AskDefine | Define bebop

Dictionary Definition

bebop n : an early form of modern jazz (originating around 1940) [syn: bop] v : dance the bebop [syn: bop]

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  1. An early form of modern jazz played by small groups and featuring driving rhythms and complex, often dissonant harmonies.

Extensive Definition

Bebop or bop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody. It was developed in the early and mid-1940s. It first surfaced in musicians' argot some time during the first two years of the Second World War.


The 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" by Coleman Hawkins is an important antecedent of bebop. Hawkins' willingness to stray — even briefly — from the ordinary resolution of musical themes and his playful jumps to double-time signaled a departure from existing jazz. The recording was popular; but more importantly, from a historical perspective, Hawkins became an inspiration to a younger generation of jazz musicians, most notably Charlie Parker, in Kansas City.
In the 1940s, the younger generation of jazz musicians forged a new style out of the swing music of the 1930s. Mavericks like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, were influenced by the preceding generation's adventurous soloists, such as pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines, tenor saxophonists Hawkins and Lester Young, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Gillespie and Parker had traveled with some of the pre-bop masters, including Jack Teagarden, Hines, and Jay McShann. These forerunners of bebop began exploring advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, and chord substitutions, and the bop generation advanced these techniques with a more freewheeling and often arcane approach.
Minton's Playhouse in New York served as a workout room and experimental theater for early bebop players, including Charlie Christian, who had already hinted at the bop style in innovative solos with Benny Goodman's band.
Christian's major influence was in the realm of rhythmic phrasing. Christian commonly emphasized weak beats and off beats, and often ended his phrases on the second half of the fourth beat. Christian experimented with asymmetrical phrasing, which was to become a core element of the new bop style. Swing improvisation was commonly constructed in two or four bar phrases that corresponded to the harmonic cadences of the underlying song form. Bop improvisers would often deploy phrases over an odd number of bars, and overlap their phrases across bar lines and across major harmonic cadences. Christian and the other early boppers would also begin stating a harmony in their improvised line before it appeared in the song form being outlined by the rhythm section. This momentary dissonance creates a strong sense of forward motion in the improvisation. Swing improvisers commonly emphasized the first and third beats of a measure. But in a bebop composition such as Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts", the rhythmic emphasis switches to the second and fourth beats of the measure. Such new rhythmic phrasing techniques give the typical bop solo a feeling of floating free over the underlying song form, rather than being tied into the song form.
Swing drummers had kept up a steady four-to-the-bar pulse on the bass drum. Bop drummers, led by Kenny Clarke, moved the drumset's time-keeping function to the ride or hi-hat cymbal, reserving the bass drum for accents. Bass drum accents were colloquially termed "dropping bombs." Notable bop drummers such as Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Kenny Clarke began to support and respond to soloists, almost like a shifting call and response.
This change increased the importance of the string bass. Now, the bass not only maintained the music's harmonic foundation, but also became responsible for establishing a metronomic rhythmic foundation by playing a "walking" bass line of four quarter notes to the bar. While small swing ensembles commonly functioned without a bassist, the new bop style required a bass in every small ensemble.
By 1950, a second wave of bebop musicians — such as Clifford Brown, Sonny Stitt, and Fats Navarro — began to smooth out the rhythmic eccentricities of early bebop. Instead of using jagged phrasing to create rhythmic interest, as the early boppers had, these musicians constructed their improvised lines out of long strings of eighth notes, and simply accented certain notes in the line to create rhythmic variety.

