Non-Sociopolitical Origins of Bebop

This is excerpted from an article in the College Music Symposium that was titled “Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement.” Published online: 1 October 2007 PDF:
It was published as Footnote 54, which explained how the origins of not only free jazz, but also of bebop, did not lie in socio-political forces.

Writing about the origins of bebop, Dave Banks, for example, contended that to understand bebop we must consider the “creative musician’s psychological response toward the war” which had “forced the musical imagination further into the infinite reaches of its expression producing a revolutionary approach to music.” (“Be-Bop Called Merely the Beginning of a New Creative Music Form,” down beat, 11 February 1948, 16.) LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) wrote “The period that saw bebop develop, during and after [italics added] World War II, was a very unstable time for most Americans. There was a need for radical readjustment to the demands of the postwar world. The [race] riots throughout the country appear as directly related to the psychological tenor of that time as the emergence of the ‘new’ music.” (Blues People [New York: Harper/Collins, 1999], 210) Banks, Jones, and others have overlooked at least four considerations that suggest sources other than such a sociopolitical origin for bebop. (1) The emergence of bebop culminated intense studying that its founders had already undertaken during the 1930s, not necessarily “during and after World War II.” (2) Full-scale U.S. involvement in WWII was not achieved until 1942, although the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and Germany had declared war on the U.S. December 11, 1941. Yet Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had already formed bebop by 1943. Being only a year later would have provided insufficient time to develop an entire style. (3) Gillespie’s main model was the virtuosic, explosive style of trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who was known for harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic surprises in the 1930s. Therefore, if bebop struck Banks and Jones as explosive, and they inferred that such character reflected the agitation of the times, they overlooked the fact that before gaining notoriety for bebop during the WWII years, Gillespie already had a taste for making music containing the exciting musical devices of Eldridge. They overlooked the fact that Gillespie had already been playing fast, and frequenting the high-register, as documented in his recordings with the Teddy Hill Band in 1937. Since these characteristics of his volcanic style were not unique to his work “during and after WWII,” it is not likely that Gillespie created these aspects of his style in response to any sociopolitical “tenor of that time” that had also caused race riots in the 1940s. (4) Since Parker’s new style was already apparent in the recordings that he made in Wichita during 1940 with Jay McShann, Banks and Jones missed the fact that Parker’s bebop innovations predated WWII and predated the greatest sociopolitical upheavals for African Americans. If Banks and Jones were attributing the agitated character of Parker’s playing to the “psychological tenor of that time,” they may have been overlooking the facts that: (a) all Parker’s models had already been prominent during the 1930s; and (b) several of them, including Art Tatum, had specialized in practices that could lead to listener agitation, such as double-timing, asymmetrical accents, and substitute chord changes. Parker’s lines that run a sequence of different keys, often a half-step away from the tune’s key, are likely to reflect instruction he received in his hometown of Kansas City from Efferge Ware during the 1930s. Being aware of Tatum, Ware, and other models of the 1930s, such as Buster Smith, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, is a more likely inspiration for Parker’s style than being aware of any sociopolitical “tenor of that time” as LeRoi Jones believed. (For discography and elaboration of these points, see Mark C. Gridley, Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 10th edition [Prentice-Hall, 2008], pages 198-99.)