BEBOP by Thomas Owens


The Music and the Players
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 An academic exegesis of the popular jazz form and its musicians. Bebop was a revolutionary new style when it burst on the jazz scene in the late 1940s. Created by a small coterie of primarily New Yorkbased jazzmen, including legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk, and trumpeter/bebop spokesperson Dizzy Gillespie, it was a melodically and harmonically complicated chamber music with unusual rhythms that demanded serious listening (the earlier big-band jazz had been more approachable, with its simple, repetitive melodies, predictable chord changes, and toe- tapping rhythms). Beginning his work with a historical overview, Owens traces the roots of bebop, focusing on Parker's saxophone stylings. He then moves rather mechanistically through a study of different instrumentalists (alto and tenor sax players, trumpeters, pianists, bassists, drummers, etc.), ensembles, and today's ``young masters.'' Owens primarily relies on close interpretation of the ``scores'' of the major bebop works; like a patient graduate student, he guides us through the key motives and harmonics employed by Gillespie, Monk, et al. Of course, such a discussion is absurdly reductionist: Owens asserts that Parker's memorable style is primarily based on a descending ``scalar organization'' that he finds in the saxophonist's solos, ignoring Parker's unique sound, his raw emotionality, and his stunning technique. The author himself admits that many elements of the bebop style ``defy meaningful representation in musical notation,'' yet this is essentially his modus operandi throughout the book. Another problem is his decision to group together instrumentalists who are often stylistically disparate, which results in a disjointed narrative. The inclusion of a glossary with definitions of basic musicological terms will not make this more palatable for a general audience. A triumph of the academy over a musical style that, to this point, had avoided institutionalization. ``Bebop lives,'' Owens asserts--but not in this text.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-505287-0
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1994