Bebop head

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A bebop head or simply bop head (from English (be) bop and head , (here) ' head [theme] ', 'guiding [theme]'), more rarely also bebop line or bop line , is in the technical language of jazz is the general term for a type of theme , as it has been composed or arranged in particular by bebop musicians since the 1940s . Characteristic of this type of melody are above all their offbeat- oriented and fragmented rhythms , based on eighth notes , as well as a type of melody that aims less at singing and more at the representation of a relatively complex harmony . Bebop heads are based in their most typical form on the (partly extended) chord following popular songs , the so-called show tunes , as they were written primarily for musicals .

The term

Most of the musical terms used exclusively or mainly within the jazz scene are not used by musicians in the sense of a strictly academically defined meaning. The use of such terms perceived as correct, on the other hand, often serves to manifest belonging to an in group ; Within this social context, the exact meaning is often lost in the vague, because - based on role clichés such as that of the " hipster " - jazz musicians tend to use fuzzy, "emotional" language.


The trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie , one of the most distinguished bebop composers (Photo: Carl van Vechten )

Bebop , or Bop for short, is the name of the earliest style of modern jazz, which was developed by musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie since around 1940 . The term bebop is, however, vaguely defined: while in a narrower sense it refers to the music of these very pioneers of modern jazz (including a small group of other musicians, such as the pianist Bud Powell or the drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach ), one includes A broader definition includes a large part of tonally and metrically bound jazz up to the present day.


(Engl. The term "head" head ) for the beginning of a piece of music is similarly also in European music - and again in different applications - common. Terms such as the first sentence or the playing instruction da capo (Italian: “from the head”, i.e. from the front) testify to this .

In the context of a jazz piece, head refers to the actual theme played at the beginning and usually also at the end, to which the improvisations relate structurally. However, the implication of what is presented by heart, "from the head", also plays a role: This is shown by the completely ambiguous term head arrangement , which can mean both an elaborated arrangement of the theme presentation and a complete big band arrangement performed by heart (in this form, for example, common in Count Basie's orchestra of the 1930s).


In jazz, the term line (English for "line") often replaces the older and still more common word tune (English for "melody", "way"). On the one hand, this choice of words expresses the linear character of melodies, which are mainly composed of eighths; In addition, tune is perceived as inappropriate given the mentioned, often very unsangible character of bebop topics.


Melodies, mostly in eighth notes, have been the norm for jazz soloists at least since Louis Armstrong's groundbreaking recordings in the late 1920s. Many of the melodic-rhythmic figures (so-called licks ) played in such solos were used by the big band arrangers of the 1930s as accompanying figures or in tutti passages for the wind section : they wrote down the melody originally improvised as a soloist and worked on it with several voices , for example for five saxophones. During their "apprenticeship" years in the big bands of the swing era , the later bebop musicians acquired a large repertoire of these figures. Such riffs are the main forerunners of the later, but generally much more complex bebop heads.

The musical aesthetics and their reception

In the typical quintet line-up, the bebop heads are usually performed by the two wind players (mostly trumpet and saxophone ) in unison . Most of the themes, which are often set at exceptionally fast tempos , can only be played cleanly in this way by extremely virtuoso, well-rehearsed bands. The overburdening of a large part of the audience was accepted, at least approvingly, as the young bebopers strongly opposed the showmanship (with band uniforms, uniform music stands, choreographies and the like) of the established bands, which they surrendered to the then USA rejected ubiquitous racism.

Many bebop heads have sarcastic, self-confident titles. Often there are also encoded, emphatically intellectual puns like in Thelonious Monks Evidence : The word means “evidence” in American case law. Monk chose the title, however, because the theme is based on the harmonies of the song Just You, Just Me (= just us , which in turn sounds similar to justice , ie “justice”).

The early bebop met with some violent rejection from older musicians and the general public. Contemporary witnesses report their confused perplexity towards this new style, which at first was often not even accepted as jazz. The chromatic harmony and melody of the music, together with its "difficult" rhythms and the preferred fast tempos, demanded too much from the hearing of most jazz fans. With the bebop, jazz - quite unexpectedly in the context of the time - laid claim to recognition as art music and instead renounced the widespread success that swing had been striving for as distinct dance music .

