Bebop emerged in the 1940’s as a reaction to the more commercial, audience-friendly music that came before it. Its fast tempos, virtuosic solos and rich harmonic vocabulary marked a massive turning point in the development of jazz.
In this article, we’ve rounded up 10 of the most essential bebop artists and albums from this period to listen to.
From the early 1930s until the mid-1940s, swing and big band music were the dominant styles of jazz in America.
The swing era certainly produced some great soloists – think Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge – but one of the music’s main functions was for people to dance to it, and it was a kind of mass entertainment.
As a reaction against this, a group of jazz musicians, mostly based in New York, began to experiment with a style that was more overtly intellectual, and that was meant for serious listening rather than dancing.
Placing an emphasis on fast tempos, instrumental virtuosity and a rich harmonic vocabulary with frequent chromatic passing notes, bebop was born in the mid-1940s, and must have seemed utterly radical at first.
Although it would ultimately prove highly influential, many established musicians were initially unimpressed, with Tommy Dorsey claiming that bebop had “set music back by 20 years”, while Louis Armstrong was another famous detractor.
Played by smaller groups – usually a quartet or quintet – bebop would often feature new, intricate melodies based on the chord sequences of existing standards. As with all labels and jazz sub-genres, it can be hard to categorise musicians: some players crossed over from the swing era into bebop, while others began their careers as boppers before later changing their styles significantly.
We’ve attempted to come up with a list of some of the greatest bebop players and most important innovators of this jazz style and era. Let us know if you agree with these choices in the comments below!
And, if you’re looking for a broader snapshot of jazz, check out our pick of the best jazz albums of all time.
Originally from Kansas City, Charlie Parker caused a stir when he came to New York as a featured soloist with Jay McShann’s big band.
His improvisational vocabulary on the alto saxophone was influenced by the swing era-style of Lester Young, but sounded like nothing that had come before it. Still, he found a kindred spirit in trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who was another key architect of the new bebop sound.
Parker’s intricate playing style, which weaved chromatic lines between the upper extensions of the underlying chords, was also deeply swinging and rooted in the blues, and has influenced countless following musicians.
Sadly, Bird (as he was nicknamed) struggled with addiction and died in 1955, aged just 34, having already established himself as one of the most important soloists in all of jazz.
Parker also composed prolifically, and a number of his tunes – many of which are based on blues or Rhythm changes sequences – are now considered jazz standards.
Key Charlie Parker album: Complete Live at Birdland, May 17, 1950
Parker’s studio sessions for Savoy and Dial are brilliant examples of his early work, with many of the tracks featuring a young Miles Davis.
However, prior to the LP era tracks could only stretch to around three minutes in length, so the live recordings are where you can really hear Bird stretch out.
This double-album features an all-star bebop band, with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Roy Haynes or Art Blakey on drums.
If you’re looking to discover more, we picked out 10 of the best Charlie Parker albums here.
Initially inspired by the swing era trumpeter Roy Eldridge, Gillespie developed a new style of playing that was chromatically complex and utilised the trumpet’s high register.
Known for his extensive knowledge of sophisticated harmony and rhythm, he was a respected teacher who influenced many younger players.
Dizzy was something of a showman: his modified trumpet, with its bell bent at a 45-degree angle, and his pouched cheeks are instantly recognisable. Some of the most distinctive compositions of the bebop era were penned by Gillespie: ‘Woody ‘N’ You’, ‘Groovin’ High, ‘Salt Peanuts’ and ‘A Night in Tunisia’.
Dizzy – profiled here in our list of best jazz trumpeters in history – led a big band for a number of years and was influential in fusing jazz with Afro-Cuban sounds.
Key album: Dizzy Gillespie/Sonny Rollins/Sonny Stitt – Sonny Side Up
Gillespie sings the opening standard, ‘On The Sunny Side of the Street’.
A virtuoso pianist, Bud Powell, along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, was one of the founding fathers of the bebop jazz style and his linear improvisational language is notably similar to Parker’s.
