Parker and Gillespie also found early support among a few forward-thinking swing bandleaders who sought to revive their big bands with an injection of bop. In 1944, Billy Eckstine, who had achieved great popularity as the smooth baritone singer featured with Earl Hines’s band, decided to start his own band and hired both Parker and Gillespie, as well as progressive arrangers like Tadd Dameron, Bud Johnson, and Jerry Valentine. During its three-year lifespan, Eckstine’s band was a virtual bebop incubator; its alumni included trumpeters Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, and Miles Davis; saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, and Gene Ammons; and drummer Art Blakey. It no doubt inspired Gillespie, who loved big bands, to form his own, first in 1945 and then again in 1947. Gillespie’s big bands were both a concert attraction and an attempt by the trumpeter to invite the jazz audience back to the dance floor.
Dizzy Gillespie with conguero Chano Pozo and
tenor saxophonist James Moody, c. 1948.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
It was no surprise, then, that Gillespie was drawn to the vibrant Cuban and Puerto Rican dance music that was pouring out of New York City ballrooms following the wave of Latino immigration that had begun around 1930. For years, Latin rhythms and melodies had migrated to the United States (Jelly Roll Morton acknowledged the Latin tinge in jazz music before the word jazz was even commonplace) while jazz harmonies and orchestrations traversed the Caribbean. Musicians and audiences across the Americas had long enjoyed both genres as they played and danced to rhumbas, congas, and big band swing. In the 1940s, the Cuban mambo swept the country, and in Harlem and the South Bronx, where Latin and jazz musicians mingled at jam sessions, social clubs, and dance halls, the big band began to absorb the instruments of traditional Caribbean dance music—congas, bongos, guiros, timbales, and claves. In 1940, the Cuban vocalist Machito and his brother-in-law, trumpeter Mario Bauza, formed Machito and the Afro-Cubans, one of the first deliberate efforts to combine Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz. The band’s superb musicianship (the group included a young timbalero named Tito Puente) and dynamic arrangements (written by Rene Hernandez and Chico O’Farrill, among others) inspired numerous jazz artists, including Gillespie, who heard in its Cuban rhythms a way to connect dancers with bebop. In 1946 he hired the Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo to infuse his music with new rhythms and cultural and ritual themes, both Latin and African. The musical fusion that resulted, known as Afro-Cuban jazz, highlighted the inclusive spirit that had been central to jazz since its beginnings in New Orleans.
By the late 1940s, the music of Parker and Gillespie, as well as that of fellow innovators like pianist Bud Powell, pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, had inspired musicians, fans, and critics to question the very definition of jazz. Bebop musicians considered innovation and the reshaping of traditional forms to be the very heart of jazz, and it didn’t take long for other musicians to embrace this new ethic. Between 1949 and 1959, several new jazz styles emerged, each in its own way a response to the changes pioneered in bebop. A respect for earlier forms coexisted happily with a desire to create utterly new styles. All along 52nd Street, established names like Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, and Sidney Bechet performed alongside emerging talents like Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and the wholly original pianist Erroll Garner, who would become one of the biggest jazz stars of the 1950s. Jazz was quickly becoming as diverse as America itself, reflecting the class, ethnic, and regional tastes and aspirations of a new generation. The eclecticism being cultivated by jazz musicians during these years would soon become the music’s defining trait.
Amid the many new sounds emerging from jazz clubs and recording studios in the late 1940s, one shift under way among New York City bebop musicians was drawing particular attention. “Cool” was how this new style would soon be described; the word suggested restraint, understatement, and an attitude of almost aristocratic detachment from the everyday. Musically, cool meant playing in a calmer, quieter, more laid-back fashion, with little or no vibrato (unlike the quick, almost shaking vibrato often used by earlier jazz musicians to increase the emotional intensity of their playing). Few musicians embodied cool like Miles Davis, a trumpeter who had grown up playing alongside Charlie Parker in one of the first bebop bands. Between 1949 and 1951, Davis, in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans and arranger-composer-instrumentalists John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan, recorded a number of highly influential pieces scored for a nine-piece “little big band”; they were subsequently reissued as The Birth of the Cool. While Davis’s music retained the harmonic language and technical virtuosity of bebop, his ensemble’s soft timbres, understated style, and greater compositional element signaled a return to the relaxed rhythmic language of Count Basie and the lyrical phrasing of Basie’s star soloist, saxophonist Lester Young. It helped bring the innovations of bebop to a broader audience and offered a way to balance the roles of the soloist and the group.
Trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis, Berlin, c. 1964.
Photograph by Jan Persson, courtesy CTSIMAGES.
Baritone saxophonist and arranger Gerry Mulligan, a member of the Birth of the Cool ensemble, shared Davis’s understated aesthetic. He played delicately, with patience and intelligence, and in Los Angeles in 1952, he formed an influential piano-less quartet with bassist Bob Whitlock, drummer Chico Hamilton, and trumpeter Chet Baker. The group’s spare, good-humored sound garnered the attention of fans and critics who heard the ensemble’s clear counterpoint as an antidote to “the frantic extremes of bebop.” Other musicians active in California included pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, whose quartet often experimented in complex time signatures, as in their famous number “Take Five.” Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who would later pioneer bossa nova by blending the relaxed rhythms of the Brazilian samba with the lyricism of cool jazz, also contributed to the elegant and laid-back style of “California cool.” Collectively, these artists came to be associated with West Coast jazz, a style whose name highlighted perceived differences from the music then being developed by black musicians in the Northeast.