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From Swing to Bebop

Jazzed Magazine • Guest EditorialMarch 2019 • March 14, 2019

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The word “evolution” brings to mind a slow and gradual Darwinian metamorphosis. (The ascent of man would represent an excellent example of evolutionary process.)

By contrast, the word “revolution” suggests a rapid, in fact virtually overnight, change. History is replete with such examples.

The history of music has also experienced both evolutionary and revolutionary movements worth examining.

Evolution in Music

As an example of evolution in music, we have seen a slow march from the diatonic tonality of the Baroque and Classical periods starting around 1600; to a more chromatic version of tonality starting around the end of Beethoven’s life in 1827, the approximate date which, for many people, marks the beginning of the Romantic period; to the dramatic weakening of tonality, starting with the extremely chromatic opening of Wagner’s 1858 opera Tristan and Isolde; to the expanded tonality of the music of the Impressionist period (1890-1914), heard most prominently in some of the music of Debussy, for example in his use of the whole-tone scale as the basis for several of his important works; to Stravinsky’s employment of bitonality and polytonality in his ballet music of the early 1900s (especially Petrushka and The Rite of Spring); and finally to Schoenberg’s invention of the 12-tone (serial) atonal system of composition in the 1920s – overall, an approximately 300-year evolutionary process.

Revolution in Music

As an example of revolution in music, I must cite the beginning of the bebop era in jazz history. Several jazz textbooks that I have read point to what their authors have perceived as a smooth transition from the big band music of the swing era, to the small group music of the next jazz historical era, bebop. But I disagree with that perception. Bop innovators such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Max Roach, among others, were not musical “evolutionaries,” but revolutionaries who virtually overnight changed the musical model in jazz from a dance-based and essentially melodious swing era big-band sound, to a listening-based unprecedented level of small-group musical abstraction.

Melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – the three most fundamental qualities of music – were all dramatically influenced by their new jazz approach. In fact, even modes of dress and appearance experienced a dramatic overnight shift from an essentially conservative look, to the more radical goatee/beret/horn-rimmed glasses/zoot-suit appearance adopted by more than a few of this influential new breed of jazz musicians. I lived during that transitional period, and I can tell you unequivocally, from personal observation, that there was nothing evolutionary about this sartorial shift that I had ever discerned. At the time, I perceived it as having occurred quite spontaneously, without foretelling of any kind.

(By the way, I now, with amusement, distinctly remember my mother pointing out a young man who wore that new look, as she admonished me to study hard in school, lest I’d be likely to wind up being, and looking like, that “no-goodnik,” as she not-so-delicately put it.)

Bebop as an Art Form

The important shift from swing to bop occurred as an attitude change, when bop musicians became less concerned with the commercial appeal of their music than with its artistic value. As Scott DeVeaux says in his book The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (University of California Press, 1997), jazz aspired to greater things than, “dance, popular song, and entertainment… jazz became art by declaring its autonomy and severing once and for all its ties to commercial culture.”

Bebop, as I said earlier, was an extremely abstract form of small-group musical expression, and by that I mean difficult to understand. Apart from the fact that it lacked any of the visual or dance appeal that had characterized the swing bands, bop didn’t feature singers, as had just about all of the big bands. Consequently there were no lyrics for the audience to follow. Moreover, bop melodies weren’t tuneful. That is to say, the melodies, such as they were, sounded more like improvisations than like tunes that could be easily remembered and sung. In fact, at least to lay audiences, many bop melodies and improvisations probably sounded more or less alike, even interchangeable. Even for some experienced listeners, it often was more challenging to discern the relationship of the improvisation to an underlying melody or chord structure, especially since the underlying chords had themselves been enhanced through extensive reharmonization. Also, rather than serving a mere timekeeping function, as had been the case with many swing band rhythm sections, the rhythms of the bebop idiom were more complex – far more polyrhythmic – and thus less accessible and less comprehensible to swing-band audiences.

End Note

Since its inception in the mid 1940s, bop has become the lingua franca of jazz – the basic vocabulary spoken by all aspiring jazz musicians and taught in jazz studies programs throughout the world. But it is useful to remember that bop was not the outcome of an evolutionary process, but rather was a revolutionary event generated by enormously innovative jazz musicians who were ready to sacrifice commercial reward for art.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. A very recent solo piano book of his is Jazz Piano Scales and Exercises (Hal Leonard Corp., pub.) Also, Evans is the author of the solo-piano books Classics With A Touch Of Jazz and Opera With A Touch Of Jazz (Hal Leonard), and the acclaimed foundation performance/theory workbook Crash Course In Chords (Hal Leonard). His most recent solo-piano book is Lee Evans Arranges Famous Latin Hits, 2nd Edition (Hal Leonard). For additional information, please visit

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