The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

by Scott DeVeaux

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The richest place in America's musical landscape is that fertile ground occupied by jazz. Scott DeVeaux takes a central chapter in the history of jazz—the birth of bebop—and shows how our contemporary ideas of this uniquely American art form flow from that pivotal moment. At the same time, he provides an extraordinary view of the United States in the…  See more details below


The richest place in America's musical landscape is that fertile ground occupied by jazz. Scott DeVeaux takes a central chapter in the history of jazz—the birth of bebop—and shows how our contemporary ideas of this uniquely American art form flow from that pivotal moment. At the same time, he provides an extraordinary view of the United States in the decades just prior to the civil rights movement. DeVeaux begins with an examination of the Swing Era, focusing particularly on the position of African American musicians. He highlights the role played by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, a "progressive" committed to a vision in which black jazz musicians would find a place in the world commensurate with their skills. He then looks at the young musicians of the early 1940s, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, and links issues within the jazz world to other developments on the American scene, including the turmoil during World War II and the pervasive racism of the period. Throughout, DeVeaux places musicians within the context of their professional world, paying close attention to the challenges of making a living as well as of making good music. He shows that bebop was simultaneously an artistic movement, an ideological statement, and a commercial phenomenon. In drawing from the rich oral histories that a living tradition provides, DeVeaux's book resonates with the narratives of individual lives. While The Birth of Bebop is a study in American cultural history and a critical musical inquiry, it is also a fitting homage to bebop and to those who made it possible.

Author Biography: Scott DeVeaux is Associate Professor of Music at the Universityof Virginia. He is the author of Jazz in America: Who's Listening? (1995) and coeditor of The Music of James Scott (1992).

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Editorial Reviews

Ben Ratliff
The book discusses jazz ''the way musicians have talked about it, not as a matter of schools and eras but as a slow-boiling stew of experience.
New York Times
Terry Teachout
"A model of what such scholarship can and should be....the firt fully reliable account of how Charlie Parker, dizzy gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and their colleagues changed the face of jazz." -- Wall Street Journal
Jazz Times
"A fresh portrayal of this fascinating time in musical history."

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University of California Press
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New Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

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Chapter One


In spite of all that is written, said and done, this great, big, incontrovertible fact stands out,—the Negro is progressing, and that disproves all the arguments in the world that he is incapable of progress. JAMES WELDON JOHNSON

There's no such thing as bop music, but there's such a thing as progress. COLEMAN HAWKINS

Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley remembered it later as a childhood moment that set the direction for his life. His father took him to see the Fletcher Henderson band at the City Auditorium in Tampa, Florida. Featured in the band was the imposing tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. "Man, it was a great day for me," said Adderley. "I think he was the most interesting looking jazz musician I've ever seen in my life. He just looked so authoritative. I kept looking at him. I never did look at Fletcher. I said, `Well, that's what I want to do when I grow up.'"

    Adderley was neither the first nor the last musician to be impressed by Coleman Hawkins. In a field in which charismatic figures were no rarity, Hawkins had a special quality. Hawk, or Bean—as he was affectionately nicknamed—was not a particularly striking or flamboyant man. And yet his quiet dignity and utter confidence in his abilities commanded respect, even awe—at least from musicians, who were in the best position to judge Hawkins's artistic achievement. In a familiar anecdote, a younger musician encountering Hawkins for the first time in the 1960s reportedly told Adderley that the older saxophonist made himnervous: "Man, I told him Hawkins was supposed to make him nervous. Hawkins has been making other sax players nervous for forty years."

    Hawkins's place as one of the founders of jazz is secure. He was among the earliest generation of jazz musicians, the men and women who unselfconsciously created a new art form. He is often called the father of the tenor saxophone, the first to discover the expressive potential of an instrument previously thought to have a limited emotional range, and therefore the patriarch of a lineage that extends through John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and other moderns to the present.

    In the sweep of jazz history, Hawkins is usually classified as a swing musician. This label not only narrows the focus to a particular phase of his career, but also suggests that the artistic attitudes and techniques he acquired during that time served as his compass for the remainder of his life. It also strongly implies that his moment of significance was limited to a specific historical moment: the Swing Era, when his distinctive approach to improvisation was widely accepted as the model for all saxophonists and the standard against which they were measured.

