Features | Retconning

VII :: Be-Bop, Cool, and Hard Bop

By Mark Abraham | 4 March 2007

As I’m sure readers have noticed, this column plays fast and loose with the “obscure” and “experimental” tags I sort of imposed at inception. In some cases, like here with pre-sixties jazz, that’s because the famous albums we all know about are famous for a reason. With bebop and its variants this is doubly so since a) most of the pre-sixties stuff came out of larger sessions that may or may not have resulted in an album — or, in many cases, an album was released retroactively — and jazz heads tend to refer to this stuff in terms of sessions more so than albums, and b) most of the great albums that do exist involve some combination of the same twenty or so famous musicians. And though I consider my knowledge of jazz competent, I’d hardly call it exhaustive. Instead of unveiling obscure curios, then, this month’s installment of Retconning is about situating landmark albums in a history of innovation. Because postwar jazz was created out of circumstance, economy, and Civil Rights, and the way these musicians responded to each is fascinating. Plus, let’s face it: even if you already really like Kind of Blue, you’ve always wished you had a sweet set of bullet points about it to impress people at parties, right? (Retconning takes no fault if anybody thinks you’re a lame-o for doing exactly that. Lame-o.)

Be-bop is the result of two shifts in jazz ideology that resulted from economic, political, and social shifts in postwar American culture. First, the practical shift: even by the fifties, when the Eisenhower administration widened the scope of the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill to bolster a fluctuating postwar economy the results only really affected the white middle class. In an era where US citizens were beset with new cultural media in the form of television and the vast expansion of Hollywood industry — as well as white flight from the urban center — the dance halls and clubs that had facilitated big band jazz became economically unfeasible and the jazz bands themselves found it harder to get work. In response, younger jazz artists began to jam in small groups — many had already begun practicing that way before the war when their band leaders looked in askance on their less traditional solos — and as the music conducted within those private and public jam sessions became increasingly free-form and complex the small band format began to captivate jazz enthusiasts.

Second, the cultural and musical shift: playing in small clubs with no space for a dance floor refocused the audience’s place at a jazz concert. If audiences were meant to watch and experience, young musicians brought up on a diet of solo-based swing suddenly found even more reason to stand out for hungry jazz audiences. At the same time, young black musicians reacted favorably to the increasing unrest of African American Civil Rights leaders. Frustrated over continued segregation and, in 1945, still almost two decades away from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these musicians adapted more complex harmonic possibilities into a style that fore grounded substance over gratification. In essence, these young jazz musicians abandoned the celebratory gestures and crossover appeal of swing in favor of a new form of jazz that defied mainstream chart success (which, in 1945, meant success with a white, over-30 audience, and by 1955 meant a white, 15-30 demographic). And though overt identification with the Civil Rights Movement would not really occur until the late fifties (Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” [1949] notwithstanding), the musicians who most closely identified with the movement — Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins — were all intimately involved with the evolution of be-bop throughout the fifties. And, of course, it’s also worth noting that the white-owned labels that produced jazz music in the fifties weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to release black-identified politically conscious music.

However you want to drop textual analysis to determine how political this music is, what’s critical is that the black/white coalition of swing and ragtime that had developed in Harlem in the 1920s dissolved as jazz groups became increasingly insular and dynamic, focusing on the performance and personalities of the artists rather than the experience of a jazz hall dance. Be-bop and its variants became more cerebral than swing at the exact same time that the physical playing of be-bop artists became more spastic. In other words, as inchoate rock music was just beginning to grasp the imagination of American youth and challenge the assumptions of their parents, jazz was already forging a mainline directly into the heart and head of its adherents.