Jazz by Decade: 1940 to 1950

Portrait of Charlie Parker in the Three Deuces of New York (N.Y.), in August 1947. Next to him, there is Miles Davis.
William P. Gottlieb - http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/4843755786/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Early in the 1940s, young musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, steeped in the sounds of swing, began experimenting with melodic and harmonic dissonance as well as rhythmic alterations, such as the beginning and ending improvised phrases in uncommon places in the measure.

The Creation of Bebop

Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club in Harlem, New York, became the laboratory for these experimental musicians. By 1941, Parker, Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke were jamming there regularly.

During this period, two main musical paths were forged. One was a nostalgic movement that reexamined the hot jazz of New Orleans, known as Dixieland. The other was the new, forward-looking, experimental music that departed from swing and the music that preceded it, known as bebop.

The Fall of the Big Band

On August 1st, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians began a strike against all major recording companies because of a disagreement over royalty payments. No union musician could record. The effects of the strike included the shrouding of the developments of bebop in mystery. There are few documents that can provide evidence of what the early forms of the music sounded like.

American involvement in World War II, which began on December 11th, 1941, marked a decline in the importance of big bands in popular music. Many musicians were sent to fight in the war and those who remained were restricted by high taxes on gasoline. By the time the ban on recording was lifted, big bands had practically been forgotten or had begun to be thought of as peripheral in relation to vocal stars such as Frank Sinatra.

Charlie Parker began rising in prominence in the early 1940s and played frequently with bands led by Jay McShann, Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine. In 1945, a young Miles Davis moved to New York and became intrigued with Parker and the emerging bebop style. He studied at Juilliard but had trouble earning respect among jazz musicians because of his unrefined sound. Soon he would work his way into Parker's quintet.

In 1945, the term ‘moldy fig’ was coined to refer to swing musicians who were reluctant to accept that bebop was the new path of jazz development.

In the mid-1940s, Charlie Parker began to deteriorate from drug use. He was admitted to Camarillo State Hospital after a breakdown in 1946. His stay there inspired the song "Relaxin' at Camarillo."

In 1947, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon achieved fame for recordings of “duels” with saxophonist Wardell Gray. Gordon’s virtuosity and aggressive tone attracted the attention of young alto saxophonist John Coltrane, who would shortly thereafter switch to tenor saxophone.

in 1948, Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach, fed up with Charlie Parker’s reckless lifestyle, left his band. Davis formed his own nonet, and in 1949 recorded the unconventional ensemble. Some of the arrangements were by a young Gil Evans, and the restrained style of the music came to be known as cool jazz. The record, released almost a decade later, in 1957, was called​ Birth of the Cool.

By the end of the 1940s, bebop was the ideal among young jazz musicians. Unlike swing, bebop was untethered to popular demands. Its primary concern was musical advancement. By the early 1950s, it had already spread into new streams such as hard bop, cool jazz, and Afro-​Cuban jazz.