Bebop. Today it is a relatively unknown term, at least among those not familiar with jazz music. But in the mid 1940s the word was seen as either an existential threat to jazz or as an exhilarating rebirth of it. There seemed to be no middle ground. Today we get to see what that looked like from ground zero.
When and how a new musical trend begins has always been a difficult search. The Ohio River begins somewhere, and an exhaustive search would undoubtedly turn up hundreds of little rivulets and dry stream beds that serve as the beginnings of the great river.
It is much the same in trying to discern the beginnings of a new movement in jazz. In the mid 1940s that movement was called bebop, and it was a stark change from the jazz that had come before. And at the same time a natural progression from it.
It might be easier to devine the beginnings of bebop (or just bop, for short) if we had a better trail of recordings. But there is a problem with this. Most have either forgotten or never knew that for about two years (mid 1942 and lasting as long as the fall of 1944) the American Federation of Musicians was engaged in a recording strike. Union head James Caesar Petrillo believed that “canned music” was costing his members jobs. He saw the prohibition of his members playing for recordings as a way to stop that.
Then as now, most professional musicians were members of the union. If someone wanted to make a living as a jazz musician, doing so without that union card was a tough proposition. There is debate on whether the ban really did anything for Petrillo’s stated aim. What is beyond debate is that records preserve musical history and that close to two years of that history is missing.
Something new was clearly cooking at that time because by 1945 young jazzmen were playing something quite different from what their elders were used to. One of those young Turks was Dizzy Gillespie.
Gillespie had played trumpet in Cab Calloway’s band in the early 40s. Calloway was an old timer by 1941 or so, having had an extremely durable hit with Minnie The Moocher in 1931, long before the swing era took hold. If you have seen the 1980 comedy film The Blues Brothers, you know Cab Calloway and Minnie The Moocher.
Gillespie and Calloway did not get along. Gillespie liked to clown around onstage while Cab expected a certain level of decorum from his sidemen. He also disparaged Gillespie’s adventuresome solos as “Chinese music”. Their relationship ended with a thrown spitball, a fistfight, a minor stab wound to Calloway’s thigh and Dizzy getting fired.
Gillespie later joined the Earl Hines band where he spent time onstage with another young musician, alto sax player Charlie Parker. In 1945 those two formed the core of a quintet and made some records that reverberated far beyond their initial audience.
While early bebop differed quite a lot from swing, it developed from it. Gillespie once said something like “it’s all the same music, every age just brings its own shit.” Recently I featured a couple of 1942 recordings that are the antithesis of bop. Those records (although purely solos) were structured and the playing was lyrical, always working with the melody, if with a bit of latitude. Bebop was jarring and frenetic with rapid, unusual chord changes and solos that seemed more about dexterity and only loose associations with a melody. Salt Peanuts shows this quite well.
This record from May 11, 1945 is a fitting example of how bop blasted onto the scene practically out of nowhere.
For those with some musical background, the chord structure is from George Gershwin’s 1930 tune “I Got Rhythm” (Listen to an early version by Ethel Waters here). Bop was like that, take some known chords for the foundation, then just start playing like crazy all around them.
The record starts with its signature riff, played in unison by Gillespie’s trumpet and Parker’s sax. The second time through they start to play with the riff a bit, with a little vocal punctuation by Dizzy.
The piano solo that follows shows the work of Al Haag, the only white member of the “All Star Quintet”. Haag’s hard charging piano work was all over the early bebop scene and is a great example of the genre, which generally featured a frenetic right hand with occasional mid-keyboard chords from the left. This is a style that endures to today.
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie take the final two solos and, in their way, fire the opening shots to announce to the world that bebop was something that would have to be reckoned with. Parker is, of course, a bebop legend. His alto sax solo shows him settling into the bop groove that he would be as instrumental as anyone in pioneering. There are other records that better showcase Parker’s crazy skills, but this early record is a great example of Parker’s synergy with Gillespie.
Dizzy’s trumpet is the final solo, and it displays a sharp, bright tone, unmatched dexterity and the ability to weave a highly complex solo around a very simple set of chords. Gillespie’s range was legendary, at least until his mouth was injured in a car accident a few years later. These early records of his have preserved his full range for us to hear.