The composition principle

Fixed improvisations

Bebop heads in their “purest” form are laid out like an ideal, fixed improvisation on a familiar harmony scheme: In the early years of jazz, but also in big bands, it was common for musicians not to improvise their solos, but rather their "features" worked out beforehand and then recited by heart over a long period of time in the same way. This type of prefabricated improvisation, detached from the imponderables of the live concert situation, was now used as a theme itself. The chord progressions were preferably borrowed from popular songs from Broadway shows and films of the mid-20th century, which, even in their original form, have often become jazz standards .

An example is the song Whispering , which was popular at the time (originally written by the Tin Pan Alley team of authors in Schonberger / Coburn / Rose ). The piece also became known in its German version under the title Let me sip your bath water .

Even in this simple form the piece offers a delightful harmony: the tonic chord contrasts with unexpected intermediate dominants, the dominant chord Bb7 , which is actually always expected, appears later in the piece. This contrasts with the emphatically simple, popular tune- like melodies, which the composers intended, but seemed absurd for the rebellious young musicians of the early 1940s.

Trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie arranged whispering on the bebop theme Groovin 'High, which is still popular today :

Expansion of the source material

Using the example of Groovin 'High, it can be shown how bebop heads expand and expand the material of the underlying popular songs in every conceivable way:

  • Rhythm: The basic rhythmic pulse of the melody is on the eighth note, while the accompaniment marks the quarter notes as in the original . The resulting rhythmic tension signals a "jazz-like" character from the start.
  • Fragmentation: In contrast to the symmetrical phrases of Whispering's melody , Gillespie's new theme uses phrases of very different lengths, with the main accents of the short “melody fragments” falling on unexpected offbeat beats . The fragmented melodic "abbreviations" and the pauses that follow allow an intensive interplay within the band: The piano accompaniment reacts immediately with an echo-like "answer" to the motif of the melody.
  • Instrumental technique: While the songs of the Broadway musicals, according to their function, are melodically as simple, catchy and undemanding as possible, the bebop themes that arise from them aim at the exact opposite: the vast majority of the pieces require knowledge of music theory and a technical mastery of the own instrument, which only a few musicians of the older generation could show at the time the bebop was created.

Editing or independent composition?

The New York 28th Street ( Tin Pan Alley ) in 1920 when she center of the emerging US music industry was

The bebop musicians placed a certain value on the fact that the reference of their new lines to the originally “banal” pop song remained recognizable for the initiated listener. The aesthetics of this type of piece expresses not only pride in one's own superior virtuosity on the instrument but also a condescending, ironic pose towards an environment that one perceived as musically and intellectually backward.

In this sense, the musicians announced their new pieces - for example on stage or on record covers - not infrequently with the titles of the underlying songs, with which they naturally intended and usually achieved a "shock effect".

However, this approach has led to the fact that bebop lines are occasionally only viewed as secondary offshoots of an original, which leads to the assumption that the actual creative work lies with the pop composer. However, this view does not stand up to musical analysis. Also and especially the songs of Tin Pan Alley use harmonic sequences completely or in a set piece over and over again. On the other hand, a considerable amount of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic detail work is required to get from whispering to groovin 'high , for example .

The “ collage technique ” with harmonic set pieces was adopted by the jazz musicians in an even more complicated way, as they often combined the chords of different parts from different songs to create new material. The overview under point 6 offers some examples of this.

Furthermore, the procedure of developing a new piece from elements of an already existing one is more or less common practice in most musical styles (cf. for example the cantus firmus of early music, forms such as the Passacaglia or the ultimately clichéd harmonic sequences in many works the Viennese Classic , which use the sonata form ).

The copyright

The thesis of the "musical straw man"

The assumption, often spread in older publications (for example several times in Gitler , 1966), that the bebop heads were mainly written so that the musicians would not have to pay royalties for the copyrighted songs of the Broadway shows belongs in this form to the realm of Legend. The musical practice and the formalities involved in processing such royalty payments through the US collecting societies ( ASCAP and BMI ) - in which the musicians were not directly involved in either live performances or recordings - speak in themselves against the plausibility of this thesis.

