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 Alleyagainst 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. Thats 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.
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 theyre
full of malice, and all they want to do is show you up, and any old way will
do as long as its different from the way you played it before. So you
get all them weird chords which dont mean nothing, and first people get
curious about it just because its new, but soon they get tired of it because
its really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance
to. So theyre all poor again and nobody is working, and thats what
that modern malice done for you.
Louis Armstrong, 1948
I dont 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!
what Bop is. Them young colored kids who started it, they know what bop is.
Langston Hughes, 1949
We didnt go out and make speeches or say, Lets
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
bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, 1979