Before the second world war, big bands (also known as swing bands) were the “in” thing with artists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman being some of the more well-known leaders of the swing era. The bands usually consisted of between twelve and twenty-five musicians featuring a whole host of brass, woodwind, and rhythm instruments. Swing didn’t allow much room for improvisation and the solos (if there were any) were usually short. Wanting to show off their skills, they began to experiment with a different type of music. They began to experiment with music that allowed for more artistic freedom, that allowed them to bend the rules of music theory. They began to experiment with bebop.
Nobody can say the exact moment when bebop was born, but the first important bebop recording was one done by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie entitled “Shaw Nuff.” You can listen to “Shaw Nuff” below:
Here’s a video of Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie:
You can tell by listening to “Shaw Nuff” that bebop is characterized by fast rhythms that seem to move around a lot. I’ve heard bebop described as sounded “stressed out” or “frantic,” and it’s easy to understand why. In bebop, the bass drums rhythm-keeping function is moved to the hi-hat and the bass drum is used for accents. Below is a great video of Steve Gadd’s bebop drumming:
Bebop musicians often alter the way the chords are played by the rhythm section by flatting certain notes or adding others in order to add more “flavor” to the music and make the solo more interesting. However, as much flavor as they tried to add, bebop was not initially received very well by the general public who didn’t understand the point of bebop. Swing music was much easier to dance to than bebop, and dance music is what sold in that day. Bebop was more of a “music for musicians,” in a way that many times musicians understood what the soloists were doing while non-musicians didn’t.
Whether the general public accepted it or not, bebop greatly changed the face of jazz. Jazz went from being a type of dance music to a virtuosic style of jazz where musicians had an outlet for their creative impulses.