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Charlie Parker: Bebop Jazz Saxophone Pioneer

Updated on November 20, 2013

How Bebop was Born

Charlie Parker and the Rise of Bebop

by Lisa Michiko Kato

In the mid- to late-1940s, a revolutionary new music was born on 52nd Street in New York City. "Bebop" Bebop has come to be considered the first modern jazz style. It was much less popular than swing.

Although bebop sounded to audiences like it had come out of nowhere, bebop was less a revolutionary movement against swing than an evolutionary outgrowth of its predecessor. Were it not for a national strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the recording industry from 1942 to 1944, the evolutionary development of the new style would have been clearly seen and heard by audiences. Studio recordings made from immediately before and after the strike

Swing contributed many musical elements to bebop, and gave rise to phenomenal soloists in the bebop genre . Musicians such as saxophonist Charlier Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Kenny Clarke would gain disciples for decades to follow. The pioneers of bebop contributed a vocabulary of musical phrases and distinctive methods of matching improvisation to chord progressions. They were creating what would become the most substantial system of jazz for the next forty years. (Gridley, 145)

The musician who contributed most to the development of bop was alto saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker (1920-1955). Going beyond the advances previously made by artists such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum, Parker constructed an entire system, whose innovative ideas were transported through his improvisations and compositions. Parker¹s system specified new ways to build improvisations on top of chord progressions; new ways to accent notes within phrases to form a highly syncopated character that is immediately recognizable as bop; methods for adding chords to existing chord progressions and implying additional chords within improvised lines.

19th and 20th Century influences can be heard in Charlie Parker solos. Parker¹s improvisations were inspired by many sources: He quoted Lester Young solos, traditional melodies such as "Reuben, Reuben I¹ve Been Thinking," and "In a Country Garden," opera themes such as Bizet¹s "Carmen," and twentieth-century European composers¹ themes, such as Stravinsky¹s "Petrouchka." He used the melodic fragments and inflections that were traditional in the music of blues singers and early jazz hornmen. (Gridley, 150)

Charlie Parker also influenced his colleagues and followers in terms of tempo. Because his favorite tempos were faster than those of most swing era pieces, Parker helped cause an increase in the overall tempos of modern jazz pieces. Parker also tended to season his solos with double-time and quadruple-time lines. Even in his ballad renditions, Parker dressed up slow lines with double-time figures. Further, when he was note double-timing, his lines still bore a rhythmic undercurrent that suggested he was going twice as fast. Such techniques soon came to infuse even ballad playing as well as medium tempo pieces in modern jazz. The breakneck speeds established by Parker during the 1940s established an upper limit for jazz performances of the next four decades. Musicians continue to be amazed by the apparent ease, high speed, and clarity of Parker improvisations. (Gridley, 149)

Bird¹s compositions had a fundamental influence on the shaping of the language of Bop. As prolific at writing tunes as he was at practicing his horn, Parker is known to have written a sizable body of compositions. These were actually improvisations which had been memorized and written down. They had the same style as his spontaneous lines, but they were now available for two horns to play in unison as a jumping off point for improvisatory variation. The rhythmic and melodic flavor of Parker¹s tunes set the bar for bop as much as his improvisations did. They were not easily singable as pop tunes, yet they had an instantly identifiable sound in a jazz vein. These phrases have been memorized and analyzed by hundreds of jazz soloists. This has become the musical vocabulary of bop. It has been said that if one learns a dozen Charlie Parker tunes, one can learn the language and feel of bop. (Gridley, 151)

Bebop¹s legacy can be felt today in modern jazz¹s increase in complexity over earlier styles, more diversified rhythmic texture, enriched harmonic vocabulary and an emphasis on the improvisation of rapid melodies full of asymmetrical phrases and accent patterns (Norton/Grove 101). The rhythmic and melodic character of Charlie Parker¹s compositions as well as his stellar improvisations influenced the feel of bop. These distinctive, catchy phrases in an immediately identifiable jazz style have been memorized and analyzed by hundreds of jazz soloists. This has become the musical language of bop (Gridley, 151). The pioneers of bebop contributed a vocabulary of musical phrases and distinctive methods of matching improvisation to chord progressions, creating the most important jazz form which continues to endure to this day. (Gridley, 145)


Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall ©1985.

Owens, Thomas. Bebop: The Music and Players. New York, NY: Oxford University Press © 1995.

Sadie, Stanley. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company © 1994.


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      Blair Parker and be-bop 12 months ago

      I've not read a better summary of bop's evolution and history.