How Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell Savagely Beat Jazz into a Stupor
The demise of jazz as a form of popular music can be laid at the foot of bebop.
Bebop (or bop for short) was the next form of jazz to evolve after swing. Let’s review the jazz timeline so we know where bop fits in:
- New Orleans Style 1915-1935
- Swing 1935-1945
- Bebop 1945-1960
Bebop came along about thirty years into jazz’s existence. As a point of comparison, consider the changes that have occurred in hip-hop over a similar length of times. Kanye West is to the Sugarhill Gang as Charlie Parker was to Louis Armstrong. Dixieland and bebop were only superficially the same style of music.
The swing era, which was the high-water mark of jazz’s popularity, gave birth to bebop, but jazz died giving birth to this ungrateful baby. At this point in music history, jazz stopped being the most popular form of music in America.
As a further insult, jazz has been trending downward ever since. It now resides almost entirely within the academic departments of universities and colleges. At present, jazz is best categorized as a form of Art music alongside classical music.
In any case, the destruction of jazz occurred in slow motion, and the emergence of bebop is a fascinating component of jazz history.
The Origin of Bebop
Bebop emerged from late-night jam sessions, which were impromptu gatherings held after gigs.
The soloist at these jam sessions often engaged in competitive showdowns called cutting contests, which were music battles decided by who could play the most bewilderingly complex and astonishingly difficult licks and phrases.
To compete, soloists needed speed, stamina, and technique. The outcome of these musical competitions was an ultra-aggressive, rhythmically dense, and harmonically complex type of swing music.
Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood were the epicenters of bebop. These two music clubs were famous for hosting jam sessions and cutting contests.
Louis Armstrong’s Opinion
Louis Armstrong, who was the antithesis of everything the beboppers stood for, was a staunch critic of the modern style. Here’s what he had to say about bebop during a 1948 interview printed in Down Beat Magazine:
These young cats now they want to make money first and the hell with the music. And they want to carve everyone else because they’re full of malice, and all they want to do is show you up, and any old way will do as long as it’s different from the way you played it before. So you get all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it’s new, but soon they’ll get tired of it because it’s really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to (Walser 141).
Despite the reservation of Armstrong, and other first generation jazzers, bebop was taking hold of the jazz world. By 1945, the younger generation was firmly at the helm, and they were commanding the genre’s direction—and that direction was bebop
The Cultural Roots of Bebop
Bebop was a form of protest music that expressed the anger and frustration of black musicians operating in a white-dominated music industry. The white musicians had the best gigs, the best recording contracts, and the best radio shows. Most black players were forced to tour endlessly because they could not procure long-standing, or high-paying, gigs.
According to the younger generation of jazz musicians, conciliatory attitudes towards the white establishment—such as those displayed by Louis Armstrong—were unappealing in every way.
Here is James Lincoln Collier explaining the phenomenon in his book Louis Armstrong: An American Genius: “[Bebop] had been developed by a new generation of aggressive young blacks, who were not only making a revolution in jazz music but were openly bitter about the position of blacks in America and scornful of the white society, which they saw as hypocritical, shallow, and lifeless (303-304).
Bebop was as aggressive as the attitudes that fostered it, and its connection to anger came out during cutting contests, which were metaphorical acts of violence.
Three of the most consequential bebop musicians were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Parker was an alto saxophonist, Gillespie a trumpeter, and Powell a pianist. Following are brief biographies.
Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) is widely regarded as one of the best jazz musicians in history. According to musicologists, he is up there with Armstrong and Ellington (Giddins DeVeaux).
Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, who was largely absent, was a pianist and a waiter; his mother, who raised him, worked as a clerk for Western Union (“Charlie Parker” para 3-4).
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11. He practiced dutifully, joined his school’s band, and set about mastering the art of improvisation. By the time he was eighteen, he had joined the musician’s union and started playing gigs with local swing bands. In 1939, he moved to New York City, which was the epicenter of swing (“Charlie Parker” para 10).
Early in his career, Parker was nicknamed, “Yardbird.” Later in his career, however, it was shortened to “Bird.” Several of Parker’s songs were titled with this nickname in mind—for example, “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology” and “Bird of Paradise” (“Charlie Parker” para 2).
Parker’s 1945 collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie, “Anthropology,” represented the prototypical bebop song. It was fast, it employed unusual harmonies, and it was mind-numbingly difficult to play. Interestingly, the song was a contrafact of the George and Ira Gershwin song, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” A contrafact is a song composed by applying a new melody to an existing chord progression.
Parker became a morphine addict as a teenager after being prescribed the drug following an automobile accident. Soon after, he began abusing heavier drugs like heroin (“Charlie Parker” para 10).
Parker lived hard, drank profusely, abused drugs, and died young. The coroner who examined his corpse thought that the thirty-five-year-old Parker was a man in his fifties or sixties (“Charlie Parker” para 22).