Cutting his first recordings with Cootie Williams’ band, he was initially mentored by Thelonious Monk. He worked a sideman with Charlie Parker, including on a number of classic live dates, including the famous Jazz at Massey Hall album.
In 1945 he was the victim of a racially aggravated assault by a policeman, which contributed towards the psychiatric problems that plagued him for the rest of his life.
Pianist Bill Evans said: “If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell. He was in a class by himself.”
Key Bud Powell album: The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1
Powell generally recorded in a trio setting, as well as the odd solo outing, but there are some tracks here that feature a brilliant quintet with Fats Navarro and a very young Sonny Rollins on trumpet and tenor saxophone respectively.
A number of Powell’s best-known compositions are heard, including ‘Dance of the Infidels’, ‘Bouncing with Bud’ and ‘Wail’, while ‘Un Poco Loco and ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ are played in trio with Curly Russell and Max Roach.
With a unique, sparse and almost child-like improvisational piano style, Thelonious Monk sounds very different to more overtly virtuosic beboppers like Parker and Powell, but he was a key figure in the development of the new music.
Along with swing-to-bop musicians like guitarist Charlie Christian and drummer Kenny Clarke, he participated in famous jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early ‘40s, which scholars consider to be one of the birthplaces of bebop.
A highly eccentric figure, critics and club owners initially dismissed his unusual playing style, but he has eventually come to be regarded as a genius who was ahead of his time.
After Duke Ellington, he is the second most recorded composer in jazz history.
Key Thelonious Monk album: Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1
This music must have sounded shockingly modern when it was recorded in 1947.
The album, which was an early release for the iconic record label Blue Note, includes a number of favourite Monk tunes, including ‘In Walked Bud’ (a dedication to Powell), ‘Epistrophy’, ‘I Mean You’ and ‘Round Midnight’, his most famous composition.
Navarro died in 1950, aged just 26, after a bout of tuberculosis that was exacerbated by heroin addiction, but in his short career he managed to leave a mark as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time.
He was also a significant influence upon Clifford Brown.
As a soloist he was arguably in the same league as Parker and Powell, so it’s truly tragic that he didn’t live longer and leave behind more recorded music.
“Fats was a spectacular musician because, in a time when cats arrived on the scene with nothing, he came on with everything: he could read, he could play high and hold anybody’s first trumpet chair, he could play those singing, melodic solos with a big beautiful sound nobody could believe at the time, and he could fly in fast tempos with staccato, biting notes and execute whatever he wanted, with apparently no strain, everything clear.” – Roy Haynes
Best Fats Navarro album: Fats Live at the Royal Roost
Navarro died just as the LP era was beginning, so it can be hard to know where to start with his recorded output.
He made some important sideman appearances (including the ones with Powell and Parker mentioned previously), and there are also some live recordings with various bands, including this one from 1948. Tadd Dameron, the pianist, was actually probably the leader of this band: most of the tunes are his, and he was probably responsible for the arrangements, with slick shout choruses and endings.
Fats is in brilliant form here, accompanied by the great Kenny Clarke on drums.
Along with fellow drummer Kenny Clarke, Max Roach laid the foundations of modern jazz drumming, by formulating a style where the pulse is stated primarily on the ride cymbal, rather than on the hi-hats or bass drum.
He played on many of bebop’s most important early sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and was also a prominent civil rights activist and a bandleader who recorded dozens of albums under his own name.
Key album: Clifford Brown and Max Roach Study in Brown
Roach’s quintet with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown is often thought of as more of a hard bop band, but the language used by Brown, Harold Land (tenor), Richie Powell (Bud’s brother, on piano), George Morrow (double bass) and Roach is of course highly informed by bebop.
Brown and Richie Powell would tragically die in a car crash the following year (1956), but this is a fantastic document of one of the great bands of the 1950s, with Brown’s solo on ‘Cherokee’ a particular highlight.
Mary Lou Williams
Williams played a broad range of styles, including stride piano, boogie-woogie and in more Avant garde settings, but she undertook a key role in the birth of bebop as mentor and teacher to players like Monk, Powell, Dameron and Gillespie, with her apartment acting as a kind of jazz salon.
