Jazz has always welcomed innovators. Duke Ellington's new compositions made Jelly Roll Morton seem old hat, Lester Young changed the voice of the tenor-saxophone and Charlie Christian pioneered an approach to jazz performance on guitar which still carries weight today. Bebop, on the other hand, was not simply the outcome of a single individual's drive and musical vision, it was a complete movement in its own right, made up of artists dedicated to change. With its advent in the early 1940s, jazz was never the same again.
So, what is bebop exactly - what does this strange word mean? French critic Hugues Panassie, something of a reactionary in these things, dismissed bebop (usually known now as bop) as 'a form of music distinct from jazz' while trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie described it simply as 'just the way my friends and I feel jazz.' Saxophonist Charlie Parker, the new music's finest exponent, held a more measured view, inadvertently echoing that of Panassie when he said it was 'something entirely separate and apart.' It's a measure of bebop's originality, its 'avant-garde' status, that it is still considered by many to be 'modern' today.
When bebop first appeared, with its new harmonic ideas, its departure from rhythmic conventions and the extraordinary daring of its performers, it was initially disruptive. Bop divided critical and popular opinion, with traditionalists (quaintly described as 'mouldy fygges') aligned against modernists, worlds apart, the two factions seemingly at war. Boppers were dismissive of the older musicians who stayed true to conventional melodic improvisation, while the swing era veterans saw bebop as a musical affront. Record companies fanned the flames, placing contrasting groups in direct confrontations on disc and some club owners even booked similarly disparate combos for highly contrived 'trad v. modern' battles of jazz. The press were, as ever, quick to look for sensational angles, ignoring the music and concentrating on the bopper's unusual use of 'jive' language and their penchant for goatee beards, shades and berets.
While it is tempting to suppose that bebop erupted as a fully-formed concept, its origins were more random than that, depending on a number of scattered, like-minded individuals who shared similar views and ideas. Swing bandsmen, especially the younger ones, had begun to question the established assumptions of their trade. Some were taken by the harmonic concepts and voicings of the more challenging classical composers, like Stravinsky or Prokofiev, while others had been experimenting with advanced chord extensions and inversions at informal jam sessions. They also sought to challenge the need for the insistent, steady four-four beat that was a characteristic of swing combos and big bands.
With the double bass carrying the rhythmic pulse, drummer felt free to embellish the beat with a series of punctuations (known as 'dropping bombs' in bop parlance). These percussive interjections prompted soloists to attempt complex, technically demanding improvisations, marked by 'asymmetrical phrases and accent patterns,' as the Grove Dictionary of Jazz puts it. In addition, their extemporisations carried an enriched harmonic vocabulary, the original songs on which they improvised often based on reworked show tunes or standards, with the composer's harmonies substantially altered and extended.
In time, these varied ideas and influences fused as the experimenters began to seek each other out at after-hours sessions, pooling their knowledge, and creating a new language for the music. Happily, recording companies, many quite small, were on hand to capture these young Turks at play in a series of seminal recordings, all issued originally as single 78rpm discs. It is these important musical artefacts that are included in our wide-ranging collection, all carefully restored, each spotlighting soloists of significance anxious to put down their personal markers as contributing voices in the bebop revolution.
It is only proper that our first title should feature bop's most substantive improviser, the alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker. Born in Kansas City in 1920, Parker matured early, picking up a destructive addition to narcotics as well as a passion for jazz while still a teenager. Having dropped out of school at fourteen, he gained playing experience with local groups before starting his path to jazz glory with the big band led by pianist Jay McShann. The complexity of his solos on McShann's Decca recordings stunned and encouraged other young musicians right across the United States. Trumpeter Howard McGhee caught Parker on a McShann broadcast: 'I had never heard anything like that in my life. - we all stood there with our mouths open,' he said.
Parker (usually known as 'Bird') later played in the orchestras of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine with other free spirits, before settling in New York City. Here he cemented his partnership with Dizzy Gillespie, bebop's other principal standard-bearer, before fronting his own groups in clubs on 52nd Street (known as Swing Street), home to the greatest names in jazz. After a period in California during which he was hospitalised to treat his heroin addiction, Parker returned to New York and founded the quintet featured on Bluebird, our opening track.
