Bop and Cool

EXCERPTS fdrom chapters 11 & 13

May 7, 1945: Germany surrenders. The war in Europe ends, but the fighting in the Pacific continues. The method used in Europe-saturation bombing followed by land invasion will cost many thousands of Allied lives. To prevent that loss, President Truman decides to use the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, hoping the Japanese will surrender. On August 6, 1945 the bomb is dropped. More than 92,000 people are killed in the blast. Truman calls on the Japanese to surrender and they refuse. Three days later another bomb is dropped, this time on Nagasaki. At least 42,000 people are killed immediately. The world is altered in ways that people do not immediately understand. On August 14 Japan accepts the Allied terms of surrender.

Servicemen are returning from overseas. Bud Freeman, who had spent two years leading an army band in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast, heads for New York. His confidence in his playing is shaken. In search of help he goes first to Sidney Bechet, then to fellow Chicagoan Lennie Tristano. Tristano listens to Bud, then says, “Man, you’re tight as a drum!” Some later say that Tristano is teaching him the elements of a new style, but the fact is Tristano is just helping Bud regain confidence in his work.

New York is a new scene. The swing bands are still going but an unfamiliar sound has emerged, the sound of younger jazzmen who are using harmonies new to jazz. The sound is frantic; the harmonies seem strange to many. The style has a name-bebop.

Bebop registered the tensions of the new era years before the bombs were dropped. Freeman responded in his own way with a piece called “The Atomic Era”-the first in the so-called free-form jazz genre: an atonal piece recorded by Majestic Records, now a rare collector’s item. It was the first and last experiment Freeman made in that style, Nor did Freeman join the bop revolution. He and many of the older musicians stayed with melodic line; for Freeman there was nothing new to the bop chords, for as a young man he had listened closely to Stravinsky, Debuss, Ravel, Gustav Holst and others, albeit twenty years earlier.   Whenever Freeman was asked whether he liked bebop he replied, “I prefer Ravel and Debussy.”

The new sound was the work of Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, and Thelonius Monk.  Gillespie, Parker, Young and Christian were all graduates of the big bands.  In 1940 all except Parker,—who was not yet in New York,—ravitated together for after-hours jam sessions at a Harlem club called Minton’s. On Sunday afternoons they would gather at bassist Milt Hinton’s home and listen to records—mostly Coleman Hawkins—and jam.

Kenny Clarke recalled how the tight-knit group at Minton’s evolved its sounds. “We’d play ‘Epistrophy’ or ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’ just to keep the other guys off the stand, because we knew they couldn’t make those chord changes.   We kept the riff-raff out and built our clique on new chords.” Musicians who did not play the new sound but whom the group respected were allowed to sit in. Furthermore, Clarke said, the beboppers would play in the visitor’s style.  When Charlie Christian, who was playing for Benny Goodman at the time, finished work in the evenings, he would come over, often bringing Goodman with him.  “He,” Clarke said, meaning Goodman, “was all the rage at the time and we always got a great deal of pleasure when he came in. We used to just convert our style to coincide with his, so Benny played just the things he wanted to play. We did that for others, too.”  The jam sessions went on until the end of the war. They were well-attended, mostly by musicians.

In 1943 Parker met and played alongside Gillespie in the short-lived Earl Hines bebop band which featured vocalist Sarah Vaughan.  In 1944 singer Billy Eckstine gathered together some of the best beboppers, including Parker, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, and Fats Navarro in a big band that also featured Vaughan.  That same year Parker recorded his first small combo dates and in 1945 recorded “Groovin’ High” and other tunes with a quintet under Gillespie’s name.    The records took off, and young musicians in Chicago and elsewhere began listening to the new sound. 

Many musicians did not understand the new ,sound. In a now famous interview, Lionel Hampton claimed to clear up the mystery, but understood it no more than John Q. Public.  “B-bop” he explained, “is the chord structure; Re-bop is the rhythm. We combine both and call it the New Movement.” Many hated the sound, which was often characterized by discontinuous bursts of notes-a lack of melodic line. Tommy Dorsey’s comment encapsulated the opinion many had: ‘Bebop has set music back twenty years.”  Charlie Parker not only disliked the name “bebop” but didn’t think that what he played was jazz. He told Leonard Feather, “Let’s call it music. People got so used to hearing jazz for so many years; finally somebody said, ‘Let’s have something different’ and some new ideas began to evolve. The people brand it ‘bebop’ and try to crush it. If it should ever become completely accepted, people should remember it’s in just the same position jazz was. It’s just another style.”

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, two of the central figures in the so-called “Beat Generation,” were students at Columbia University when the beboppers were forging their style at Minton’s.   In fact, they were often there.  For Kerouac, Ginsberg and their friends,  the frenetic music was the perfect expression of their own inner turmoil.  Heroin was a central element in the bebopper’s life; it was a crutch, just as booze and marijuana had been for the older players.  Many of the younger jazzmen were hospitalized for treatment, yet years after the bop scene passed, heroin stayed.


By the late 40s some of the younger beboppers and other jazzmen began playing in a less heated style, what became known as “cool.” You wouldn’t find any characters like Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road, going into trances over cool; there was no ecstasy, no kicks; instead there was a sound characterized by vibratoless or almost vibratoless playing, soft tones, an almost chamber ensemble effect. On the West Coast the sound was exemplified by a 9-piece group led by Miles Davis which recorded an album for Capitol Records called The Birth Of The Cool. Lee Konitz, who was with that group, was a student of Lennie Tristano, another man who had also been exploring the cool style, although from another angle.

Tristano’s work is far more complex and interesting than that of the beboppers. Tristano stands far above them; he, of all the musicians who gained recognition in the post-war era, can be labeled a genius. His two star pupils were saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Konitz, like Tristano, was a Chicago native who received his early musical education in his hometown. Konitz had none of Parker’s gut feeling and drive, but then-he was trying for something else. He, Marsh and Tristano all seem to be reaching for ideas rather than feelings. The three of them, along with drummer Al Levitt and bassist Peter Ind, cut one of the great jazz records of all time Lennie Tristano Quintet Live In Toronto 1952. Their music, quite purposefully, does not engage the feelings; it is, in a very obvious way, the work of minds. But simply to label it intellectual, which it is, is not to do it justice. With its own advanced harmonies-harmonies even stranger to jazz audiences than those of the boppers-with the middle-register playing of Marsh and Konitz, with notes coming from their saxophones like the patter of April rain, with Levitt’s restrained drumming, these cuts produce a sense of order and satisfaction of the kind that comes from listening to a baroque string quartet.

In 1953 Tristano recorded a piano solo, “Descent Into The Maelstrom,” which he called an “improvised conception from Edgar Allan Poe’s story.” Certainly not jazz, it lacks not only melody or theme but tonal center and fixed meter. It is, in fact, a major modernist work, ranking with the best of the so-called “classical” modernist piano compositions. It is far wilder than much of what later became known as “free jazz,” a genre that gained public recognition in the late ’50s and early ’60s and which split the jazz community perhaps even more than the bebop revolution before it.