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Issue 17 Out Now

Blue Note Records Impact on African American Revolution

Photo Credits to Oleg Magni

The American record label, Blue Note Records, is known for producing the new style of Jazz music, predominantly Bebop. The records the company produced during the Bebop era were a symbol of African American pride and struggle finding its outlet to be heard.

Bebop: The Rebellious Genre

As we know, Bebop was the rebellious genre against the early Jazz and Swing era that only permitted musicians who can express their pain and frustration with the system through unorthodox melodies from instruments and voices. In a way, this was a genre created for the outcasts, the ignored, overall the black community in postwar America. Bebop strayed away from Jazz traditions due to its popularization after more non-black musicians became part of the genre as it was created out of black expression and awareness, not stardom. Musicians in Bebop did not want to play for patrons to dance, which is why it had more emphasis on the voice so individuals would have to listen to the message. During a time before marching the streets for a change in legislation and justice, African American artists used the birth of Jazz and the impact of Bebop to express oppression in America and refusing to let their race be hidden in fear of dominant ideology silencing them as a whole.

A Reflection of Hard Times

Bebop was the reflection of hard times in the African-American community. Its sporadic and patternless form was an expression of black lives facing post-war oppression from a society that saw them less than they are, regardless of talent and intellect. Langston Hughes details the shift in the Harlem Renaissance during the Great Depression as African-Americans were pushed further to the bottom of the economic collapse in Montage of a Dream Deferred. Jazz, before the depression was growing in popularity as more racially diverse musicians, were becoming apparent for “all” audiences to enjoy, yet Jazz bands that consisted of all black musicians were still finding difficulty reaching the same success as other bands or being able to find work; whereas after the depression it was only the popular Jazz musicians were getting work, and the black-oriented bands were left behind. In that society where everyone was facing hard times yet, certain individuals were somehow facing harder times due to racism, the black community looked for an outlet to express their anguish.

Jazz was uplifting and created for dance clubs, but this was a time where no one felt like dancing, and those who did could afford it. In which case some black musicians felt like Jazz musicians were more about making money by staying in the lighter spirits to maintain their audience and ignoring the struggles right outside. The formation of Bebop was the revolt against the ignorance that the community thought Jazz was cashing in on as entertainment aligns with social status and social status is influenced by political shifts, “who’s side are you on, us or them?” Not to say that Jazz musicians were intentionally leaving behind their roots to stay relevant, but the roots of Jazz came from black expression losing its authenticity as popularity grew.

Expanding The Bebop Sound

Bebop artists began expanding their sounds to make a statement of versatility and returning to the black origins of Jazz before commercialization. To make this a true subgenre of Jazz is to create a distinction from its original sound and have a message. The meaning behind Bebop was to rebel against its common tropes in Jazz that white musicians have appropriated, such as big band organization and anyone with musical abilities being able to play it. Bebop was against “posers” and wanted musicians with skills in improvisation that they can utilize for playing complicated melodies and have their style to offer, or in other words “play their struggles”. Bebop musicians created pieces that were meant to be practiced with undivided attention to detail to create a patternless sound, whether it was original or from another musician.

Bud Powell studied the styles of the originators of Bebop such as Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk where their style focused on spontaneous chording and melody arrangement, known as comping. The musicians of Bebop had strong knowledge and skill in improvisation which was the main root of Jazz that was utilized in the patternless melody of Bebop; the main difference comes from the music always being fast-paced and unpredictable where every musician’s instrument in the small ensemble has its style. With Powell, his style did away with “left hand striding” and used it for sporadic chording instead which earned him a place under the list of pioneers for Bebop. He modernized pianism in a group where the other instruments could interact with the piano under a new style.

Powell was an artist under Blue Note and first released “The Amazing Bud Powell’’ which was a compilation of the pianist’s recordings. This album was released in three volumes with the first one being released in 1952 and the other two being released five years later. Volume one was created out of a two-day session that was separated into 1949 and 1951 due to Powell's mental illnesses and breakdowns that slowed the recording process with Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Tommy Potter, and Roy Haynes. In listening to “Bouncing with Bud” and “Ornithology” from the album and isolating each instrument by ear, each one is not following a single melody yet manages to come together as one. Powell is playing alongside the drums as a unit and in battle with a trumpet that settles at the end of the recording. This album showed Powell’s revision of “pianism” with the bouncing tune he makes on the keys shows the attractiveness to his technique because it sounds complicated but the hand placements are not, which makes the simplicity of his style more humble.

A True Bebop Artist

The idea for being a true Bebop artist being able to create an unorthodox way to play the same instrument everyone else had and for the audience being able to tell that difference by just hearing it. Thelonius Monk was a pianist himself that Powell worked with, but Powell did away with his technique in creating his own as far as striding is concerned. As the Jazz industry began to expand into multiple entertainment markets, most record labels were more inclined to take part in the opportunity of producing Jazz records and were guaranteed to make money due to its popularity.

Blue Notes Records was a record label that only wanted Bebop and other new sub-genre music with the motivation of being the forefront for “hipness and modernity” in the music industry in 1939. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolfe’s process of producing a new genre that had artists, not entertainers, is all about giving the artists freedom to utilize their craft in whatever way they see fit. Having a hands-off policy was what gave Blue Note a reputation as a company with a high level of integrity for allowing artists to make music that no other company wanted. They were not focused on how much money they could make off the artist, but more about the authenticity Jazz has to offer, as Lion and Wolfe were Jazz fans. In which case being a part of a new sound and movement was carrying on the essence and traditional artistry from Jazz. Powell’s album was one of the prime records that set Blue Note apart from others, granted that they were only making Bebop music; however, Powell still was one of the earliest musicians to record with Blue Note. According to Alice White, “hipness is a series of external styles that affect behaviors and express a certain philosophy”, for Bebop, it was going against the grain of bands being bigger and reaching for mainstream success in a society that was not willing to offer them the life they deserved as American citizens due to racism.

Politicization of Music

Music becomes political in regards to who is producing the songs and what genre they stand for. Being able to create and be a part of a new craft is no easy task as it can fail because of public reception. New music that strays from popularity is produced underground where the public cannot see and judge when the piece is different. An artist only looks to work with others of the same liking because what they have to offer has a meaning to them and need others to see that and turn it into a philosophy. Blue Note’s goal of producing “hip” music is what drew artists of the Bebop movement to them because the new thing was subcultures that wanted the “realness” of their predecessors but took their focus to present worldview issues or trends. Most record labels have controls over what kind of music an artist can make and dismiss what they do not want or agree with, but Lion and Wolfe were all for having a hand in the future of progressive music, and it was better to establish that by allowing the progressive musicians do what they please as they were the creators. Utilizing self-expression and nonconformity to make into art form enables an artist to relay their message to listeners; in this case, Bebop was the outlet to revive black expression that Jazz music did, but more detailed in giving something for people to sit and listen to rather than dance and move on to the next best thing. Bebop was all about not forgetting where they came from and knowing where they were going or want to be.


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