Monday, June 12, 2006

Bebop economics

Besides Coleman Hawkins' influence on bop, a couple things really interested me in reading "The Birth of Bebop a Social and Musical History" by Scott DeVeaux, University of California Press, and Brian Priestley's "Chasin' the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker," Oxford University Press, as part of a little study of bebop I'm doing this summer.

One is DeVeaux's thesis that bop, in addition to resulting from artistic and civil rights-related motivations, was rooted in economics. The number of black big bands the music industry would bear always was limited, as was the number of black musicians white big bands would absorb. Big bands began to wane as the '40s progressed, making for fewer jobs for all musicians, black musicians especially.

Younger black jazz virtuosos hitting their primes, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, had their opportunities for big band success diminished in particular and, in response, found a new outlet in leading small groups in bars and clubs rather than big bands in ballrooms and dance halls, with Hawkins showing the way. Their performances were promoted through recordings, also a revenue source, that still appeared on juke boxes and mainstream radio then, as well as through live radio broadcasts.

Boppers also, of course, created a different kind of music to go with the realignment in group sizes and change of venues, in part as a means of distinguishing themselves from the "old" (and what had become substantially "white") style represented by swing. This in-with-the-new cycle seems to me to be a familiar pattern in musical change, whether it's beboppers in jazz or punks in rock or neo soulsters in hip-hop, et al. In the case of bebop, the effect was profound in that it converted jazz to an "art" or "chamber" music predominantly geared to listening as opposed to swing's métier dancing. So it has remained for the most part, with the exception of soul jazz, which I view as largely an attempt, with mixed success, to put the dancing back in jazz and to expand its popularity. Ironically, I think, some of the most advanced jazz, Miles Davis' electric stuff, was with its funky beat some of the more danceable jazz since the swing era (see "The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991") and certainly some of the more popular, as a concert draw and in record sales.

In addition, I found it sad that Charlie Parker, having burned most of his bridges as a result of substance abuse (and, I believe, mental illness), had to play frequently with pickup bands and "all-star" groups to get gigs in his final years. Considering the marvelous music he made, one wonders what else might have resulted if he'd had a consistent partnership with like-minded similarly skilled players, as Miles Davis did with his two classic quintets or Coltrane with Tyner, Garrison and Jones. Not to mention if he'd lived past 34.

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