Jazz historians explain the coming of bebop—the radically new jazz style that established itself toward the end of World War II—as a revolutionary phenomenon. The motives ascribed to the young pioneers in the style range from dissatisfaction with the restrictions on freedom of expression imposed by the then dominant big-band swing style to the deliberate invention of a subtle and mystifying manner of playing that could not be copied by uninitiated musicians. It has even been suggested that bebop was invented by black musicians to prevent whites from stealing their music, as had been the case with earlier jazz styles.
Yet when Dizzy Gillespie, one of the two chief architects of the new style, was asked some thirty years after the fact if he had been a conscious revolutionary when bebop began, his answer was
“Not necessarily revolutionary, but evolutionary. We didn't know what it was going to evolve into, but we knew we had something that was a little different. We were aware of the fact that we had a new concept of the music, if by no other means than the enmity of the [older] musicians who didn't want to go through a change.... But it wasn't the idea of trying to revolutionize, but only trying to see yourself, to get within yourself. And if somebody copied it, okay!”
Were he able, the other great seminal figure of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, would probably amplify Gillespie's opinion that the new music arose from inner needs rather than external factors. His often quoted statement, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom —if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn,” certainly implies such an outlook. But Parker died too young to reflect in tranquility on the genesis of bebop.
At first, the new style had no name. It was labeled “bebop” after it had begun to appear in late 1944 on “Swing Street,” the two-block stretch on Manhattan's West 52nd Street that was then the jazz center of the world.
Bebop was the title of a Gillespie composition recorded in early 1945. The phrase was an onomatopoeic rendering of a rhythmicmelodic figure characteristic of the new style. Other, similar words —“rebop,” “mopmop,” “klook-mop”—had limited currency, but “bebop,” later shortened to the more pithy “bop,” was preferred by the jazz publicists and journalists who championed the new music.
In its relatively short reign, bebop changed the course of jazz. From bebop on, for better or worse, jazz was both popular and serious music, in the best sense of both terms.
Bop produced a body of music of lasting value, among it some of jazz’s greatest works. Some of these are on this record. Art proceeds at an accelerated pace in the twentieth century, and what seemed strange and abrasive to the ears of 1945 sounds logical and clear in 1976. Yet the unison flights of Gillespie and Parker have never been equaled, not even by Clifford and Sonny Rollins of the last great pure bop group. And no jazz improviser has surpassed the authority, imaginative sweep, and emotional impact of Parker’s “Embraceable You” or his heartrending “Parker’s Mood.” Such works will stand the test of time.
Bebop is a uniquely American creation, the result of an outburst of creative energy rare even in the history of that uniquely American and energetic music called jazz. Invented by members of what sociologists define as an oppressed minority, it is nonetheless an affirmation of the life force, revolutionary in impact but evolutionary in essence.