Thursday Book: The music of the mavericks

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BEBOP IS about as onomatopoeic as you can get. It starts with a buzz and ends with a bang. And it comes at you with a sort of aggressive swagger, just daring you to like it. In his fine new book about the historical circumstances that allowed bop to be, Scott DeVeaux argues that these are not coincidental aspects of an always exciting and genuinely offbeat music.

For the most part, bop grew out of a dissatisfaction with the economics of swing - that widely popular phenomenon of dance music and well-groomed flappers which in the Thirties took Dixieland jazz into the provinces. For while the big bands occasionally hired and even featured black entertainers, they tended to keep this potentially troublesome underclass in line by means of carefully orchestrated arrangements and some tough white bandleaders.

"Boy, I'd love to have you in my band," Jimmy Dorsey once informed the great bopper himself, Dizzy Gillespie, "but you're so dark." Even when black musicians were allowed to tour, they were sequestered in stifling Jim Crow train-cars and shabby rooming-houses. Music might mean a good living, black musicians soon learnt. But it didn't necessarily mean a good life.

Eventually, big bands went the way of the dinosaurs, leaving a lot of disenfranchised musicians behind. What Swing had done successfully, however, was to introduce these talented musicians to each other, and give them time between shows to make more satisfying music for themselves. Drifting into the smaller, more intimate night-club venues of New York and LA, men such as Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and the great, too-often-unsung trombonist Trummy Young were finding room to improvise and invent. So, long before anybody had ever heard of bebop, its temperamentally suited (if not always like-minded) musicians were quietly charting the shape of jazz to come.

As the great tenor sax virtuoso, Coleman Hawkins, soon discovered, the relationship between performer and audience was changing as well. One of jazz's first best-selling artists (his multitudinously beautiful variations on "Body and Soul" were international hits), the "Hawk" was likewise one of the first black musicians to take his sax to Europe and learn some of the new truths early.

First, he realised, audiences were not coming to his performances to dance to the latest pop tunes. They were coming to hear him play. And they weren't looking to hear the same old tunes played over and over, but rather to hear them played differently. Jazz was no longer a matter of copyrightable material, but a perpetually mutable state of being. So Hawkins, like the musicians he inspired, quickly adapted his life to suit his music, moving from one temporary combo to another, and continuously reformulating new variations on old themes.

All of which played well according to the new, small-is-beautiful economics of jazz. As performances grew more intimate, and technology made it possible for anybody to produce records ("Apparently all that is required is an office, a phone, and a licence," claimed one newspaper of the time), jazz thrived as a specialised shadow culture. And with bop, the buff was born: that aura-seeking, self-declared college "hipster" who was attracted to the new music's comic diffidence; to tunes with titles such as "Ornithology", "Salt Peanuts" and "Disorder at the Border".

Like most revolutions, bop was about mixing it up. And, as with the revolutions people tend to remember best, it was also about how to make a buck doing it.

For musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie (as in "that little dizzy cat from down South"), the liberation from swing was, well, dizzying. "The older musicians did what they had to do," Gillespie recalled years later. "But in the age that we came up in we didn't have to do those things, you know?... We felt like we were liberated people, and we acted like liberated people."

Unconstrained by melody, tempo and Top 40-conscious record labels, Dizzy and his most famous partner in bop, Charlie "Bird" Parker, took off in ever-widening arcs of whimsy and invention. Some say - in terms of myth, anyway - that they never really ever came down again.

As DeVeaux's excellent book demonstrates, Bop's popularity lasted for only a few short years after the Second World War, but it was the result of a long storm brewing. And while only diehard jazz scholars may be tempted to wade through his dissertation-like opening pages (in which DeVeaux namedrops one university-sanctioned theorist after another), once things get going it's all very readable and smartly argued. For DeVeaux (as for Foucault, the theorist he models himself on), history isn't a matter of the moment, but rather an ephemeral intersection of all the moments that ever were. It's both what you know and what you don't - which, of course, makes it a lot like jazz.

Scott Bradfield