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Jazz music: a new way of thinking, in musical notes

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Jazz music was historically a transformative and iconic type of music which had the capacity to restructure the way artists approached developing their sounds. The African American culture thrived off of the success of jazz music in the 1920s and it helped to completely alter the course of music and the appreciation of music for generations to come. (Floyd, 1995, 29) Yet, as jazz became more successful and more openly commercialized, the culture surrounding jazz music became more appropriated by white Americans, as opposed to the African-American fans that it had built its culture upon. As such, many different musical movements came forth in the years that followed, pushed onward by the efforts of African American musicians who wished to reclaim some of their own sounds and the associations that were made with their culture itself. Bebop was one prominent example of a style of jazz which was adapted as a response to the appropriation of more mainstream jazz music of the time. It featured a fast tempo, various complex and changing chord progressions and a level of improvisation that was built around combining harmonic structures and the utilization of different scales and melodies. Bebop grew from the African American community as a direct response to the commercialization and appropriation of typical jazz music, and as such, this essay will serve to analyze the causes of this transformation and its subsequent effects on music. (Floyd, 1995, 29)

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History of Jazz and Bebop Music

There was a dance-oriented style that embodied jazz music and in the 1920s, it rose to prominence all throughout America, mostly in clubs and bars were people could openly dance to the rhythms being played. Jazz experienced a profound rise to fame and popularity during this era, as people are able to easily access recordings as the music industry began to boom and commercialized studios were able to introduce the concept of record players which brought a more immediate, long-standing nature to the music being played. Yet, it was due to this commercialization and the fact that the music industry had full creative control over what content was being put out on recordings that many African American artists felt as if they were being swindled due to the fact that members of white culture could easily recreate the sounds that they have been the progenitors of, and in turn sell it on broader marketplaces through using recordings.

As the more commercialized version of jazz music made its way throughout the popular music culture and industry, a younger generation of jazz musicians began to fully explore and expand upon the possibilities that could be had in jazz music. There was a level of avant-garde experimentation that began to grow and as a result, bebop was formed. (DuNoyer, 2003, 130) Bebop in itself was more atmospheric and not directly intended simply to dance to; as a result, it provided musicians with a platform to really integrate more complex harmonies, with various chord progressions and styles integrated, all occurring at a significantly faster tempo than normal jazz. There was a present level of improvisation associated with bebop and many different artists chose to differentiation the platform of jazz music from the inspirations that came before them, inspired by the ability that bebop provided to fully explore and extrapolate upon these ideas.

Influences of African American Culture on Bebop Music

Jazz music itself began as a genre in New Orleans, among African American citizens and in predominantly African American dance halls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (DuNoyer, 2003, 130) It developed from the influences of Blues music, and was combined with the influence of more African, traditional rhythms and drum patterns. Music was an essential attribute to the lives of many African Americans at this time. With such societal pressures and issues as segregation, discrimination and racism, the black communities found a sense of solace in the types of music that they enjoyed and provided this platform, they began developing heavily rhythmic types of music such as jazz that had a large inspiration from European-styled brass horns and more tribal, traditional African drums and rhythms. Music was a way for them to express a wide range of emotions and connect with one another as a developed community, in the face of such tremendous adversity. (DuNoyer, 2003, 130)

Jazz music developed from many spiritual songs and work songs that the slaves had integrated into their culture, and in conjunction with the rhythms of jazz brass and drum patterns, the genre exploded throughout the black communities as a form of release and escape, given how it was structured largely to make one dance and enjoy the presence of the music. The improvisational style of jazz music also provided a platform for experimentation and constant changes in both the progression and nature of a song, yet jazz existed largely as a catalyst to encourage people to dance and enjoy the music in clubs and dance halls. (Gair, 2008, 16) This is one prominent reason that the music was so widely commercialized, given its accessible nature. It was easy for people throughout the country to pack into speakeasies, drink liquor and dance all night, and the industry giants were aware of this, so they encouraged white artists who had an ear for jazz and invested in them, understanding the value in bringing this style of music to audiences across the nation. Bebop grew as a response to both of these concepts, being the commercialization of jazz and the evident nature of how it was enjoyed. It grew from a culmination of different trends and influences in the mid-1930s, such as less emphasis on timekeeping by the drummer, and a changing role for the way that the piano emphasized certain sections of the music. (Gair, 2008, 16) Furthermore, there was a larger emphasis on the freedom of expression for soloists and encouragement for them to break conventions of the genre to orient a new progression of sound.

Testimonies Regarding Origins of Bebop

Famous bebop artist, Charlie Parker, summarizes this mentality in stating, “I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it… I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” (DuNoyer, 2003, 130) As such, it was evident that the foundation of bebop was structured as a response to the over-saturation and commercial appropriation of typical jazz music. Furthermore, much of the experimentation with jazz music came as a direct result of not just the over-saturation of the music, but of the largely white appropriation of the music industry. Dizzy Gillespie, an iconic bebop trumpeter believed that the nature of jazz music was founded in black culture, and that predominantly white studios and musicians had taken that level of credibility away. “I think the idea is now for blacks to write about the history of our music. It’s time for that, because whites have been doing it all the time. It’s time for us to do it ourselves and tell it like it is.” (Floyd, 1995, 29)

Gillespie believed that bebop music provided a platform for deviating away from the sounds that were being so readily capitalized upon, and further provided the artist with the capacity to interpret the music by their own devices and add a heightened level of artistic representation to each song. This is reason why another iconic trumpet player made the transition to bebop music. Miles Davis, one of the progenitors of bebop, believed that the appropriation of jazz and genres that inspired jazz had defined the way that the music as viewed, and took a lot of the credit away from artists who genuinely defined the sound. He stated, “As long as I’ve been playing, they never say I done anything. They always say that some white guy did it.” (Gair, 2008, 16)


As such, it is evident that historically, bebop was largely a result of the advancements made by black artists to differentiate commercialized jazz music from more complex, artistic representations of the genre. Given that many of these artists were African-American, there is a direct correlation between their influences and decisions to adapt to bebop music, and the overall effects that were seen as a result of jazz being appropriated by white culture. Jazz music originated as a platform for enslaved, disenfranchised African Americans to congregate and share communal experiences and reflections upon the conditions surrounding them. The development of jazz music into a commercial entity meant that the sounds themselves further deviated away from the original source, and reached to a broader, more commercial audience. As is evident by the opinions of many of the progenitors of bebop, such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, bebop was crafted as a response to the appropriation of jazz at the time. Given the success of jazz music and the platform that it created for many white artists to capitalize on the vibe and sound of jazz, bebop was a transformative approach because it introduced more complex, rhythmic patterns and approaches that placed much of the influence and emphasis back in the hands of the artists themselves and in the culture from which jazz originated.

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