    "Body and Soul," recorded in 1939, shortly after his return from a self-imposed five-year exile in Europe, remains Hawkins's best-known record and a landmark in the history of jazz recording, not least for the fact that it was simultaneously a commercial success and admired and studied by musicians. But Hawkins is represented by hundreds of other recordings, from his pre-1934 solos with Fletcher Henderson to the flood of records for various independent labels in the early 1940s. Each combines a confident and assertive manner with a bracing, complex harmonic language that anticipated many of the innovations later associated with bebop, including the so-called flatted fifths. With each recording, his reputation as an innovator grew. "Coleman Hawkins was the saxophonist then," remembers pianist Billy Taylor. "Hawk was most highly respected," agrees bassist Milt Hinton. "He seemed to be the most creative man of the era. Everybody just thought he was the top man."

    This stature, however, did not long outlive bebop. After 1945 Hawkins's influence declined, and his standing in jazz history automatically became problematic. Even in his last years, as he matched himself against John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins, he was considered less a full participant in contemporary musical life than an icon—a living legend—of the art.

    Hawkins's decline in status is not unexpected. A history of style usually boils down to a history of innovation: novel techniques that stand out against the background of common practice and can be shown, after the fact, to point to the future. Only stylistic "advances" give shape and momentum to such a historical narrative. It follows that the cutting edge must be kept sharp. With jazz, the pace of change has been particularly brisk. Major artists are routinely and unsentimentally shunted from the vanguard to obsolescence before they reach middle age, their later work marginalized or forgotten, their historical role diminished.

    Such seems to have been the fate of Coleman Hawkins. In 1944, as he approached his fortieth birthday, his prestige and influence were at their peak. This moment of glory was overshadowed, however, by the onslaught of bebop, and with it, his reputation as innovator vanished. He is now remembered as making only a brief appearance on the periphery of the bop revolution, despite having been very much on the scene. Even the comforting role of paterfamilias to the younger generation has been denied him. The swing tenor saxophonist universally acknowledged to have served as source and inspiration for the emergent idiom is not Hawkins, but Lester Young.

    The frequent rhetorical pairing of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young has the air of a cautionary tale, with Young's rise coming at the expense of Hawkins's decline. The issue is rhythm: specifically, the "logical rhythmic change" that Martin Williams saw as the mainspring of stylistic evolution in jazz. If evolution in jazz is about rhythm, then the "cool" rhythmic language pioneered by Young is a touchstone. As "the most gifted and original improviser between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker" (in Williams's reading), Lester Young is the conduit between the path-breaking innovations of early jazz and the revolution of the 1940s. His improvised solos, full of ironic understatement and witty, unpredictable manipulation of phrase lengths and rhythmic motives, contrasted starkly with the earnest effusions of Hawkins's playing. Young's rhythmic approach anticipated the future, as Hawkins's more ponderous idiom did not. As tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who came of age in the mid-1940s, put it: "Hawk was the master of the horn, a musician who did everything possible with it, the right way. But when Pres [Lester Young] appeared, we all started listening to him alone. Pres had an entirely new sound, one that we seemed to be waiting for."

    Some musicians date the passing of the mantle even earlier, to an incident in 1933 in which Hawkins, still a soloist with the Fletcher Henderson band, found himself locked in a marathon after-hours jam session at the Cherry Blossom in Kansas City with Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, and Lester Young. Mary Lou Williams was rousted from her sleep at four in the morning to relieve the exhausted piano players: "Get up, pussycat, Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing." The event, now a staple of jazz folklore, found Hawkins struggling for hours to shake off the competition until finally giving up, tearing off in his Cadillac to make the next job in St. Louis. Mary Lou Williams, herself a historian (she devoted much of her later life to jazz education) had no trouble drawing the moral from this ritual combat: "Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men."

    As the critic Jed Rasula has noted, jazz historians are fond of such "primal torch-passing scenes": colorful anecdotes that seem to embody the abstract workings of history. In this case, the story is all the more compelling for being somewhat in advance of events. Hawkins, after all, remained king for a good while longer, his reputation hardly damaged by this obscure encounter in the provinces. But the handful of participant-observers at the Cherry Blossom had seen the future. Through the telling and retelling of the story, later generations have joined them as privileged insiders, better attuned to the true workings of history than the majority of those who lived through it. Hawkins's day had passed almost before it had begun.

    Thus, Hawkins's encounters with the bebop revolution have been reduced to mere historical curiosity. Dizzy Gillespie has put it more generously than most: "Hawkins had the great taste in music to understand my generation and to come with us." But the image is still oddly skewed—deliberately so, perhaps, given Gillespie's penchant for self-mocking humor: the young unknowns as the leaders, the forty-year-old "most creative man of the era" as the follower. In early 1944, when Hawkins became increasingly involved with the bop generation, the word bebop did not yet exist. Over the course of the year, Hawkins systematically employed musicians from the emerging underground. A recording session under Hawkins's leadership in February of that year featured Gillespie and Max Roach, while his working bands for 1944 included such well-known bebop pioneers as Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Oscar Pettiford, as well as others now more obscure: Howard McGhee, "Little Benny" Harris, Vic Coulsen.