It is true that, unlike melodies, chord progressions do not enjoy copyright protection. However, the effort that has to be made in connection with the composition, the arrangement and, last but not least, the rehearsal of even an average difficult bebop piece is so disproportionately high that it far outweighs the comparatively small financial advantage.

On the other hand, the musicians were able to have the pieces once written protected by copyright, so that they were guaranteed a certain additional income from these royalties from record sales and live performances.

The bebop subculture and copyright

Bebop heads are a compositional expression of the anti-bourgeois attitude of their creators. A subculture here cleverly questions the traditional concept of the work with its means with deliberately ironic intent . However, it soon became apparent that the musicians, with their demonstrative neglect of this aspect of artistic work, were harming themselves less than the "establishment" and more importantly (on a very material level).

There are many cases in which musicians left the handling of all legal issues to managers , agents or producers . These then often appropriated the rights to the pieces themselves: Often this was not even done with direct deceptive intent, but to spare the often somewhat unworldly musicians financial difficulties. Nevertheless, the door was naturally opened to abuse in this way. In Charlie Parker's career, this problematic role came to agent Billy Shaw and producer Ross Russell - his future biographer.

After a large part of the Bebopper, due to precarious working conditions and the massive heroin addiction in the scene , was in constant financial need, more shrewd musicians for their part often appropriated the rights to the compositions of their colleagues. Many of these "fraud cases" have only come to light over the past few decades. In this way, it turned out, for example, that many compositions long ascribed to Miles Davis were in fact composed by members of his various bands. However, Davis looked back on the worst possible experiences, as his notoriously unreliable band leader Charlie Parker had defrauded him of the rights to most of his early pieces.

Finally, Parker offers a particularly extreme example of the described, extremely ambivalent relationship between the bebop scene and the concept of “intellectual property” . In order to be able to afford the dose of heroin that he needed to be fit for an upcoming recording session, he sold his dealer all rights to the original composition that was to be played on this occasion. The title of the play still bears the alias of Parker's drug supplier, namely " Moose The Mooche ".

Broadway songs, blues and Cuban rhythms

The vague definition of the term bebop head mentioned above , together with the tendency of jazz musicians to use private languages, which has also been described, means that certain topics in the nomenclature of many musicians are not primarily classified in this category. From a harmonic, rhythmic or stylistic point of view, compositions that otherwise sound very similar are also assigned to various other subgenres . It should be emphasized once again that the distinctions are sometimes made arbitrarily and the boundaries are fluid.

Rhythm changes

A chord progression that was disproportionately popular with bebop musicians was that of George Gershwin's composition I Got Rhythm . Pieces that are based on their harmonies (or modifications thereof) play such an important role in the repertoire that they are given the title Rhythm Changes . This is the “ciphered” short form of the correct formulation of the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm” , ie the chord structure of this Gershwin title. Actual rhythmic or metric changes, which one might suspect based on the abbreviation, hardly ever occur in such pieces, they are almost always in a moderate to fast 4/4 time and, moreover, almost without exception in Bb major.

A composition like Duke Ellington's " Cotton Tail " from 1940, which already has all the characteristics of the emerging bebop, would be called rhythm changes , but not bebop head, as Ellington is not usually assigned to this style.

Due to its typically “bubbly” design, the first four bars of Ellington's theme are intended to serve as a comparison with the parallel passage in Gershwin's original melody. In the audio example, both melodies sound simultaneously, so that it becomes clear how both interlock with chord accompaniment and bass line.

For a related chord progression in minor the misleading term Minor Rhythm Changes is still used. However, this term is not used: consequently, for example, a well-known composition by Charlie Parker about these harmonies ( segment , also under the title Diverse ) would nowadays be generally referred to as bebop head.