John Burks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993) was the opposite of Charlie Parker: he was clean, he was sober, and he had a sunny disposition. Dizzy earned his nickname because of his propensity to execute strange dance steps and act like a clown on stage (Collier 357).
Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, the son of a local bandleader named James Gillespie (“Dizzy Gillespie” para 5).
Since there were many instruments around the house, young Gillespie began playing the piano at age four and the trombone and trumpet at age eleven (Dizzy Gillespie” para 5).
Gillespie developed into a virtuoso trumpet player and became a professional musician in his early twenties. He joined Cab Calloway’s big band in 1939 and began composing jazz music for Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Dorsey around the same time (“Dizzy Gillespie” para 9).
In 1945, Gillespie played in Billy Eckstine’s big band alongside fellow bebopper, Charlie Parker. After gigs, Gillespie and Parker would often go to Harlem for the late-night jam sessions.
Jazz historians consider Parker and Gillespie to have had a yin and yang like relationship. Both were virtuosos of the highest order, and both were considered giants of the bebop style. Despite their musical similarities, they had diametric personalities: Parker was brooding and morose; Gillespie was clowning and vivacious. They were antipodal in temperament but congruous in musicianship.
In May of 1945, Parker and Gillespie made the first bebop records. Most of the songs on these records, including “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Hot House,” were contrafacts (Collier 358).
Gillespie and Parker also recorded music with a young jazz musician called Miles Davis (1926-1991) who would go on to become famous in his own right. The trio of Parker, Gillespie, and Davis can be heard on tracks like “Billie’s Bounce,” Now’s the Time,” and “Koko” (Collier 358).
Eric Rudolph “Bud” Powell (1924-1966) was a bebop pianist of stupefying ability. He was born in the Harlem section of New York City, which was the epicenter of the stride-piano scene during the 1920s and 1930s (“Bud Powell” para 1-3).
Powell played the piano with such fluid virtuosity that many dubbed him “the Charlie Parker of the piano” (“Bud Powell” para 2).
During his career, Powell played with several notable big bands, including those run by trumpeter Cootie Williams (who was made famous by being Duke Ellington’s featured trumpeter).
In 1945, after a gig with Cootie Williams in Philadelphia, Powell got separated from his band, got drunk, wandered down to the Broad Street train station, and was apprehended and beat up by railroad police. After this incident, he began having persistent headaches and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he stayed for two months (“Bud Powell” para 9).
Some musicologists and historians suggest that Powell developed epilepsy due to this encounter (Giddins 322).
During a bar fight in 1947, Powell was struck on the head with a glass bottle. Due to this incident, Powell was once again hospitalized. He spent eleven months during 1947 and 1948 in the care of doctors and nurses (“Bud Powell” para 10).
Powell’s emotional difficulties, drug and alcohol abuse, and epilepsy, made his piano output inconsistent—sometimes it was brilliant and sometimes it was downright bad. Despite this, there exists recordings of him playing well in the mid-1960s, at the end of his life (Giddins 323).
Powell achieved moderate fame and notoriety, but he was not in the same league of popularity as Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Nevertheless, he is widely regarded as one of the prime movers of bebop—on the same level as Parker or Gillespie.
In 1946, while performing regularly in Manhattan, Powell recorded “Bouncing with Bud,” a composition which would become a jazz standard. This song, which was originally called “Bebop in Pastel” displayed, on piano, all the speed and virtuosity of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie (“Bud Powell” para 10).
In 1966, Powell died from tuberculosis.
For a time (perhaps due to the momentum of the big band era), bebop achieved some commercial success. Consequently, an unusual bebop subculture evolved. This subculture featured players who used goofy lingo and secret handshakes designed to alienate and discriminate against the older generation of jazz players.
Clothing styles of the beboppers were also distinctive. Dizzy Gillespie, with his horn-rimmed “hipster” glasses captured the essence of this style. Musicologist James Lincoln Collier described the average bebopper as being “dressed like an English stockbroker” (360).
Despite the brief, early success of bebop, its debut in 1945 was the death knell of jazz.
Jazz, as a genre, would continue to thrive for a time, but, starting in the late 1940s, jazz decreased in popularity while a new form of urbane, rocking music called rhythm and blues increased in popularity. Rhythm and blues led to rock ‘n’ roll, to soul, to disco, to hip-hop, and to all the rest.
Bebop wounded jazz in such a way that the style retreated into the academic departments of colleges and universities. It has resided there ever since and likely will forever. Jazz is now a form of Art music like classical music; it is no longer a form of popular music.
Bebop is responsible for this change in category.
“Bud Powell” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 August 2016.
“Charlie Parker” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 August 2016.
Collier, J.L. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
“Dizzy Gillespie” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 August 2016.
Giddins, G., & DeVeaux, S. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009.
Walser, R. Ed. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. “Bop is Nowhere.” New York: Oxford University Press. 2015.