    For his early encouragement of bebop musicians, Hawkins has been given his due. Unlike others of his generation, whose attitude toward bop ranged from hostility to resentment to bemused indifference, Hawkins championed the music, earning him a degree of loyalty (Thelonious Monk remained a lifelong friend) and respect. The title of a tune from a 1946 recording session, which included J. J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Fats Navarro, and Max Roach, pays tribute to the relationship between the older saxophonist and his young protégés: "Bean and the Boys."

    To make sense of this relationship, one must move beyond the compelling simplifications that dominate jazz history. Music cannot be reduced to a narrative of stylistic development, just as the complexity of a life lived in music cannot be flattened into a set of musical characteristics. This dictum is especially true for bebop, a movement that reflected the totality of the artist's consciousness.

    For the bop musicians, Hawkins had a special relevance. As keen-eared aspiring artists, they paid close attention to Hawkins's musical legacy, appropriating some elements while rejecting others. But they also understood these details of craftsmanship as part of a broader picture, inseparable from the qualities of personality and intellect that informed the achievements of an extraordinary elite: black jazz musicians in midcentury America.

    Hawkins shared many traits with the Dukes and Counts of that elite: the unshakable confidence of the successfully self-taught man, a tireless professional ambition, and a sense of dignity, tending toward inner reserve, under even the most trying of circumstances. Still, even among his peers, Hawkins stood out. The quality that arrested the attention of the youthful Cannonball Adderley was Hawkins's sense of purpose. This quality found its most obvious manifestation in his restless exploration of technical resources, but it cannot be reduced to them. It was both social and musical. The peculiar combination of personal traits and musical abilities that marked Hawkins—steely ambition, a strong intellect, and virtuosity—characterized the bebop revolution as well. He was, as Sonny Rollins has recently put it, one of its most prominent "role models": the prototypical progressive jazz musician.

Jazz and Progress

The word progressive makes many people in the late twentieth century uncomfortable. It calls to mind an ideology of continuous and irreversible betterment, one singularly out of sync with contemporary thought and experience.

    In particular, it is grating to find notions of progress applied to the arts. To claim progress in the fields of science and technology is one thing. Some may argue whether such "advances" actually improve life, but few disagree that new solutions to old problems have rendered previous efforts obsolete. Old technologies are discarded without a second thought: the slide rule and the typewriter may have equipped one generation, but to the next, they become puzzling curiosities. In the arts, however, such wholesale dismissal of the past seems unthinkable. As museums attest, the old retains its power and actively shapes the sensibilities of the present.

    Within the arts, music is a special case. Compared with the tangible objects of the visual arts, music is an inherently evanescent art, more process than product. Music notation, of course, was invented centuries ago as a corrective. Written music embodies musical structure independent of any given performance and makes the category of a "work" possible. But it took time for the reification of music as composition to take effect. The museum-like quality of the "classical" European repertory dates back no earlier than the nineteenth century. Only in the past hundred years has the music of the past, the canon of "timeless" masterpieces, come to dominate the present and undermine any notion of music's evanescence. Before this time, music was created primarily for current value: to be used and discarded. No one gave much thought to what generations beyond the reach of memory might have done, or to what future generations might think.

    For jazz, the more modern technology of recording served a function parallel to that of notation. Jazz was a music created, like any other, for immediate consumption. Through recording, particular performances of music were transmuted into durable artifacts capable of outlasting the particular circumstances of their creation. Recordings were not necessarily treated with reverence: like other products of mass-market capitalism, they were meant to be used up. But some survived, in attics and junk shops, to be picked over in later years by eager record collectors.

    Jazz history itself grew out of discography, a rational system of classification devised to help collectors sort the "classic" jazz recordings from the ephemera of popular culture. This process led to the wholesale rescue of jazz recordings from planned obsolescence and gradually to the jazz consumers' consciousness of the music as an art form. Today recordings are seen as jazz's museum, housing works of lasting value. It follows that new additions to the museum do not displace the old. The innovations of subsequent decades, whether by Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, do not diminish the value placed on contributions by King Oliver or Duke Ellington, but rather furnish another wing in the museum. The process is value neutral: growth, not progress.