Musical style

Bebop differed drastically from the straightforward compositions of the swing era, and was instead characterized by fast tempos, asymmetrical phrasing, complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and rhythm sections that expanded on their role as tempo-keepers. The music itself seemed jarringly different to the ears of the public, who were used to the bouncy, organized, danceable tunes of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller during the swing era. Instead, bebop appeared to sound racing, nervous, and often fragmented. But to jazz musicians and jazz music lovers, bebop was an exciting and beautiful revolution in the art of jazz.
While swing music tended to feature orchestrated big band arrangements, bebop music was much more free in its structure. Typically, a theme (a "head," often the main melody of a pop or jazz standard of the swing era) would be presented in unison at the beginning and the end of each piece, with improvisational solos based on the major chords making up the body of the work. Thus, the majority of a song in bebop style would be improvisation, the only threads holding the work together being the underlying harmonies played by the rhythm section. Sometimes improvisation included references to the original melody or to other well-known melodic lines ("allusions," or "riffs"). Sometimes they were entirely original, spontaneous melodies from start to finish.
Bebop music extended the jazz vocabulary by exploring new harmonic territory through the use of altered chords and chord substitutions (using a different chord than originally composed, such as a diminished or flattened fifth, the "blue note"). While this produced a more colorful and rich harmonic sound than past jazz styles, it also required a highly trained musician to execute well. Melodies grew in complexity from those of swing jazz, and began to twist, turn, and jump rapidly to follow quickly-changing chord progressions.
As bebop grew from its swing-era roots, these progressions often were taken directly from popular swing-era songs and reused with a new and more complex bebop melody, forming new compositions known as a contrafacts. While contrafaction was already a well-established practice in earlier jazz, it came to be central to the bebop style. Musicians and audiences alike were able to find something familiar in this new exotic sound, but perhaps more importantly, small record labels such as Savoy, often avoided paying copyright fees for pop tunes.

Specific harmonic vocabulary

The predominating contour of bebop melodies is that they tend to ascend in arpeggios and descend in scale steps - the composed melody to "Donna Lee" (a be-bop tune based on the changes of the '30s pop tune Indiana) being a classic example. While a stereotype, an examination of improvised and written be-bop melodies shows this to be a key quality of the music.
Ascending arpeggios are frequently of diminished seventh chords, which function as 7b9 chords of various types. Typical scales used in bebop include the bebop major, minor and dominant (see below), the harmonic minor and the chromatic.
The half-whole diminished scale is also occasionally used, and in the music of Thelonious Monk especially, the whole tone scale.
Of the modes of the ascending melodic minor, such as the altered scale and lydian dominant beloved of many modern jazz educators, there is little or no sign — it is widely thought that John Coltrane was among the first to use them, but as with many things in Jazz history, it's hard to be certain.
Bebop frequently elaborates arpeggios with extra chromatic and scalar passing notes, some of which seem perverse. The flattened seventh is frequently added to major seventh arpeggios, the major to dominant chords and minor chords. Phrases frequently terminate on the 9th of the chord — a traditionally dissonant tone.
Bebop was also heavily characterized by melodic use of the flatted fifth. This is related to the harmonic technique of tritone substitution, popularised during the pre-war era by the pianist Art Tatum. Here, the familiar series of perfect cadences is replaced by chromatic motion of the root. Thus, the standard "iim7 - V7 - I" sequence, a building block of the 20th century popular song, is reconstructed as "iim7 - bII7 - I". A bebop pianist, confronted with a chord marked as G7 (G dominant seventh) resolving to C, would often replace it with Db7 (Db dominant seventh). The tritone substitution could also be used within a standard dominant (V7) chord: for example, the G7 chord above could be a Db7 chord with G as the bass (another example of a flatted fifth). The original chord and the substituted chord share two important tones, the third and the seventh (in this case B and F).
Later codifications of bebop harmony emerged, notably in the teachings of pianist/educator Barry Harris, who encouraged players to learn "bebop scales" for improvising such as the Bebop Dominant 7th Scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 7) and the Bebop Major Scale (1 2 3 4 5 #5 6 7) (although Barry himself refers to them by a different name.) A feature of these scales is that when they are played in 8th notes, up or down, players automatically play a tone featured in the corresponding chord on every 4/4 beat. These scales are often disguised by playing them through segments of an octave, changing direction on chord tones, or enclosing chord tones with a chromatic tone above and below the chord tone. Both of these techniques allow the improviser to embellish the bebop scale without sacrificing the effect of chord tones on every 4/4 beat.
Another important technique is anticipation — where a chord is expressed before it appears, and expansion, where the improviser holds on to it into the next chord. Again Parker's recorded solos have many examples of this technique, which creates dissonance.
Many bebop progressions and solos make heavy use of tonicization, but this is typical of harmonic jazz in general.
Overall, bebop seems to have taken many of the raw materials of swing and liberated them — the underlying harmony and rhythm of improvised jazz lines became more malleable, and improvisers embraced this new freedom with relish. However, the raw materials of be-bop and swing era jazz; 12 bar blues forms and the pop songs of the 1930's; remained central, with tunes like "I Got Rhythm", "Cherokee" and "How High the Moon" forming central planks of the education of almost every subsequent generation of jazz musician.


