Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BOP (jazz genre)

A genre developed by black jazz musicians in the early 1940s, the beginning of the modern era in jazz. The word is short for re-bop or be-bop, perhaps onomatopoeiac in origin from the music itself, or possibly from scat-singing. An origin has been suggested in 'Arriba!' or 'Riba!', literally 'up', allegedly the Afro-Cuban musician's equivalent of 'Go!' It was heard as early as 1928, on 'Four Or Five Times', by McKinney's Cotton Pickers: 'be-bop one, be-bop two...'

Rhythm section playing had become smoother and the technical fluency of soloists higher than ever; influenced by Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, Jo Jones, Art Tatum and others, younger musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Max Roach, Curley Russell, Al Haig, Clyde Hart etc jammed at Harlem clubs like Minton's, where the house leader Teddy Hill was sympathetic. (Jamming was against union rules, because people played free or for tips, but some local union officials turned a blind eye.) They improvised on chords instead of the melody, inventing new tunes from the chord structures of standards; they used altered chords and higher intervals, insisting on using a wider range of notes (a process that had been going on in classical music for centuries).

Bassist Milt Hinton lived across the street from Minton's: 'So many kids from downtown, kids that couldn't blow, would come in and they would interrupt. So Diz told me on the roof one night at the Cotton Club, ''Now look, when we go down to the jam session, we're gonna say we're gonna play, 'I Got Rhythm', but we're gonna use these changes. Instead of using the B-flat and the D-flat, we're gonna use B-flat, D- flat, G-flat or F and we change.'' We would do these things on the roof and then we'd go down to Minton's, and all these kids would be up there. ''What're y'all gonna play?'' We'd say, '' 'I Got Rhythm','' and we'd start out with this new set of changes ... and eventually they would put their horns away, and we could go on and blow in peace and get our little exercise.'

Tempi were often furiously fast or very slow (but even when the tempo was slow the soloist might play fast, using machine-gun runs of sixteenth notes). The bassist in bop tended to play on the beat rather than slightly behind it as in swing, because the drummer was now playing more music as well as marking time; this imparted forward urgency to the music. New accents within measures together with phrases of unusual lengths changed even the rhythmic nature of the music; the two-beat feeling of traditional jazz finally disappeared completely while an intense and technically brilliant music was created, full of pride, sardonic wit and fierce joy. The scene was accompanied by attitudes and language incomprehensible to outsiders (some of it had been pioneered by Young; the zany wit of Gillespie was also important). The first bop records were made in 1944-5 by small groups on independent labels, mainly Savoy. Bop big bands were led by Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Boyd Raeburn in the late '40s, but were poorly documented on disc because of musicians' union strikes.

Among older men, Budd Johnson was important: the Texas tenor saxophonist wrote arrangements for Earl Hines, who hired young boppers, then for Eckstine, Raeburn, Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman, all the most important modern big bands. The chromatic style of Coleman Hawkins had been influential; he encouraged boppers, hiring them for record dates; but Cab Calloway called it 'Chinese music'. Boppers often flatted the fifth note of a chord, inventing short routes between keys; Eddie Condon said, 'We don't flatten our fifths, we drink 'em' (but Igor Stravinsky had used flatted fifths in 1910, and they can be found in jazz records since the '20s). There were white boppers in black combos (e.g. Red Rodney, Al Haig), but pressure on leaders to practise Crow Jim sent them into obscurity later; many made comebacks as bop became repertory music in the '70s.

Some said that 'bop left jazz in a shambles', but that is nonsense; the jazz content in pop music was decreasing anyway, and bop wasn't a revolution but a further flowering of an art form already decades old, towards emancipation of black music from ballrooms and taverns by making demands on listeners. The orthodoxy is that bop was not commercially successful because it wasn't dance music, but bop was fun, and Gillespie said he could dance to it. Gillespie formed a Dee-Gee label '51 and quickly went broke, but the music he recorded holds up much better than the pop music of the period. Bop was very obviously black music, and America c.1950 was not yet ready for black pride; in any case, the music soon developed in several directions. Sheer beauty resulted from 'modern jazz' in the 1950s, e.g. Davis's quintet of '56; composer/arrangers such as Tadd Dameron, Mal Waldron, George Russell, Gil Evans and Benny Golson applied their talent to new harmonic ideas; bop also led to 'hard bop', less frenetic but with modern harmony and a strong backbeat, appealing to R&B club audiences, thus entering the commercial mainstream (and leading to the clichés of jazz-funk '70s). More importantly, it led ultimately to more freedom for musicians/composers: see Jazz; also Cubop.