    It would be a mistake, however, to read this ideology back into the circumstances of the musicians who created the recordings. At the outset of Hawkins's career, jazz was not art music, but dance music. While record collectors shivered in private ecstasy listening to their favorite treasures, others gathered in large public spaces to enjoy dancing to the finest music they could find. Dance music is by nature ephemeral—which does not mean that it is unimportant or inartistic, but simply that it tends not to survive its time. In popular music, continual change is essential, as in sartorial fashion. It is a marker of generational identity, and every generation has the privilege of mocking its predecessor as hopelessly outdated and unhip. For those growing up in the first half of the century, surrounded by the ongoing triumphs of technology, it was virtually irresistible to associate change with progress.

    Hawkins broke into the music business in the early 1920s as a callow teenager in rumpled, ill-kept clothes that earned him the nickname "Greasy," but quickly evolved into a dapper sophisticate, keenly sensitive to the imperatives of fashion. To his horror, his involvement with the dance music of the Jazz Age, captured on dozens of recordings with the Henderson band, later became the fetish of jazz collectors and critics. They delighted in playing these recordings in his presence, and the mortified Hawkins acted as if he had just been shown faded photographs of his youthful self in clownishly outmoded attire. The mature Hawkins thought of himself as perpetually young, perpetually in step, and hated admitting to a past. Confronted with evidence of it, he immediately countered with the notion of progress.

    That Hawkins was not alone in this regard is evident in the French critic André Hodeir's complaint, from the mid-1950s, that musicians of the swing generation "naively believed their music better than that of their predecessors, just as they would have judged a 1938 automobile faster and more comfortable than a 1925 model." Hawkins, who insisted on owning the latest-model Cadillac, would have appreciated the analogy, but would probably have objected to being characterized as naive. His sense of progress in music was grounded not simply in a chauvinism of the up-to-date, but in an awareness of undeniable improvements in things that could be objectively measured. Musicians played faster, extended the ranges of their instruments, had better control over intonation and timbre (which is not to say that they conformed to European standards, but that any deviations from those standards were intentional). They had, on the whole, a sounder grasp of the intellectual components of music: the ability to translate musical notation into sounds and sounds into musical notation, a working knowledge of the syntax of tonal harmony, and a carefully calculated rhythmic assurance that made the dance music of the 1920s seem comparatively awkward and stiff. All of these skills had become the minimum professional equipment for musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, and counted as progress—real, hard-won achievement.

    Jazz critics continually held up earlier jazz for admiration, but Hawkins was pained at the thought. "It's like a man thinking back to when he couldn't walk, he had to crawl," he complained after rehearing one of his solos twenty years later. That art, out of all areas of human endeavor, should be singled out and denied the possibility of systematic improvement made him indignant: "That's amazing to me, that so many people in music won't accept progress. It's the only field where advancement meets so much opposition. You take doctors—look what medicine and science have accomplished in the last twenty or thirty years. That's the way it should be in music—that's the way it has to be."

The analogy between science and art that Hawkins suggests seems improbable, but as generations of scholars have discovered, the work of science historian Thomas Kuhn offers some intriguing points of comparison. In science, entire fields are occasionally transformed, or brought into being, by new organizing principles: the discovery of antibiotics in medicine, plate tectonics in geology, quantum mechanics in physics. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn identified such breakthroughs as new "paradigms" and saw in them the basis for understanding revolutionary change in science. Similar breakthroughs have characterized the arts; indeed, the animating purpose of Kuhn's study was to adapt concepts of revolution already widespread in the humanities for use in the sciences. What have come to be known as paradigm shifts in both the humanities and the sciences are the disjunctures dramatized in the telling of history—the sudden irruption of a new sensibility, a fresh way of seeing things, embodied in a particular set of techniques and procedures that becomes the model for all to follow.

    Still, as Kuhn emphasizes, the dramatic, paradigm-shattering breakthrough is not characteristic of scientific activity as a whole. What he calls "normal science" is the unglamorous but necessary work that uses the prevailing paradigm to pose problems and systematically solve them. Progress—the incremental accumulation of knowledge—is made possible only by such unremitting labor. Scientists do not seek revolutionary insights for their own sake (although the achievements of a handful of radical innovators are properly lionized). Most simply extend the existing framework further and assume, for want of any evidence to the contrary, that it will go on indefinitely.

    The analogy with jazz seems straightforward and helps in part to explain Coleman Hawkins's preoccupation with progress. One of the most influential truisms of recent historical writing is that jazz was given something like an initial paradigm by "the first great soloist," Louis Armstrong. According to Martin Williams, "jazz musicians spent the late twenties and early thirties absorbing Armstrong's rhythmic ideas, the basis of his swing." Armstrong's performances, especially his recordings from the 1920s, defined the exacting discipline of the improvised solo and provided concrete examples of the rhythmic principle of swing.

