How the Rise of Bebop Changed Jazz

A look at bebop from Its historical origins to Its musical intricacies

Charlie Parker Quintet
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Bebop is a style of jazz that developed in the 1940s and is characterized by improvisation, fast tempos, rhythmic unpredictability, and harmonic complexity.

World War II brought an end to the heyday of swing and saw the beginnings of bebop. Big bands began to shrivel as musicians were sent overseas to fight. For this reason, the 1940s saw a surge in smaller ensembles, such as quartets and quintets. Groups often consisted of one or two horns—usually saxophone and/or trumpet—bass, drums, and piano. By nature of being in a smaller ensemble, bebop shifted the musical focus from intricate band arrangements to improvisation and interaction.

Adventurous Improvisation

Swing era arrangements mainly consisted of composed sections, but with certain sections designated for improvisation. A bebop tune, however, would simply consist of a statement of the head, or main theme, extended solos over the head’s harmonic structure, and then one final statement of the head. It was common for bebop musicians to compose new, complex melodies over well-known chord progressions. One example of this is Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” which is based on the changes from “How High the Moon,” a popular show tune in the 1940s. 

Beyond Swing

With a focus on improvisation, bebop allowed for an explosion of innovation. While many aspects of swing were imported, such as the triplet-based swing feel and a proclivity for the blues, bebop musicians played tunes at much faster tempos. Inspired by the more harmonically and rhythmically experimental players from the swing era—like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Tatum, and Roy Eldridge—bebop musicians expanded the palette of musical devices. Soloists no longer concerned themselves with lyricism and emphasized rhythmic unpredictability and harmonic complexity instead.

And it wasn’t just the soloists who were important. The advent of bebop marked an expansion of the roles of the rhythm section. In bebop, rhythm section players were no longer simply time-keepers, but interacted with the soloist and added their own embellishments.

Nonsense Syllables

The term “bebop” is an onomatopoeic reference to the accented melodic lines of the music. Sometimes shortened to “bop,” the name was most likely given to the style music retroactively, as the musicians themselves often referred to their style simply as “modern jazz.”

Important Bebop Musicians:

  • Charlie Parker – Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker played in many swing bands as a young musician, including those of Jay McShann and Earl Hines. After drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him for playing badly, Parker began to practice obsessively. The style he developed combined lyricism with an unmatched command of harmony and technique. He was soon often imitated by musicians in the 40s, and to this day jazz musicians study his approach. Many of his compositions are considered jazz standards, including “Confirmation,” “Moose the Mooche,” and “Billie’s Bounce.”
  • Dizzy Gillespie – Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie breathed new life into the trumpet. Influenced largely by Roy Eldridge, Gillespie pushed the limits of the instrument, playing fast and nimble melodic lines in all of its registers. Jointly, with Charlie Parker, Gillespie is credited with defining bebop.
  • Thelonious Monk – Heavily influenced by the Harlem stride piano styles of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, pianist Thelonious Monk helped develop bebop in Minton’s Playhouse, a Harlem club where musicians in the '40s tested their improvisational experiments. Monk’s quirky and unique harmonies broke from convention and pushed the limits of jazz. His compositions, such as “Blue Monk,” “Epistrophy,” and “In Walked Bud,” represent a large portion of jazz standards today.
  • Max Roach – A drummer who worked with virtually all of the top jazz musicians in the 1940s, Max Roach is responsible for developing the bebop approach to drums. While playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, Roach shifted focus from the bass drum to the ride cymbal as the main time-keeping element of the drum set. This allowed for a freer and more flexible sound overall, giving the soloist room to experiment with rhythm, and allowing the drummer space to interact with the soloist.