From New World Encyclopedia

Bebop or bop is a style of jazz that evolved in the 1940s and is notable for its extremely quick tempo and improvisation that is pure and not an embellishment of the melody. Later, bebop led to the advent of Hard bop, which incorporated elements of blues and gospel music.

Musical Style

The innovators of bebop made a conscious decision to create a style of jazz that would be almost diametrically opposed to the character of swing music, partly as a result of growing frustration that the audience focus had been on dancing rather than the musical performance. Whereas swing was eminently danceable and comprised of pleasant harmonies and singable melodies, bebop required tempi too fast for dancing, adopted a harmonic vocabulary that was rife with discordant tonal clashes, and employed technically challenging melodies that weren't meant to be sung, but played by virtuosi. These characteristics combined to give bebop an aura of perpetual anxiety, and that quality alienated some jazz fans, making bebop more cosmopolitan than universalist and keeping its performers less recognizable than swing giants like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Regardless of whom you might ask, however, the arrival of bebop marked a dramatic change in musical language.

Differences Between Bebop and Swing

A noticeable difference between swing and bebop is the discrepancy in performing forces for each. Big bands such as Glenn Miller's typically used 15 to 20 performers and primarily presented written arrangements of songs, with a small amount of time allocated to improvisational soloists. Bebop groups would be more likely to range from 4 to 9 performers and the performance would consist of a tune, called the "head," followed by several improvised solos (or "blowing"), and concluding with a reprise of the tune, occasionally with a "tag ending" which would alter or repeat the final portion of the tune to effect a more satisfactory ending. During the solos, the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums), or some subset thereof, plays an accompaniment dictated by the harmonic progression of the tune while one instrument of the group improvises within that harmonic framework. There were economic (it was cheaper to hire five players than 15, and that meant more opportunities to play for those in the smaller groups), practical (the technical demands of bebop melodies, or "lines" would be prohibitive for achieving a unified effect with 15 musicians), and aesthetic (smaller groups meant more opportunities for performers to improvise within a set, and there were fewer limitations to individual expression) reasons for this reduction in forces.

As previously mentioned, bebop used a more complex harmonic language than swing, with the most characteristic differences being represented by bebop's use of altered chords (chords in which one or more of the tones is altered from the standard notes) and chord substitutions (when a different chord than the written one is supplied, usually to effect a certain kind of motion in the bass or to introduce a desired dissonance). These harmonic devices relied on skillful musicians for performance, and the more elaborate chord progressions necessitated faster harmonic motion and by extension demanded that improvisations and tunes make more acrobatic efforts to meld with the chords.

Bebop performers frequently turned to the chord progressions of popular swing tunes to find the framework upon which they would base their own compositions. They would then choose to craft a new melody, or perhaps to re-harmonize the original melody with more complex harmonies, and the resulting composition of the former type is called a contrafact. This formed an auditory bridge for the audience between the old and new styles of jazz, and it allowed for performers to improvise on tunes with which they were already somewhat familiar, requiring them only to adjust to the modifications rather than compelling them to learn entirely new songs.

Specific Harmonic Vocabulary

The first harmonic alteration to permeate the bebop language was the flatted fifth, or flat five. While this was not a completely new tone to introduce, it had only been sparingly used in popular music and was associated with specific harmonic effects or the blues. The flat five is a tritone above the root of the chord, and is the most harmonically unstable pitch within an octave, so the decision by bebop players to emphasize the pitch created a maximum degree of tension and dissonance.

This relationship also leads to the use of tritone substitution. The most common tritone substitution is the replacement of one dominant seventh chord (V7) with another (bII7) and this is typically used to create chromatic bass movement from ii7 to I at the end of a phrase or tune (ii7-bII7-I in lieu of ii7-V7-I).

Common bebop alterations include the following:

  • Flatted fifth/flat five/b5
  • Sharped fifth/sharp five/#5
  • Flatted ninth/flat nine/b9
  • Sharped ninth/sharp nine/#9
  • Sharped eleventh/sharp eleven/#11
  • Flatted thirteenth/flat thirteen/b13


A bebop group, or "combo," would most typically include a saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, the same instrumentation of the original bebop groups which featured Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet). The most common addition to the group would be a second saxophonist, but occasionally guitarists or trombonists would be involved in a performance and some individuals, like J.J. Johnson, rose to prominence on one of the less common bebop instruments.

While bebop represents one strain of jazz, the progress of bebop represented a crucial development in the musical language of jazz, and due to the extraordinary technical demands (both harmonic and melodic) of most bebop tunes, those compositions are still played in live and educational settings. One is not considered to be truly fluent in jazz performance until one has a firm grasp on bebop improvisation and this, more than any other benchmark, constitutes an acceptable level of facility.

Bebop Musicians

Notable musicians identified with bebop:

  • Cannonball Adderley, alto sax
  • Clifford Brown, trumpet
  • Ray Brown, bass
  • Don Byas, tenor sax
  • Charlie Christian, guitar
  • Kenny Clarke, drums
  • Tadd Dameron, piano
  • Miles Davis, trumpet
  • Kenny Dorham, trumpet
  • Curtis Fuller, trombone
  • Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet
  • Dexter Gordon, tenor sax
  • Wardell Gray, saxophone
  • Al Haig, piano
  • Barry Harris, piano
  • Percy Heath, bass
  • Milt Jackson, vibes
  • J.J. Johnson, trombone
  • Duke Jordan, piano
  • Stan Levey, drums
  • Lou Levy, piano
  • John Lewis, piano
  • Charles Mingus, bass
  • Thelonious Monk, piano
  • Fats Navarro, trumpet
  • Charlie Parker, alto sax
  • Chet Baker, trumpet
  • Oscar Pettiford, bass
  • Tommy Potter, bass
  • Bud Powell, piano
  • Max Roach, drums
  • Red Rodney, trumpet
  • Sonny Rollins, tenor sax
  • Sonny Stitt, tenor and alto sax
  • Lucky Thompson, tenor sax
  • George Wallington, piano

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Deveaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. ISBN 0-520-20579-0
  • Raschka, Christopher. Charlie Parker Played Bebop. NY: Orchard Books. 1992. ISBN 0-531-05999-5
  • Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. London, New York: Continuum. 2001. ISBN 0-826-44754-6
  • Yanow, Scott. Bebop. SFO, CA: Miller Freeman Books. 2000.


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