In addition to the rhythm changes, the blues was the bebopper 's second extensive harmonic field of experimentation. The traditional aesthetics and tonality of the blues were so strongly reshaped in this process with the musical innovations of the time that in pieces like Sippin 'At Bell's (by Miles Davis), Dance Of The Infidels (by Bud Powell) or Blues For Alice (again by Charlie Parker) the themes are almost completely lacking in an immediately recognizable blues character. Despite this dominance of the bebop sound, compositions of this genre are initially always referred to as blues.

Jazz Originals

Since the emergence of bebop, jazz musicians have composed pieces more than before that only reflect the harmony of pop songs in an alienated, abstract form, without completely abandoning the underlying elements. In any case, pieces of this genre, such as those composed in large numbers by Thelonious Monk or Tadd Dameron , are immediately written as jazz compositions and immediately recognizable as such. Similar to the Broadway songs, however, new lines were laid over particularly grateful harmony schemes: Miles Davis' Half Nelson , for example, is a further development of Dameron's Ladybird .


No less curious is the fact that precisely those pieces in which the bebop musicians went completely new ways are hardly subsumed under the name bebop head at all. For example, compositions such as Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia and Manteca or Bud Powell's Un Poco Loco developed into classics that young jazz musicians still consider a challenge today due to their then unheard-of amalgamation of Afro-Cuban rhythms , novel harmony structures and complex melodic gestures. This genre was quickly given the label Cubop (from cuban bebop ). Nowadays the term Latin Jazz is more common, and many traditionally oriented bebop musicians only marginally deal with the rhythms that were so inspiring to the founding generation of this music.

The rest of the show tunes

The remaining bebop compositions are now called bebop heads in the narrower sense. In the roughly decade-long period that made up the heyday of bop (mid-1940s to mid-1950s) hundreds of lines were written to songs on Tin Pan Alley , a few dozen of which are still part of the repertoire today. The next section provides an overview.

Bebop heads and the underlying show tunes

In view of the large number of compositions, the following overview can by no means claim to be complete. It mainly performs works by well-known composers and / or performers, whose recordings are still easily available today. It also takes account of the relative presence in today's repertoire.

Original song bebop head
title composer title composer
What Is This Thing Called Love? Cole Porter Hot house Tadd Dameron
What love Charles Mingus
But not for me George Gershwin Sid's Delight (also called Tadd's Delight ) Tadd Dameron
Oh, Lady Be Good! George Gershwin Hoe sack Thelonious Monk
Honeysuckle Rose Fats Waller Marmaduke Charlie Parker
Oh, Lady Be Good! (A parts) / Honeysuckle Rose (middle part) George Gershwin / Fats Waller Move Denzil Best
Honeysuckle Rose (A parts) / I Got Rhythm (middle part) Fats Waller / George Gershwin Scrapple From The Apple Charlie Parker
Chasin 'The Bird Charlie Parker
Ah-leu-cha Miles Davis
Cherokee Ray Noble Ko-Ko Charlie Parker
Warming Up A Reef Charlie Parker
B. Quick Sonny Rollins
Embraceable You George Gershwin Quasimodo Charlie Parker
All The Things You Are Jerome Kern Bird of Paradise Charlie Parker
Prince Albert Kenny Dorham
Out of Nowhere Werner Richard Heymann Nostalgia Fats Navarro
How high the moon Morgan Lewis Ornithology "Little Benny" Harris / Charlie Parker
Jeepers Creepers Johnny Mercer My Little Suede Shoes Charlie Parker
Indiana James Hanley Donna Lee Miles Davis (often attributed to Charlie Parker)
Sweet Georgia Brown Maceo Pinkard / Ben Bernie Sweet Clifford Clifford Brown
Dig (also as Donna ) Jackie McLean (often attributed to Miles Davis)
All God's Chillun Got Rhythm Walter Jurmann Reets & I "Little Benny" Harris
Little Willie Leaps Miles Davis
Mayreh Horace Silver
Lover, come back to me Sigmund Romberg Bean & The Boys Coleman Hawkins
Bird Gets The Worm Charlie Parker
Summertime George Gershwin Four on Six Wes Montgomery
There Will Never Be Another You Mack Gordon Split kick Horace Silver
Stompin 'at the Savoy Edgar Sampson Relaxin 'with Lee Charlie Parker
It could happen to you James Van Heusen Fried bananas Dexter Gordon

Later developments

Vocal bebop

Bebop heads were written by instrumentalists for the usual quintet line-up. Even with this stipulation, they are usually difficult to perform technically, and they still serve as studies for budding jazz musicians to this day . The question of whether such melodies can be singed was not considered by the composers at all; rather, they were more concerned with the appeal of the "oblique": Without chord accompaniment, the harmonic relationship of many a chromatic line can hardly be classified aurally, and the equally popular dissonant leaps in intervals are difficult to cope with by an untrained voice.

