De Veaux insists that bebop marks "the moment at which jazz became `art', declaring its autonomy by severing once and for all its ties to commercial culture". He suggests that it came about as a response to segregation in the music industry. Bebop gave "its black creators the greatest professional autonomy within the marketplace".
De Veaux begins with an in-depth study of Coleman Hawkins, the virtuoso who prepared the ground for bebop. Despite being introverted on stage (playing with closed eyes), Hawkins carved out a career as a "progressive" soloist in an era dominated by dance bands. He was in his forties when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie made their big break in 1942.
They were as much polar opposites as Picasso and Matisse. Ironically, though Dizzy was a natural comedian, he was "a diligent, hard-working, self-disciplined careerist". Parker, who maintained a serious demeanour on stage, detested Gillespie's clowning but combined a brilliant talent "with a diffidence toward conventional success that verged on self-destructiveness".
Though they instituted a musical revolution, brilliantly analysed in this book, the young turks of bebop had a limited impact on black society as a whole. "Rhythm and blues, not bebop, became the soundtrack for the urban black experience," notes De Veaux. Though hipsters famously scrawled "Bird lives!" in 1955, the drummer Art Blakey offered a more telling epitaph for Parker: "A symbol to the Negro people? No. They don't even know him. They never heard of him and care less. A symbol to the musicians, yes."
This hero-worship among jazzmen often evinced itself in an emulation of Parker's mammoth appetite for intoxicants. A fellow musician once saw the maestro drink "11 shots of whiskey, pop a handful of bennies, then tie up, smoking a joint at the same time". Inexplicably, the proud, innovatory Coleman Hawkins, though successful and wealthy, began "systematically drinking himself to death" in the Sixties, while alienated from the jazz avant-garde: "I don't hear anything in what they're playing, just noise and crap".
De Veaux points out that his story "reminds us that jazz itself is unfinished business, undergoing the painful process of outliving its own time and watching its social and aesthetic meanings drift into new, unfamiliar formations".Reuse content