How Charlie Parker Defined the Sound and Substance of Bebop Jazz ~ The New Yorker

Charlie Parker playing the saxophone in lighting with a red hue
Parker rendered the surfaces of music turbulent and cosmically
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

The roots of bebop were formed in the nineteen-thirties, when Thelonious Monk was playing largely in private in New York, Dizzy Gillespie was shaking up the Cab Calloway trumpet section, Kenny Clarke reconfigured his drum kit in Teddy Hill’s band, and Charlie Parker fell through a music warp while playing “Cherokee” in a jam session. But it found its form and flourished in the nineteen-forties, and it’s Parker, whose centenary falls on Saturday, who lends the music its definitive sound, tone, legend, influence, and curse.

In the abstract, bop is the harmonic and rhythmic complexification of jazz, based on the substitution of a new and more elaborate framework of chords for the ones originally anchoring pop songs. Organizationally, it’s the shift away from big bands (with their emphasis on compositions, arrangements, and unison playing) and toward individual soloists playing in small groups centered on extended improvisations. Aesthetically, it’s musicians’ self-aware transformation of jazz into an exemplary element of artistic modernism. And in tone, it’s a virtual sonic documentary of the world as the musicians experienced it at the time of its flowering—a musical representation of anguish, irony, derision, and idealistic yearning.

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