Scat singing

Ella Fitzgerald

The Scat -Gesang on nonsense syllables belongs generally to the tradition of almost all African-American musical styles. The bebop musicians sang the phrasing of certain rhythmic figures to each other in this way while rehearsing their new pieces. The word "bebop" itself was most likely created as a sonic description of typical eighth-note figures (as at the beginning of Groovin 'High ). Especially Dizzy Gillespie, who was the only member of the "founding generation" to have a certain show talent, had enough humor and self-confidence to present his singing live and on records. The titles and “texts” of such pieces then read, for example: Oo-Bop-Sh'Bam - a-klook-a-mop! .

With such performances, however, Gillespie first underlined - with the irony and ambiguity that is typical for him - his actual conviction, namely that bebop is not music for singers. Nevertheless, the first vocalists could be found in the late 1940s who had meanwhile acquired the musical knowledge and techniques to perform scat improvisations in the manner of bebop instrumental solos (including Sarah Vaughan , Babs Gonzales and Ella Fitzgerald ).


The vocalese technique emerged in the 1950s : singers began to underlay the bebop heads with (mostly self-written) lyrics. A first star of this new generation of singers was King Pleasure with his versions of bebop themes ( Parker's Mood ) and even improvisations ( Moody's Mood For Love ). The three members of the vocal ensemble Lambert, Hendricks & Ross ( Dave Lambert , Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross ) were able to demonstrate a technical mastery of the genre, which was often referred to as "vocal acrobatics" .

The texts of these vocalese interpretations are usually extremely verbose, as the bebop heads contain a particularly large number of notes due to their compositional technique. Stylistically, they draw heavily on the slang of the jazz scene ( jive talk ) and the closely related tone of the beat generation poets. The contents of the vocalese range from the conventional love song ( Skeeter Spights version of Parker's Confirmation ) to the lyrical reflection of the music (Jon Hendricks' text on Gillespie's Night In Tunisia , also under the title And The Melody Still Lingers On ) to absurd and humorous commentary contemporary issues (as in Annie Ross' text on Wardell Gray's Twisted , which caricatures psychoanalysis ). The sheer wealth of words and the complex rhythms of these "songs" resulting from shifting accents - in combination with the abstract melody - lead vocalese to extremes of singing technique:

In fact, because of this “acrobatic” smack, the techniques of bebop singing are controversial among musicians and audiences alike. Only a relatively small group of singers could come up with results that received general artistic recognition. Today, this genre is cultivated by Dee Dee Bridgewater , Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling , among others .

Cool jazz

The musicians of cool jazz wrote compositions using standard harmonies, which "on paper", that is, in notated form, can hardly be distinguished from the original bebop heads. Above all, the “school” of pianist Lennie Tristano (including saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz in particular ) produced some technically extremely demanding pieces that are still popular today. For the interpreter of the composed melody, the difference to the models, mainly Charlie Parker, lies in a fundamentally different (but not fixable in the musical notation) conception of the instrumental sound, as well as in an extremely straight, "European-classical" phrasing. The following is a short excerpt from Lee Konitz ' Sub-Conscious-Lee , which he designed using the harmonies of Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love :

In addition, the themes are no longer played exclusively in unison, rather the second wind player occasionally plays a contrapuntal line to the main melody, which is sometimes composed, but just as often can also be improvised.

