of course. Bop was never music for a mass audience, the way Swing succeeded in being for a time. But I question the notion that it is too hard for a reasonably musical listener to understand.


PS. The live recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's Town Hall concert of June 22, 1945, rediscovered a few years ago and now available on Bob Sunenblick's Uptown label, is really something.

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PS. The live recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's Town Hall concert of June 22, 1945, rediscovered a few years ago and now available on Bob Sunenblick's Uptown label, is really something.

I'll have to check that out.

For those who think Bebop is too inaccessible, I suggest the Max Roach/Clifford Brown records. Brown's solos are so musical that I can personally sing many of them (I'm a drummer which may help). Examples:

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I love both bop and swing beyond belief. Nowadays, I tend to listen to more swing, mainly because I've been learning swing dancing. An interesting aside on that- the basic East Coast swing dance step is a six count step that's applied over the 4- it's extremely hard to account for precise origins, but I'm pretty sure that Arthur Murray hardened that particular step up. That one's used for faster things so you don't kill yourself. But by far the most commonly-seen is a triple step, which would voice out like ROCK-step, tri-ple-step, tri-ple-step. Point being, you can get a lot of "swing" out of it- over the barline kinds of cycling.

One reason swing was (remains) generally more popular is simple- it's great to dance to. Bop is more to the intellect (I think so anyway). There was a point where bop got, maybe, hyper-cereberal; it was developing harmonically, people were working like hell to create more and more complex variations off of those of others (already harmonically complex). I think it got a little dry there for a minute, but it was still cool.

For me, the ones that always come to mind first are Parker, and then Coltrane. Parker still blows my mind everytime I listen to him. I get a spirituality out of Coltrane that is unique, though.

I always throw this around in my head, but in the end I'd also say that I happen to get into East Coast more than West Coast (oddly, that goes with swing dancing, too), but it's all good.

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Clifford Brown is probably my favorite bebop artist. I was devastated to learn that he died so young. What a tasty, creative, jazz trumpeter. <shaking head in admiration and awe>

I first learned to appreciate Charlie Parker from the wonderful Super Sax recordings, which took some of his solos and harmonized them for a sax section with rhythm section. Also on those recordings were my two favorite bebop trombonists, Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana.

These guys are all great, IMO.


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Clifford Brown, OH YEAH!!!

It's like every time I turn around I hear something I haven't for a long time, or something obscure I haven't. His phrasing was incredible.

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