The classic bebop combo consisted of saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and piano. This was a format used (and popularized) by both Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) in their 1940s groups and recordings, sometimes augmented by an extra saxophonist or guitar, occasionally adding other horns (often a trombone), or other strings (usually fiddle or violin) or dropping an instrument and leaving only a quartet.
Although only one part of a rich jazz tradition, bebop music continues to be played regularly throughout the world. Trends in improvisation since its era have changed from its harmonically-tethered style, but the capacity to improvise over a complex sequence of altered chords is a fundamental part of any jazz education.

Etymology of word

The word "bebop" is usually stated to be nonsense syllables (vocables) which were generated in scat singing, and is supposed to have been first attested in 1928. One speculation is that it was a term used by Charlie Christian, because it sounded like something he hummed along with his playing. However, possibly the most plausible theory is that it derives from the cry of "Arriba ! Arriba !" used by Latin American bandleaders of the period to encourage their bands. This squares with the fact that, originally, the terms "bebop" and "rebop" were used interchangeably. By 1945, the use of "bebop"/"rebop" as nonsense syllables was widespread in R&B music, for instance Lionel Hampton's "Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop", and a few years later in rock and roll, for instance Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" (1956).

Bebop's influence

By the mid-1950s musicians (Miles Davis and John Coltrane among others) began to explore directions beyond the standard bebop vocabulary. Simultaneously, other players expanded on the bold steps of bebop: "cool jazz" or "West Coast jazz", modal jazz, as well as free jazz and avant-garde forms of development from the likes of George Russell.
Bebop style also influenced the Beat Generation whose spoken-word style drew on jazz rhythms, and whose poets often employed jazz musicians to accompany them. The bebop influence also shows in rock and roll, which contains solos employing a form similar to bop solos, and "hippies" of the 60s and 70s, who, like the boppers had a unique, non-conformist style of dress, a vocabulary incoherent to outsiders, and a communion through music. Fans of bebop were not restricted to the USA; the music gained cult status in France and Japan.
More recently, Hip-hop artists (A Tribe Called Quest, Guru) have cited bebop as an influence on their rapping and rhythmic style. Bassist Ron Carter even collaborated with A Tribe Called Quest on 1991's The Low End Theory, and vibraphonist Roy Ayers and trumpeter Donald Byrd were featured on Jazzmatazz, by Guru, in the same year. Bebop samples, especially bass lines, ride cymbal swing clips, and horn and piano riffs are found throughout the hip-hop compendium.


  • Berendt, Joachim E. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond. Trans. Bredigkeit, H. and B. with Dan Morgenstern. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1975.
  • Deveaux, Scott.. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Gidden, Gary. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York City: Morrow, 1987.
  • Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Baillie, Harold B. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Rosenthal, David. Hard bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Verve History of Jazz page on Bebop



Bebop musicians

Main article: List of Bebop musicians
Notable musicians identified with bebop:
bebop in Catalan: Bebop
bebop in Czech: Bebop
bebop in Danish: Bebop
bebop in German: Bebop
bebop in Estonian: Bebop
bebop in Modern Greek (1453-): Μπίμποπ
bebop in Spanish: Bebop
bebop in Persian: بی‏باپ
bebop in French: Bebop
bebop in Galician: Bebop
bebop in Croatian: Be-bop
bebop in Indonesian: Bebop
bebop in Italian: Bebop
bebop in Hebrew: בי בופ
bebop in Georgian: ბებოპი
bebop in Dutch: Bop
bebop in Japanese: ビバップ
bebop in Norwegian: Bebop
bebop in Norwegian Nynorsk: Bebop
bebop in Polish: Bebop
bebop in Portuguese: Bebop
bebop in Russian: Бибоп
bebop in Simple English: Bebop
bebop in Slovak: Bebop
bebop in Serbian: Би-бап
bebop in Finnish: Bebop
bebop in Swedish: Bebop
bebop in Turkish: Bebop
bebop in Ukrainian: Бі-боп
bebop in Chinese: 比波普

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acid rock, avant-garde jazz, ballroom music, boogie-woogie, bop, country rock, dance music, dances, folk rock, hard rock, hot jazz, jazz, jive, mainstream jazz, musical suite, rag, ragtime, rhythm-and-blues, rock, rock-and-roll, suite, suite of dances, swing, syncopated music, syncopation, the new music
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