The real reason why cool jazz compositions sound significantly different and have an effect on the listener than the bebop they actually refer to is the role of the rhythm section . Although their voices are usually not written out, there is a tacit agreement on the division of tasks, so the music is designed in many details without this being noted in writing. The comparison shows a rule that "original" bebop heads a much more intensive, unberechenbarere for the listener accompanied encourage and need while Cool Jazz theme with a more defensive, expect subdued way of playing companion. This conceptually composed part of a piece has a particularly clear effect on the drums , which enjoy great freedom in bebop, while the characteristic cool jazz sound is created by subtle timekeeping (marking of the basic rhythm).

Hard bop

The hard bop of the 1950s and 1960s continues the bebop tradition in many ways, but is generally finding its way back to a more earthy aesthetic rooted in the original blues. In this respect, the style, speaking in general terms, is again committed to a more vocal, more accessible ideal of music, which is no longer as obsessed as bebop is looking for fast tempi and complicated harmonies. The main part of the jazz originals that have become standards was created in the stylistic framework of hard bop. However, some of his best composers (Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins) have also written typical bebop lines that are still played with pleasure at jam sessions all over the world.

Post bop

In the course of the 1960s, jazz moved more and more away from the repertoire of the tunes show and ultimately also from the bebop heads that resulted from them. The iconoclastic conception of music on which bebop is based is continued in a way of playing for which the term free bop can occasionally be found. It begins with the first recordings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry (1958/59). Even many musicians who were very close to the founding generation of bebop both personally and stylistically (for example Jackie McLean and Charles Mingus ) took up the ideas of free jazz . A general term for this "moderate avant-garde" of the 60s and 70s has not yet established itself, the original origin of their music takes the word post-bop into account. Many modern musicians incorporate the style-forming elements of bop into their compositions in different ways; the tone of the bop heads is quoted again and again, but the familiar compositional technique is rarely used. Important composers from this school include Joe Henderson , Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw .

Jazz rock

The jazz rock of the 70s was dominated by electric and electronic instruments. While in the earlier jazz styles the wind instruments were literally the "leading" musicians, in this new context, which was fascinated by the achievements of music technology, it was not easy for them. Most likely it was still the enormously high standard of their instrumental technique set by the beboppers Skills that allowed trumpeters and saxophonists to secure a niche in this style. On a record with the significant title Heavy Metal Bebop (1975) the brothers Randy (trumpet) and Michael Brecker ( tenor saxophone ) present a playing style that “translates” the eighth pulse of bebop into the sixteenth notes of funk .

The reference point of such melodies in pop music are of course no longer the Broadway composers, but the greats of soul and R&B like James Brown and Sly Stone .

Original recordings

See also


  1. Jost, p. 121f.
  2. Gitler, p. 55f., P. 76ff.
  3. Spellman, pp. 193ff.
  4. Russell, S. 146f.
  5. Rosenthal, p. 12f.


  • Dizzy Gillespie (with Al Frazer): To be or not to bop. Hannibal, Vienna 1983, ISBN 3-85445-018-4
  • Ira Gitler: Jazz Masters of the Forties . Macmillan, New York 1966.
  • Ekkehard Jost: Social history of jazz . Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 3-86150-472-3
  • Christian Kowollik: The relationship between improvisation and composition using the example of Bebop Heads . Grin Verlag, Munich 2006, ISBN 978-3-638-84561-8
  • Arrigo Polillo: Jazz - History and Personalities . Goldmann-Schott, Berlin / Munich 1987, ISBN 3-442-33041-6
  • David H. Rosenthal: Hard Bop. Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965. Oxford University Press, New York 1992, ISBN 0-19-508556-6
  • Ross Russell: Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. Da Capo Press, New York 1996, ISBN 0-306-80679-7
  • Hans-Jürgen Schaal (Ed.): Jazz standards. The encyclopedia. 3rd, revised edition. Bärenreiter, Kassel u. a. 2004, ISBN 3-7618-1414-3 .
  • AB Spellman: Four Lives in the Bebop Business . Limelight, New York 1985, ISBN 0-87910-042-7
  • Iron Werther: Bebop. Fischer TB, Frankfurt am Main 1988, ISBN 3-596-22997-9

Web links

This article was added to the list of excellent articles on May 21, 2006 in this version .