The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

ISBN 10: 0520216652 / ISBN 13: 9780520216655
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Synopsis: The richest place in America's musical landscape is that fertile ground occupied by jazz. Scott DeVeaux takes a central chapter in the history of jazz—the birth of bebop—and shows how our contemporary ideas of this uniquely American art form flow from that pivotal moment. At the same time, he provides an extraordinary view of the United States in the decades just prior to the civil rights movement.

DeVeaux begins with an examination of the Swing Era, focusing particularly on the position of African American musicians. He highlights the role played by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, a "progressive" committed to a vision in which black jazz musicians would find a place in the world commensurate with their skills. He then looks at the young musicians of the early 1940s, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, and links issues within the jazz world to other developments on the American scene, including the turmoil during World War II and the pervasive racism of the period.

Throughout, DeVeaux places musicians within the context of their professional world, paying close attention to the challenges of making a living as well as of making good music. He shows that bebop was simultaneously an artistic movement, an ideological statement, and a commercial phenomenon.

In drawing from the rich oral histories that a living tradition provides, DeVeaux's book resonates with the narratives of individual lives. While The Birth of Bebop is a study in American cultural history and a critical musical inquiry, it is also a fitting homage to bebop and to those who made it possible.

Review: According to Scott DeVeaux, who has been called the Bud Powell of jazz historians, no single, completely inclusive definition of jazz exists; all that remains to define it is its vigorous evolution. Accordingly, jazz historians are "obsessed with continuity and consensus, even--perhaps especially-- when the historical record suggests disruption and dissent." Bebop, such a self-effacing, clownish term that in no way suggests the complexities of its sounds and rhythms, would become synonymous with a whole new musical sensibility, thought by some to herald nothing less than a revolution. DeVeaux succumbs neither to the evolution nor revolution analysis, but creates an intricate historical weave that sets bebop in the broader social and political contexts.

Bebop burst onto the scene more than evolved out of it. Sundry other forms, musical and literary, also blew the minds of cultural conservatives; modernism was born, exemplified by James Joyce and Arnold Schoenberg. But, unlike literature and classical music, jazz before 1945 enjoyed no such classical standing. It was a form utterly dependent on and responsive to its audience. Suddenly, that relationship was reversed; jazz became avant-garde, newly inaccessible. DeVeaux offers the reader myriad such connections, asking questions that have large cultural repercussions in the artistic and commercial realms. What happened, for example, when the gap between composers and performers closed; who, then, would "own" the music; what was the impact of improvisation, the backbone of the form, on the recording industry?

Not written for the casual jazz fan (although certainly a highly readable chronicle of popular, midcentury culture), The Birth of Bebop combines the historian's breathtaking overview, the scholar's insistence on detail, and first-person accounts of such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine. The oral histories and in-depth analyses of jazz compositions edge bebop beyond its usual treatment; DeVeaux presents a more encompassing, more exciting argument than the more typical evolution/revolution theories. By addressing the impact of bebop on the commercial, political, and aesthetic aspects of American culture, DeVeaux reveals it in all its richness--as artistic movement, cultural ideology, and commercial breakthrough.

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