Study these song lyrics for the stories they tell about the past

The meaning of a song can vary drastically from person to person. While one person might imagine a song is about political protest and resistance, another might find the same song represents escapism, joy, or just a lot of hot air. Perhaps never was this more evident than in early reactions to bebop in the 1940s. Bebop was a new style of jazz music developed by African-American musicians during late night jam sessions in New York City. To many, it sounded like everything popular swing music was not. Bebop featured willfully dissonant harmonies, breakneck tempos, and frenetic rhythms that made dancing difficult. Virtuosic bebop innovators such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker improvised instrumental solos so energetic and inventive that they often left the audience in slack-jawed awe. Upon hearing bebop, many accomplished swing musicians chose to sell their instruments or run home and practice.

During the 1940s, African-American efforts to gain equal civil rights increased in momentum. World War II propaganda emphasizing American democracy prompted African-American activists to launch a “double V” campaign, seeking victory over fascism abroad and victory over discrimination at home. The population shift of African Americans out of the South and into northern cities, begun during World War I, continued and accelerated during World War II, thus increasing African-American political power. When the war was over, returning African-American soldiers protested that, despite their service and sacrifice, they faced humiliating segregation.

What did bebop mean? Between 1945 and 1950, debate raged among musicians and critics about how the new sounds of bebop should be interpreted. Was bebop a joke perpetrated by young musicians who did not understand the jazz tradition? Or was it a learned extension of previous styles? Was bebop a political statement about postwar racism? Or was it simply a fun new style that had little connection to American racial politics?

Click to hear an example of swing music (“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” by Count Basie and his band) and of the more controversial bebop (“Night in Tunisia” by saxophonist Charlie Parker). Examine the following quotes about bebop and think about which of these various positions each speaker might take.

“Bebop is a music of revolt: a revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley—against commercialized music in general.”
— critic Ross Russell, 1948

Bebop players “like to wear berets, goatees and green-tinted horn-rimmed glasses, and talk about their ‘interesting new sounds,’” while their “rapid-fire, scattershot talk has about the same pace and content as their music.”
"How Deaf Can You Get?" Time (May 17, 1948)

“How to use notes differently. That’s it. Just how to use notes differently.”
—bebop pianist Thelonius Monk, c. 1965

“What bebop amounts to: hot jazz overheated with overdone lyrics full of bawdiness, references to narcotics and doubletalk.”
Time, 1946

“This is the sort of bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride.”
Review of Charlie Parker, Downbeat (April 22, 1946)

“[Bebop musicians] 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 get tired of it because it’s really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to. So they’re all poor again and nobody is working, and that’s what that modern malice done for you.”
—Louis Armstrong, 1948

“I don’t want you playing that Chinese music in my band!”
—Cab Calloway, c. 1955

“Everytime a cop hits a Negro with his Billy club, that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP!…BE-BOP!…MOP!…BOP!…That’s what Bop is. Them young colored kids who started it, they know what bop is.”
—Langston Hughes, 1949

“We didn’t go out and make speeches or say, ‘Let’s play eight bars of protest.’ We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it make every statement we truly wanted to make.”
—bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, 1979