A prolific composer and arranger, she wrote for Dizzy Gillespie (check out her witty ‘In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee’, recorded by the trumpeter), Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman, among others.
Despite beginning her career in the 1920s, she continued to adapt stylistically, sounding thoroughly modern and remaining a passionate public advocate for jazz and jazz education.
“Tadd Dameron would come to write when he was out of inspiration, and Thelonious Monk did several of his pieces there. Bud Powell’s brother, Richie, who also played piano, learned how to improvise at my house. And everybody came or called for advice. Charlie Parker would ask what did I think about him putting a group with strings together? Or Miles Davis would ask about his group with tuba.” Mary Lou Williams
Key Mary Lou Williams bebop album: The Zodiac Suite
This doesn’t really sound like typical bebop, although it was certainly highly modern and forward-thinking when it was recorded in 1945.
The Zodiac Suite is a series of pieces, all written by Williams, dedicated to fellow musicians born under each astrological sign.
To hear her in a more relaxed, standards-based setting, check out Free Sprits, a highly swinging date from 1976 with Buster Williams and Mickey Roker.
A flawless technician on the saxophone, Stitt toured and recorded relentlessly, rarely sounding less than pristine.
Although he is dismissed by some as merely an imitator of Parker, Stitt found his own voice, particularly when he tended to play the tenor saxophone, rather than alto, later in his career.
He was known for having something of a competitive streak, and some of his best work was recorded alongside other saxophonists: we’ve already mentioned his famous battle with Sony Rollins on ‘The Eternal Triangle’ and he also recorded a number of classic two-tenor albums with Gene Ammons.
Key album: Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell/J. J. Johnson
Taken from three sessions, with two different bands, the only constants in the personnel here are Stitt on tenor and Max Roach on drums across all the tracks.
The opening track, ‘All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm’ is a masterclass in bebop vocabulary and phrasing, with two perfect choruses each from Stitt and Powell.
Although he performed as a pianist, Dameron is unusual as a musician associated with the bebop era who is at least as famous for his composing and arranging work as he is for his playing.
Dexter Gordon famously referred to him as ‘the bebop romanticist’, and he wrote a number of tunes that have become standards, including ‘Good Bait’, ‘Lady Bird’, ‘Half Nelson’, ‘Hot House’ and ‘If You Could See Me Now’, which became a favoured ballad feature for Sarah Vaughan.
He also arranged for swing era bands including those led by Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Jimmie Lunceford.
Key album: In Paris Festival International de Jazz (with Miles Davis)
A young Miles Davis is on excellent and unusually explosive form on this live date, with James Moody also sounding fantastic on tenor.
The quintet plays a mixture of songbook standards and Dameron originals. For a taste of Dameron’s writing and arranging on a larger scale, try 1962’s The Magic Touch.
Bebop is generally thought of as an instrumental music, but Sarah Vaughan was perhaps the singer most closely associated with the original crowd of boppers, and she would take scat solos that were clearly rooted in the language.
In her early career in the mid-1940s she was featured in big bands led by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, both of which were famed breeding grounds for the emerging bop style, with numerous important musicians passing through as sidemen.
Her operatic voice and impressive range have seen her remembered as one of the greatest singers of all time, with Frank Sinatra remarking: “Sassy is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.”
Key Sarah Vaughan album: Complete Recordings With Clifford Brown
Initially issued simply as Sarah Vaughan, this 1954 date is absolutely essential. Brown, as always, sounds fabulous, and Vaughan joins in with the improvising when she scats in the trades towards the end of the famous version of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.
The heart-breaking ballad ‘Jim’ is another highlight.
So there you have it: 10 of the best bebop artists and some recommended listening. As we mentioned, many of these musicians were known for many styles throughout their careers, and you can find some on our list of best Cool Jazz artists and 10 essential Hard bop albums.
As always, feel free to use the comments section if you think we missed someone important…
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.