    For the next two decades, hundreds of musicians applied themselves to the task of absorbing and extending Armstrong's example. The "problems" they sought to "solve" (both words crop up frequently in the secondary literature) differed from a scientist's experiments in that their ultimate goals were aesthetic. But, like a scientist, these musicians systematically applied principles inherent in the original paradigm to novel contexts. Specifically, they learned from Armstrong's example how to construct a solo and how to swing, and they learned to do this within their own musical personalities, on their own instruments, and in the context of changing fashions in dance music. The process can be viewed as intuitive and holistic (learning how to "tell a story"), or intellectual and reducible to such technical problems as range, speed, and articulation. Responsibility for achievement was individual: personal improvement. But, as Coleman Hawkins proudly saw, the net result for the discipline was progress.

    Bebop, to continue the analogy, figures as a major paradigm shift. Through the transformative example of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, jazz in the 1940s experienced a "reconstitution of the field from new fundamentals." All the familiar symptoms of revolution, the world turned upside down, are there: the youth of the revolutionaries; the startling, unexpected nature of the new insight; the specter of an older generation clinging to the old paradigm, even as hordes of new practitioners rush to embrace the new; and finally, the triumph of the new paradigm and the recasting of the field in its image.

    But what is the relationship of the new order to the old? How and why do such revolutions arise? As Kuhn emphasizes, a paradigm is not lightly set aside. It is the foundation of a field, and those who run counter to it risk no longer being recognized as members of the discipline. New paradigms emerge only in moments of great crisis, when the usual ways of doing things prove wholly inadequate. At such times, practitioners are forced, almost against their deepest instincts, to devise radical new ways of constructing their professional world. It is not enough for historians to admire the originality and brilliance of the new paradigm, as if originality and brilliance were sufficient explanation. They must also understand the extraordinary pressures that turned dedicated practitioners into revolutionaries and pushed them to the reckless step of abandoning the old paradigm.

    What, then, was the crisis that provoked the bebop revolution? As we have seen, something like a "crisis theory" is already in place in the bebop story. It suggests that by the beginning of the 1940s, jazz musicians found themselves frustrated by the prevailing paradigm. The encouragingly brisk pace of development that had characterized jazz to this point slowed, as if something were impeding musicians from progressing further. Some have imputed the difficulty to musical style per se. "I do not think that one can hear the impeccable swing of a player like Lionel Hampton," wrote Martin Williams, "without sensing that some sort of future crisis was at hand in the music, that.... a kind of jazz as melodically dull as a set of tone drums might well be in the offing." But this is not a comfortable argument, since it suggests that the musical language itself is somehow at fault. The more usual approach, as I have already noted, is to deflect the blame for the crisis away from the music toward external forces (such as commercialism). Bebop thus emerges as a musical solution to a social problem—or more precisely, a reassertion of the autonomy of music-making in the face of social pressures.

    I would frame the argument differently. At the risk of overextending the analogy between art and science, one further aspect of Kuhn's analysis deserves to be mentioned. The revolutions he describes happen not to science in the abstract, but to communities of professional scientists. Insofar as the concept of paradigm "stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community," it is sociological: a "disciplinary matrix" that grounds the putatively autonomous pursuit of science in social realities. To understand fundamental change in science, one must account for its social dimension—not just its institutions (degree programs, journals, scholarly associations), but the cultural values that underlie informal behavior: how information is disseminated, reputations made, and conflicts between competing paradigms resolved.

    I would argue that fundamental change in music must similarly be understood as social and cultural as well as musical. The proper analogy for a paradigm in jazz is not musical style, but something like Kuhn's "disciplinary matrix": the sum total of practices, values, and commitments that define jazz as a profession. The romantic myth of the artist working in isolation from (or even in opposition to) the outside world may seem congenial or convenient to jazz critics. But myth it is. All activity in the arts takes place within what the sociologist Howard Becker has called an "art world": "the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized by their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for." Only within this context can the decisions of individual jazz musicians to effect dramatic changes not only in musical style, but also in their social role as professional musicians, be properly interpreted.

    In focusing on Coleman Hawkins, one of the most influential musicians of the Swing Era, I hope to provide one vivid, concrete example of how that social role was constructed. In emphasizing the social, I do not mean to neglect or diminish the musical. I will deal separately, and at some length, with technical musical issues in the chapters that follow. My first task, however, is to situate Coleman Hawkins as a musician within his historical context. What did it mean for a young African-American man to pursue the career of professional jazz musician in the first several decades of the century? In particular, what did it mean for him to be progressive?

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Meet the Author

Scott DeVeaux is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Jazz in America: Who's Listening? (1995) and coeditor of The Music of James Scott (1992).

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