Bebop: The Controversy, Part 2: Complex Forms and Trying to Hear The Changes (+ Bonus)

In the first essay on this topic, we discussed the controversy about bebop in the jazz press and beyond that began in 1944 and ‘45. I pointed out, in detail, that this was not simply a case of people “rejecting new things,” but that it had very specific causes. I used this famous quote as a starting point, where drummer Dave Tough describes what bebop sounded like in person in early 1944:

As we walked in, see, these cats snatched up their horns and blew crazy stuff. One would stop all of a sudden and another would start for no reason at all. We never could tell when a solo was supposed to begin or end. Then they all quit at once and walked off the stand. It scared us.

I showed that most of this quote is specifically about the difficulty of following the form of many bebop tunes, with their interludes and complex arrangements. I used “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke as my example, and of course there were many others. For example, subscriber and jazz historian Mark Stryker pointed out, in a comment to my essay, that Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” has a similarly convoluted arrangement. It’s basically a 32-bar ABAC tune, 8 bars each, as is the 1920 song “Whispering” that it’s based on. In ‘Whispering,” only the last four bars of B and C differ, as is common with ABAC song forms, so one might hear it simply as AA’, that is, a 16-bar theme and then the same theme again with a different, more conclusive ending. Mark described the recording as follows:

The original Gillespie schematic of '“Groovin' High” is in the same category as “Salt Peanuts” in that it takes a standard song form and adds a ton of quirks: There’s a 6-bar intro, instead of the more common 4 or 8 bars. Then comes the 16+16 ABAC bar theme. But the last two bars of section C are replaced by another 6-bar interlude—four bars over a pedal leading down from Eb to Db, followed by a 2-bar saxophone break in the new key. The sax then plays a 16-bar half chorus, followed by a bass solo (Slam Stewart bowing and singing) for 14 bars. Again, the last two bars are replaced by a break, but this time the break is three measures(!), taking us back up to the original key of Eb, and leading to a 4-bar break for Dizzy. He takes a half-chorus solo, followed by 12 bars of guitar and one final twist -- this time the remaining four bars of the chorus are replaced by the famous half-time coda, 8 measures at half the tempo, with a written part for the bass.

Thank you Mark! Clearly, this is another piece that listeners could not possibly have grasped at first hearing. Let’s listen with Mark’s description at hand. The date is February 28, 1945, and the band is Gillespie, Parker, Clyde Hart (p), Remo Palmieri (g), Slam Stewart (b) and Cozy Cole (d):


I note that, about 15 months later, composer-pianist Tadd Dameron used Dizzy’s coda as the final phrase of one of the first original ballads of the bop era, “If You Could See Me Now.” Here is that phrase performed by Sarah Vaughan in the song’s first recording, May 7, 1946:


By the way, Parker’s half-chorus on “Groovin’ High,” when it was released around late March or early April 1945, was at least as well known and influential as “Ko Ko,” which was not available until January 1946. Lee Konitz and others said that “Groovin’ High” was where they first heard—and were astounded by—Bird.

(Below, Paying Subscribers will find the less-known version with Dexter Gordon, recorded almost three weeks earlier using the same arrangement.)

But what about Tough’s comment that they blew “crazy stuff”? Well, for one thing, if you can’t follow the form, then you can’t hear the logic of the underlying chords, and you can’t hear how the solos relate to the chords. But there is a bigger point here: In swing music, you had a heavy piano and bass, and often a guitar as well, feeding the changing chords—the “changes”—to the performers as well as to the listeners. Bop was lighter in every way: Most swing pianists played the chords steadily, whereas the new generation favored something like the Count Basie approach, where you simply “plink” a chord every now and then. In swing rhythm sections there was often a guitarist who played every chord on every beat. But in bop, guitars were rare (although Charlie Christian was an important founder of bop and both versions of “Groovin’ High” have guitars). And while swing bassists tended to play roots, and they often repeated notes, clearly “spelling out” the chords, bop bassists tended to keep the line moving to create a more melodic part. This was partly due to the influence of Jimmie Blanton. (“Jimmie” is how he spelled his name. I will discuss Christian and Blanton in future essays.)

Let’s listen. Here is an excerpt from pianist Teddy Wilson’s swing group version of “Oh, Lady Be Good,” on a Jubilee radio broadcast for Black military personnel, pre-recorded in November 1943 and broadcast in December. Behind the fine trumpet playing of Emmett Berry (no relation to Chu), Teddy and the bassist create a constant cushion of chords:


By comparison, behind Dizzy Gillespie on “Salt Peanuts,” the listener does not get many hints about the chords. We heard the whole track last time, but here I slowed this excerpt down a little so that it’s closer to the tempo of what you just heard, for an easier comparison:


Now, please keep in mind that when this recording came out around June 1945, only about a year-and-a-half after Wilson’s radio broadcast, most people, including musicians, had not been exposed to the new bebop style. Would you have been able to follow the chords, or even the AABA form of this piece, from the seemingly random attacks of the piano and the freely walking bass line? Almost nobody could do that. And of course Dizzy’s playing is also much more wide-ranging than Berry’s—I mean going from way up high to low—which adds to the difficulty.

Next time we will study one of the main reasons that people got turned off to the new music—the initial scarcity of masterful and experienced soloists. And in the fourth and final essay, I will demonstrate that the resistance to the new music only lasted about three years.

All the best,