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Student Handout

The Story of Jazz (Unit 5)

Now we hope you won't think it absurd
But musicians named "Diz," "Monk," and "Bird"
Found a really new style
That was fast, hot, and wild
It was Bebop that everyone heard.


We will take our 1940 Cadillac from Harlem to Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Will you please drive? We are here in the 1940s when Big Band Swing was phasing out and a new kind of jazz called Bebop or modern jazz was becoming popular. Many jazz musicians were performing in small clubs on 52nd Street and nearby. Jazz musicians wanted a new style of music with more opportunities for improvisation than big band arrangements permitted.

Our first stop will be at Minton’s Playhouse where the house band features Thelonious Monk on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums. The management of Minton’s would give free food and beverages to any musician who would come in on Monday night to jam with the house band (click here to hear the band). These two musicians were very important in the development of modern jazz because Thelonious Monk played piano in a way that was unlike anyone else (click here to hear Monk play). Kenny Clarke changed the way drummers played by keeping the steady beat on the cymbal (click here to listen in).

The name of this tune is Airegin. The letters in this word also spell the name of a country. Type the name of the country here..............

Jazz fans soon learned that Minton’s Playhouse was a great place to hear the newest developments in jazz. Dizzy Gillespie performed here often (click here to listen to Dizzy play). A young alto saxophonist from Kansas City named Charlie Parker also played here (click here to listen to Charlie). Not everyone liked Bebop at first because it was very different from Swing. Remember how big bands played Swing music that was great for dancing? Listen as Dizzy Gillespie’s big band plays "Salt Peanuts" (click here). Do you think it would be good for dancing? The melodies and rhythms were complex and difficult to sing.

Experience the Music: Listen to this melody (click here) and try to sing it back.

Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Bird” and he was so good that they even named a club for him. Let’s stop in Birdland and check it out. The club had been operating as the Clique Club before being renamed in honor of Parker. On opening night management had put live canaries in the bird cages. Unfortunately, the canaries were all killed by the cigarette smoke in the club. Click here to listen to "Bird" perform.

Dizzy Gillespie was always searching for new ways to play jazz. In addition to being one of the first to write Bebop charts for big bands, he was also one of the first to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments into Bebop. Let’s check out his playing at the Onyx club (click here).

Since the clubs were close together, musicians would visit another club to sit in during a break or after their gig was finished. For example, let’s look in at The Three Deuces and we’ll find Charlie Parker playing alto saxophone along with Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, Bud Powell on piano and Tommy Potter on bass. Click here to listen in.

While we are in Greenwich Village, let’s take the time machine back to 1938 to a club called Café Society where Billie Holiday is singing a song that protests lynching (click here to hear the song). Notice that the Café Society audience is integrated.

Our next stop will be in Los Angeles as we discover West Coast Jazz. I thought it would be fun to take a speedboat to get there. Will you please drive?

World War II

While it would be fair to speculate that jazz would have evolved into a new style by the early 1940s anyway, America’s involvement in World War II guaranteed that things would change. Big bands had been touring the country in buses and private autos prior to the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all of the nations resources were devoted to the war effort. This meant that gasoline, which was rationed, was no longer readily available for band busses. Repairs to vehicles was limited because automobile manufacturers stopped making cars and parts -- making military vehicles instead. Key personnel from the bands were drafted into military service or enlisted voluntarily, leaving the big bands without some of their strongest players. With many of the nation’s men stationed overseas, dancing was not as popular as before.

From a musical standpoint, many jazz musicians preferred playing in smaller groups because big band arrangements allowed limited opportunities for improvisation. Small groups began to experiment with new styles of jazz in the many clubs of New York City and other major cities. At about the same time the war started, a strike by the musician’s union prevented these new jazz ideas from being recorded or played on the radio for more than two years. Thus, people throughout the country were not hearing modern jazz as it developed and evolved out of the Swing style. When the strike was over and Bebop began to be recorded, it was so different from Swing that many jazz fans didn’t understand the music or appreciate it.

African American jazz musicians serving in the military who were stationed in Europe learned that racial discrimination wasn’t practiced in all parts of the world. They returned to the United States determined to effect changes in how they were treated at home. Some musicians elected to stay in Europe rather than return to segregationist practices at home. These are just a few of the reasons that the popularity of jazz began to spread throughout the world.

For further background information, visit the Jazz Resource Library on this web site and read about Bebop.


Afro-Cuban rhythms: Beat patterns typical of popular music of Cuba.

Bebop: A style of jazz identifiable by unusual rhythms, dissonance and lots of improvisation.

big band: Jazz ensemble of 12-20 members, consisting of a rhythm section plus sections of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.

gig: Musician’s slang for a performing job.

improvisation: Creating a new melody while performing. Spontaneous composition.

jam: Musician’s slang for a session of improvising.

lynching: Putting an accused person to death, usually by hanging without a lawful trial.

sit in: Musician’s slang for performing with a group.

Swing, Swing style jazz: A style of jazz in which the eighth notes are played unevenly (long-short) and syncopation is employed. Great music for dancing.
the thelonious monk institute of jazz
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