OK, for those of you who have at least some knowledge of jazz, Salt Peanuts might be a little elementary for you. It remains, after all, just as much of a staple of jazz performers as it was over seventy years ago. I have two responses: First, I primarily write for those who are not deeply schooled in jazz, and those readers are probably not familiar with this piece. And as often as it has been recorded (both by Gillespie and others) not everyone has heard this original from 1945.
Alright, perhaps not original. For those taking the graduate course in obscure jazz, Gillespie recorded an earlier version on January 9, 1945, just four months earlier. This record (entitled Salted Peanuts) was the very first session actually recorded under Gillespie’s name (1) and is a great example of a famous piece of music under construction. Wow look at me – offering a bonus track!
The basic tune/riff and arrangement are there, and so is Dizzy, sounding just as we expect him to sound. The rest of the group was, however, composed of more traditional swing players who clearly struggled in getting to where Gillespie was trying to go. Don Byas was a solid tenor sax player. But he was not Charlie Parker. One listen to the older recording displays players who didn’t quite get it.
The May recording by the Quintet shows what a change in players will do, along with another five months of bebop incubation. There is a reason that the Sextet record from January, 1945 is all but forgotten while the May recording by the Quintet has become part of the jazz canon. And it took awhile to find a decent version of the famous recording. In 1945 bebop was not found anywhere near the major studios with the good equipment, so it is amazing that this recording cleans up as good as it does.
The careers of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie could not have diverged more sharply. Parker was a brilliant player who flamed out both early and spectacurly, dying in 1955 from the results of an uncontrollable heroin addiction. Forrest Whitaker starred as Parker in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic “Bird”, a fairly faithful depiction of the gifted saxophonist’s rise and fall and one that no fan of this music should miss.
Gillespie continued to write and perform worldwide until his death in the early 1990s. Along with Louis Armstrong, Gillespie may have been one of the jazz world’s greatest ambassadors.
Bebop’s legacy is also pretty clear. Bop certainly brought jazz into a “modern era”. But it also cost jazz the wide popular audience that it had enjoyed. The new style was simply not geared towards the dancers that had made jazz popular with the public at large from the 1920s through World War II. Instead it catered to a smaller, more enthusiastic audience that has ebbed and flowed over the decades but is still there.
My confession: bop and bop-influenced music from the 1960s onward kind of loses me. The generations of musicians that followed Gillespie and Parker were not grounded in the swing tradition that gave this early bop what I consider to be its essential foundation. These older players had the swing rhythm deeply implanted in their souls and it keeps their playing grounded and musical. All later jazz players wanted to play like Diz and Bird, but not that many of them had the raw talent and ear for the complex harmonies that the old guys commanded. And as is often the case, I believe that the three minute limit of the 78 rpm record helped bebop more than it hurt it.
So there you have it. Is Salt Peanuts the birth of bebop? Some will find earlier examples but I say this one is as good of an example as any.
Guild Recording 1003A, recorded May 11 1945. Personnel: Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (alto sax), Al Haig (piano), Curley Russell (bass), Sydney Catlett (drums). YouTube recording source: Silver Machine, from the reissue album The Best Of Dizzy Gillespie.
Manor Recording 5000A, recorded January 9, 1945. Personnel: Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Don Byas (tenor sax), Trummy Young (trombone), Clyde Hart (piano) Oscar Pettiford (bass) Shelly Manne (drums). YouTube recording source: Ropa79, from a reissue album of Don Byas entitled Tuesday At Ten.
(Note 1) OK, if we are going to be technical Gillespie recorded three doubly obscure sides under his own name in 1941.
Further Reading: If you want to hear another small group recording from 1945, one that is more traditional with just a teeny bit of bop influence, try Three Minutes Well Spent. The piece featured there is Scuttlebut by Artie Shaw’s Grammercy Five.
Dizzy Gillespie May, 1947 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Charlie Parker, August, 1947 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Cab Calloway, 1937 publicity photo. Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.