Parker's front line companion is trumpeter Miles Davis, then just twenty-one, and the man destined to carry jazz forward into the post-bop age. Bluebird is taken at a steady lope, Bird and Davis playing a jaunty harmonised line, ahead of Davis's muted solo, the harmonic intervals quite striking before Parker enters, his wonderful facility buoyed up by Tommy Potter's rock-steady bass line. Gillespie's original version of Anthropology follows, combining Dizzy's trumpet with Milt Jackson's vibraharp, the trumpeter's clever harmonic knowledge and technical skills showing up well. The guitar solo is by Bill De Arango, a Charlie Christian disciple who later drifted into country rock. This intricate, zig-zagging theme is the archetypal bop composition.
Davis takes over the lead on Milestones, an even-paced original, with Parker on tenor saxophone this time. Davis sounds tentative (his technique was never the equal of Gillespie's) before pianist John Lewis (later the co-founder of the celebrated Modern Jazz Quartet) offers a keyboard reflection. Pianist Tadd Dameron was from Cleveland and the first major composer-arranger to successfully employ the bop vocabulary. He also fell prey to the same destructive addictions as Parker. The Squirrel is a defining bebop theme, with its sudden rhythmic shifts and inherent melodic drama. Dameron's sidemen include the inspirational Floridian trumpeter Theodore 'Fats' Navarro, the prime challenger to Gillespie's crown as bebop's finest brassman. Tenor-saxophonist Charlie Rouse, later a close associate of pianist Thelonious Monk is the first soloist, before Navarro eases into an exciting solo. Navarro and alto-saxophonist Ernie Henry, a Parker disciple, were two more pioneer boppers who succumbed to drug addiction. Navarro was only 26 when he died in 1950.
Parker returns with Ah-Leu-Cha and Donna Lee, again flanked by Davis in their classic quintet. The former track opens contrapuntally, Parker's solo a model of heated angularity. Davis plays open, his middle register solemnity explaining why he was later associated with the 'cool' school. Bouncing With Bud, made a year later, has Navarro partnered by the young tenorist Sonny Rollins (still active today, as is drummer Roy Haynes). The much-troubled Bud Powell was bebop's greatest piano virtuoso, while Rollins, aged nineteen, sounds as if he's content to feel his way in this hot company. As ever, Navarro is fleet and intricate, as Haynes drops his 'bombs' with commendable panache. Gillespie's All-Star Quintet includes Parker: Salt Peanuts is probably the most instantly recognisable of all bop tunes, with its vocal interjections by Gillespie himself, as Bird soars over the harmonies. Pianist Al Haig was one of the few white musicians to stay the pace with the likes of Gillespie and Parker. In his later years he visited London often. Billie's Bounce is a blues (named for Parker's manager) with Davis on trumpet, and Gillespie sitting in on piano pending the arrival of the pianist booked for the date.
With the Red Norvo's Septet version of Bop! we move to the West Coast of the United States where bebop had taken hold following a visit by Gillespie and Parker. Young Dexter Gordon, the son of a well-to-do black doctor, had already made something of an impact on tour with Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine. He's joined here by the excellent pianist Dodo Marmarosa and guitarist Barney Kessel, another Christian devotee. Leader Norvo started out as a xylophonist and came to fame (on vibes) with bandleader Woody Herman, remaining sympathetic to jazz modernity for the remainder of his career.
The Miles Davis Nonet from 1949 barely existed outside of the studio. Assembled by Davis from his New York associates, it used an unusual instrumentation including tuba and French horn, with clever arrangements which skilfully exploited the group's particular sonorities. Light in sound, with Davis's much-improved yet stately trumpet as its principal voice, the group's contained ensemble style (in contrast to bebop's familiar stridency) led to the 'cool' soubriquet. The arrangement of Venus de Milo is by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and that for Budo by pianist John Lewis. Dameron's Symphonette introduces tenor-saxophone star Wardell Gray, one of the most relaxed and creative artists to be associated with the boppers. Gray always seemed to have time to play, and was never rushed or flustered. The second tenor solo is by Allan Eager, a skilled white musician who later turned to car racing. Gray's version of Twisted (a hit when given a lyric by Annie Ross) shows off his attractively mellow sound and pleasing mobility. Gray died in mysterious circumstances in Las Vegas in 1955, reputedly of a drugs overdose.
