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The Swing Era III - The BeBop Strain

During the latter half of the period known as the Swing Decade [1935-45], a new development called BeBop began to emerge on the jazz scene. This new style of playing differed from the old in many ways. Swing was harmonically and rhythmically steady and predictable, where BeBop twisted and turned through dissonance and modulation, with spontaneous slams and crashes from the drums. In BeBop, complex, angular melodies were played in unison, and everything else melodic was improvised by one soloist at a time. Swing focused on the arrangement and left little or no space for solos. Critics felt BeBop was antithetical to Swing, but in many ways Bop evolved directly from Swing music and musicians.

One such musician was Count Basie. Many of his charts allowed for longer solos, a development which Lionel Hampton continued in his band with truly open solos ended by the soloist, not the arrangement. Saxophonist Lester Young was one of Basie's featured soloists, whose melodic style was a main influence on Charlie Parker. Young's cool tenor sound and sparse rhythmic approach even sowed the seeds of the Cool style of jazz pioneered by Miles Davis in the '50's, and influenced the sound of players like Stan Getz.

The Basie approach to the rhythm section was also unique. Most swing bands drove the sound from the horns, whereas Basie's band moved the music from the rhythm section, laying out the horns and leaving more room for the solo to be heard. The drumming style of Jo Jones included keeping time on the hi-hat cymbals instead of the kick drum, a much lighter sound. Basie as pianist also did away with the usual stride style and de-emphasized the left hand, lightly playing chords and fills where he deemed appropriate. All of these developments became essential to BeBop.

Other musicians developed ideas crucial to the BeBop sound as early as 1939. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded a now famous solo that year on Body and Soul*, which opened a new door to improvising. The solo was in a small band context, and instead of the usual melodic development, Hawkins explored the harmony and included melodic reference to chords not in the original composition. The impact of this concept helped lead to the harmonic complexity of the BeBop sound. Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman's guitarist from 1939 to his death in 1942, was the first to play single note solos instead of the modified chordal banjo style of the day, changing the way guitar was played in Bop, and in every jazz style since then.

Although the mid 40's also saw attempts at BeBop big bands, including the bands of Earl 'Fatha' Hines,  Billy Eckstein, of which Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespe were both alumni, and Dizzy, who flirted with his own big band for several years, the smaller combo became the norm for Bop. Big band Swing continued to be a popular jazz style, but BeBop replaced Swing as the primary influence on jazz musicians soon after its rise to popularity, and continues to be a field of study for any serious jazz musician today.    [top]
- article by Frank Singer 2002

* A recording of Body and Soul can be found on the CD oFF tHE tOP: standards 1 Frank Singer plays Body And Soul on oFF tHE tOP: standards 1 / click here for more info




Jazz Origins
I - Beginnings 
II - Jazz and Technology
III - Radio and the Industrial Beat    
The Swing Era
I - Precursors
II - The Decade of Swing
III - The BeBop Strain
A First Look Back
New Orleans Revival

Jazz Forms

The Blues
The 32 bar Song Form
The Latin Influence
Hard Bop
Evolution 1 - A New Dialogue
Evolution 2 - Into The Seventies
Evolution Of The Jam Session
Post Modernism


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