If It Ain’t Got That Swang, It Probably Got That Bebop: A Look at the Evolution of Jazz in the 30s and 40s

Rag is a Drag, Time to Swing!

Twenty years of one genre is quite a long time! Ragtime was fun for the time bing, but the music world was looking for something fresh, something new. In came a new type of jazz music circa the 1930s, and boy, did it come swingin’! Though this decade began with the Great Depression, wasn’t a thing that was depression about swing jazz, the new staple of American culture for the next 15 years or so.

Swing demonstrated the shift of jazz music from low class establishments like Prohibition gin mills and brothels to ballrooms, restaurants, and of course- clubs! 

The Cotton Club

A defining element of swing music was the ability to dance to it. Swing has a sound that was more organized than other forms of jazz due to larger groups and more music composition ti make it more suitable fir high class environments. With that, swing made it’s way into dance clubs such as the illustrious Cotton Club. The Cotton Club became popular in the “Roaring 20s” with ragtime jazz and was a prominent landmark during the Harlem Renaissance as America experienced a wave new forms of art and innovation. When swing jazz became popular in the 1930s, this led to swing dances, swing bands, singers, and more performing in high end night clubs, and only the best would perform in the most elite. It was in the Cotton Club where the music industry was introduced to some of the hottest, and for some timeless new artists at the time. 

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Fats Waller

Eventually folks got tired of the same old same old and wanted change again. Going into the 1940s, that new sound in jazz was only a hop, skip and a bebop away!

The Block is Hot with Bebop

Record companies saw how swing was a hit everywhere, and capitalized on the genre to the fullest extent. Swing was everywhere you go for a while, and many felt it was time for some new ideas yet again. 

During this time period, there became a surge of cultural and literary enlightenment in the Black community, with Black people having a greater desire to be enriched in academia. With this path of intellect many Black folks went down, Bebop was developed along the way as a response to the capitalization of swing. 

Fast and a bit cluttered-sounding, Bebop was not typical jazz to be danced to like swing. It involved little music composition and relied heavily on spontaneous expression. Bebop became very popular in the early to mid 1940s, during World War 2, meaning there were significantly less people in America to become artists and musicians. As a result, Bebop groups were significantly smaller than large swing bands, which left more room to be able to freely try new things and improvise mid song. Musicians wouldn’t just improvise the music itself, they would improvise words as well! Scatting was a form of creating nonsensical words that were fun sounding and fit with the flow of the song (here the name: Bebop).

It was a very “if you know, you know” type of situation. The culture around Bebop was very specific and there were many unwritten mandatory rules centered around its enjoyment. As Bebop being an intellectual response to capitalization of music, Bebop was enjoyed through discourse engaging conversation, not necessarily movement. Non-rehearsed gatherings of musicians where they play together called jam sessions would occur where musicians would challenge one another by attempting to outplay the other, and they’d learn from each other. Non musicians interacting with bebop would dress a certain way with cool jackets and berets. In short, if you didn’t get it, you weren’t one of the cool cats! 

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