When most people think of jazz, they think of the American masses dancing away the stresses of World War II. The reality is that the public perception of the art form was far from the actual forces that were at work in its creation. If you take nothing else from this writing, know this: jazz is African American music.
From its origins in spirituals and work songs, jazz has always been a voice of the African American existence, including during the Civil Rights movement. In his recent Black History Month Keynote Lecture at the Jack H. Miller Concert Hall, Dr. Damani Phillips, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Iowa stated, “Popular musicians such as Marvin Gaye and James Brown were overt in sharing their responses to the oppression they faced, while jazz musicians formed what was at times a subtler form of resistance.” This resistance was brought into crystal clarity in the development of bebop. Beginning in the early 1940s, musicians who grew tired of the commercial ramifications of playing in swing bands began holding late-night jam sessions to blow off steam. However, it was more than just a release from the monotony of playing the same arrangements with little space for improvisation. There were other factors at play.
African-American musicians were unable to make a living performing in white-only ballrooms in New York City. They were also unable to secure the more stable and profitable work of playing with radio orchestras. Forced to conduct lengthy and expensive tours, African American bands were subject to all sorts of discriminatory practices, which made such tours unsustainable. All of these factors led the frustrated musicians to one thing: the jam session at Minton’s Playhouse.
Minton’s Playhouse was the page upon which the story of bebop was written. The jam session atmosphere led the practitioners of this emerging art form to develop new ways of making music. With its breakneck tempos and fast-moving chord changes, bop was created by musicians who aimed to keep out the uninitiated using tactics such as modulations at the end of every chorus. At first glance, this practice seems to have its roots in elitism. It does not.
Lest we forget that Jim Crow segregation was in fact legal for a majority of the twentieth century, jazz came on the scene at a time when the African-American citizen was purported to be less than human. The unjustifiable idea that African American musicians were not capable of creating art on par with European classical music was mainstream due to the many depictions of stereotypes in the mainstream media. Duke Ellington, a luminary of the swing era and one of the most prolific American composers of any genre, was known for composing intricate scores that challenged this notion. Charlie Parker and the many other musicians who spearheaded the bebop movement continued this work, albeit through a slightly different medium.
For those unfamiliar with its complexities, bebop is a style of music that is predicated upon the prevailing notion among musicians that music exists for the performer, not the audience. Swing’s popularity led to masses of audiences enjoying the experience of dancing to the consistent beat of a swing band but not really listening to the music. Swing was far simpler than bebop; it was created to either be consumed or ignored by the dancers who were happy as long as the bass drum kept the beat.
Bebop was a style that was known for challenging the status quo. With its fast-moving chord changes and tempos that rendered swing era performance practice on the bass and drums obsolete, bop gave voice to musicians who could no longer be called inferior. Every note at the Minton’s Playhouse jam session burned with the fire of a generation who could no longer be ignored or belittled. It was the community of African American musicians saying, “Get on our level!” to a white American culture that had repeatedly stated that African American music was not capable of achieving this kind of complexity. Though many purists assert that the bebop era ended in approximately 1949, it laid the groundwork for the music of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bebop stoked the flames of an inner vision that led musicians and non-musicians alike to rally for equality, and it was a singular style of music that united its practitioners with a common language: a language that demanded respect. Though the Civil Rights Act would not be passed until 1964, bebop was the voice that demanded change. It is a voice whose echoes can be heard through jazz ensembles around the country and a poignant reminder that we, as a country, still have work to do.