Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker: the Beginnings of Bebop

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John Birks Gillespie known worldwide as Dizzy played his trumpet even at an age when most horn players have long sent their chops out to graze on chewing tobacco. Playing masterfully till his senior years is a remarkable statement, considering the breath, stamina, and control it takes to play the instrument.

Gillespie helped invent modern jazz and rewrote the book on how to play the modern trumpet. Bebop was what they called it when the new sounds wafted through the early 1940s, mainly out of the minds and mouthpieces of Gillespie and his alter ego, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. To many people, the term evolves a little more than stylistic emblems of the movement — the beret, the goatee, the hipster lingo (and Gillespie, very deliberately, helped create all of this, too). But underneath the image was a very serious and very joyous musical revolution.

Gillespie explained the origins of the term “bebop” in his fine autobiography To Be or Not To Bop, “We played a lot of original that didn’t have titles. We just wrote an introduction and a first chorus. I’d say, ‘Dee-da-pa-da-n-de-bop…’ and we’d go into it. People, when they’d wanna ask for one of those numbers and didn’t know the name, would ask for bebop.”

Instead of simply mounting flourishes on the melody of a tune, as their predecessors had done, Gillespie and Parker crafted whole new melodies based on the tune’s chord patterns. In essence, they played the chords instead of the melody, and then inverted the notes of the chords into new arrangements, substituting new chords to make the patterns more complex, twisting the chords into new melodies and altering the phrasings with a flurry of eighth and sixteenth notes, creating an exuberant stream of rhythm and speed that no one had ever heard before.

Jazz traditionalists who had earned their fame a decade earlier refused, at first, to take the new music seriously; many felt threatened by it. Cab Calloway, thoroughly bewildered, dismissed it as “Chinese music.” Listening to the Gillespie-Parker records fifty years later, it seems incredible that they caused such a ruckus. Only a tin ear would now fail to be swayed by the rhythms.

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