The Rise of Modern Jazz - BeBop: 1940's

A pivotal development in jazz took place in the 1940's that was to permanently change the status of jazz in the American musical scene. Earlier jazz styles — from the early New Orleans bands, to the hot jazz of the late 1920's, to the plush swing orchestras — were part of the popular dance music industry and the band leaders and their soloists were pop music stars. By the 1930's, however, a new kind of jazz was emerging that was at once more complex in its musical language and more serious in its expressive intent. It was called BeBop and it was developed in a series of Manhattan jam sessions by young, mostly black players anxious to extend the boundaries of jazz improvisation. Most were veteran members of touring swing bands and were frustrated by the limited opportunities for solo improvising in the swing band arrangements. They were eager to move beyond the dance-entertainment function of Swing and to emphasize the inventive side of jazz, catered to listeners. In these experimental jam sessions men like Charlie Parker (alto sax), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), and Thelonious Monk (piano) began to utilize the abstract elements of modern classical music - dissonant harmony, complex melodies, and polyrhythms - in their jazz improvisations.

The "bopsters," as they were called, were initially misunderstood by jazz traditionalists as simply arrogant, self-conscious musical snobs who were creating modernistic sounds just to gain attention. But they were serious in their purpose in expanding the psychological potential of jazz expression. The increased musical tension created by dissonance and polyrhythm increased the emotional tension of jazz, enabling the music to express a range of deeper moods. BeBop was jazz with a new agenda. The bopsters' performance was geared not to pleasing dancing audiences but to a musical logic of its own and to listeners who liked the result. In keeping with their new
modernistic approach, the bopsters rarely improvised on popular songs, but rather on newly created intricate melodies based on dissonant chords. And in the "hip" jargon of the BeBop movement they called these tunes "charts," with abstract or oblique titles such as "Epistrophy," Klacktoveedstene, "Ornithology," and "Scrapple From The Apple." From BeBop forward, the mainstream of jazz became a thing apart from commercial popular music: an American art form.