With Gillespie's Night In Tunisia and the effervescent 52nd Street Theme we come to two more definitive bebop performances. Dizzy's trumpet is fast-moving and explosive, demonstrating his confidence in the high register and exceptional fluency; Milt Jackson battles away on vibes while tenor ace Don Byas, a former big band sideman who adjusted successfully to bop's demands, is direct and rewarding. Byas later spent considerable time in Europe. Bird's Nest is an exuberant quartet piece featuring Parker at his best - the pianist is Erroll Garner, then at the outset of his career, but capable of uncorking a solo improvisation of startling originality. Vocalist Sarah Vaughan was among the first singers to grasp the intricacies of the new methodology. Note her languid, vibrato-less delivery - the epitome of cool. It's Jimmy Jones on piano and the neat guitar is by John Collins, later a member of Nat King Cole's supporting combo.
After WW2, the bop message spread to Europe and Babik (named for Django Reinhardt's son) was an attempt by Reinhardt to show that he could keep up with his Stateside counterparts. Clarinettist Hubert Rostaing sounds like a Benny Goodman fan and the overall effect is pleasing without being entirely convincing. Oo Bop Sh'Bam is the real thing, of course, complete with its staccato lines and zany 'hip' vocal. Alto star Sonny Stitt, who always resented Parker's supremacy, is heard (on his first-ever recording date) as is the ever-audacious Gillespie.
Thelonious Sphere Monk, pianist and composer, and a true iconoclast, seemed to many to embody bop's zaniest aspects. Always seen sporting eccentric headgear and known for his silences, Monk was often withdrawn and enigmatic, yet composed some of the most enduring pieces in the modern jazz canon. His most famous composition 'Round About Midnight was premiered in 1947, its plaintive theme stated by alto and trumpet, with Monk's jumbled piano a key factor in its success. Dameron makes his second appearance with a sophisticated re-working of bassist Bob Haggart's lovely What's New, the vocal by one Kay Penton, apparently a Sarah Vaughan disciple. There are no solos.
Our final quartet of sides could be said to represent bop's greatest practitioners and most potent instigators at their unparalleled best. Parker and Davis essay Scrapple from the Apple (a play on The Big Apple, a common nick-name for New York), Parker inspired by drummer Max Roach's driving cymbals, before Fats Navarro and His Thin Men (joke) fly on Goin' To Minton's. Minton's was a famous Harlem after-hours club used by the boppers to try out their ideas in extended jam sessions. This legendary location still exists and was recently restored. Navarro has a ball on this simple riff number, fierce in attack, his solo exploiting his knowledge of harmony in compelling fashion. The gruff baritone sax is by Leo Parker, also known as Mad Lad as a tribute to his wayward lifestyle
Fittingly, the last words (or musical notes) go to Gillespie and Parker, the founding fathers of this extraordinarily potent musical form. Groovin High is something of a transitional piece, the resolutely modern approach adopted by Bird and Diz counter-balanced by the swing verities laid down by bassist-vocalist Slam Stewart and drummer Cozy Cole. Gillespie, unlike his soul-mate Parker, kept away from chemical temptations and built a hugely successful international career, becoming an ambassador for jazz on countless overseas tours. Finally, we return again to the Parker Quintet with Davis and John Lewis, the tempo right up, as Bird flies without let or hindrance.
As in many art forms, it is the role of the innovator to set new ground rules, to challenge assumptions and to disturb the status quo. In two decades of frenetic activity, Parker accomplished all this and more, and continues to inspire newcomers and established jazz performers. When he died in 1955 aged only 34, he had accomplished enough in two decades of musical activity to satisfy a normal lifetime's aspirations. Seeking to sum up his genius, the critic Brian Priestley said, 'No one individual apart from Louis Armstrong has cast such a long shadow over succeeding generations of jazz musicians.
Jazz has had a turbulent history. When the US politician Henry Kissinger stated that, 'The only constant is change,' he might well have been thinking about the evolution of jazz. Each of the music's principal stylistic developments - and there have been many in its century-long history - has left casualties and created heroes, none more so than bebop. Prompted by the realisation that jazz needed to be far more than a mere appendage to the entertainment industry, a generation of musical free-thinkers emerged whose revolutionary mindset brought us the thrilling sounds collected here.
Peter Vacher/September 2000