Mankind astounds with creativity, stupidity, ingenuity, and levity. The same species that invented the super-collider will drink beer with buddies in his garage and drop a frozen turkey into a vat of boiling oil, setting said garage on fire. I know a guy who did this. But once in a while as our globe hurtles through the frozen frown of space an event occurs that makes God smile. One of these events was the birth and life of Dizzy Gillespie.
Born in 1917, as a teen he heard Roy Eldridge on the radio and decided to play jazz trumpet. At 20 he replaced Roy Eldridge as lead trumpet in Teddy Hill’s orchestra. Kid knew what he wanted. By 1939 Diz was playing on the big boy circuit with Cab Calloway, and showing the first beginnings of bop soloing which Calloway did not understand or appreciate. There is a famous story involving a spitball that may or may not have originated from the hand of the Dizmeister. Because Cab was a taskmaster and did not think of Gillespie as a good musician he heatedly blamed Dizzy. Gillespie denied it strongly enough for the spitball to become fisticuffs and knives. Bands. Always dangerous places. Calloway fired him.
In 1941 and ’42 Gillespie played with small combos, but made his money writing for bands like Jimmy Dorsey and Ella Fitzgerald. Then in 1943, he joined the Earl Hines band where he met Bird.
Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker was born in Kansas City in 1920. Kansas City was already a happening music scene and Parker caught the muse early. He picked up the sax at 11 years, and quit high school in 1935 and got his union card. At 17 he was traveling with Jay McShann’s band, and in 1939 Bird landed in NYC working as a dishwasher in a club where Art Tatum played. By 1942 he’d been practicing 10 hours a day, and he was hired by Earl Hines for his band. Parker played with Gillespie in the Hines band for about a year then left to begin working in small combos, including jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, which amongst a rich collection of musicians was this weird player with a weird name, Thelonious Monk.
Monk was born in North Carolina in 1917, 11 days before Dizzy was born in South Carolina. The family moved to Manhattan when he was young, and Monk started playing piano at 6. By his teens he was touring with an evangelist playing organ. I can’t imaging telling my Mom at 14 I was leaving home to play organ for a traveling bible thumper with a tent. But Monk was different as a kid, and he was certainly different throughout his life, both private and professional.
In the early 40’s TMonk became the house pianist at a club on the first floor of the Cecil Hotel at 210 West 118th Street in Harlem, otherwise known as Minton’s Playhouse. Henry Minton was the first black delegate to the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, and had run the Rhythm Club, so he had cred around town. When he opened the Playhouse in 1937 he was well aware of the hard times musicians suffer, many times at the hands of the unions, and his real desire was to create an atmosphere where young players could get together and explore music together. Jam sessions were restricted by the unions, and union guys would haunt the clubs trying to catch these guys and fine them, anywhere from 100 to 500 dollars, which in the early 40’s was a small fortune, especially to a young black jazz musician. But because of Minton’s union ties and his respect in the community, Minton’s Playhouse became a haven, and really, the birthplace of bebop.
Through Minton and Teddy Hill who managed the club, musicians started coming to the late night jam sessions there to explore music outside the current boundaries of swing. All these guys had cut their chops with the big swing bands, and late at night they wanted to let loose. And they did. A famous Parker story has him playing Cherokee in a session and realizing the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale could lead melodically to any key. What that meant simply was each note in a chromatic scale being as important as any other, thus not being in a given key, Parker discovered he could fly into a series of soloing that defied logic, with passing chord changes, altered chords, and chord substitutions which were remarkably revolutionary.
And guys like Gillespie and Monk, along with Kenny Clark, Joe Guy, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster and Lester Young started flying with the Birdman. Mary Lou Williams, a writer, vocalist, and mentor to Monk said the boppers goal was to create a music that no one could steal. And in fact, guys like Dizzy were infamous for telling a newcomer to the stage to do a tune in a key never tried, counting a quick four, and flying that trumpet with a grin around his embouchure. Dizzy’s playing was so complex he was rarely copied by his contemporaries, they went after Miles and Navarro instead. Here’s a recording of Diz with his quintet, looks like about 1966, with Kenny Barron on the keys and Christian Wesley White on the standup.
And Parker and Dizzy in 1951.
Thelonius Monk spent a lot of time leading his own bands and was a huge a contributor to the new style and its weirdness with his unique style, which was so different it was impossible to copy. His seemingly natural use of dissonance and percussive attack, switched key releases and those hesitations that burst like a silent virus were not only unique and fascinating, but few players could stay with him. Miles Davis famously would ask Monk to sit out during his solos so he wouldn’t get confused. Miles. But John Coltrane had no problem.
This music was populated by a lot more supremely talented people than I can list, I was just going for influences. Bebop has been called in history the musicians music, mostly by folks who couldn’t figure out how to dance to it and so it couldn’t be popular. But it ain’t pop, it’s bop. And you don’t have to know how music works, or what the minor seventh of the mixolydian mode is to hear that these guys, man these guys could truck.