Bebop [bee-bop] or bop is a style of jazz characterized by fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation based on the combination of harmonic structure and melody. It was developed in the early and mid-1940s. It first surfaced in musicians’ argot some time during the first two years of American involvement in WWII. This style of jazz ultimately became synonymous with modern jazz, as either category reached a certain final maturity in the 1960s.

The word ‘bebop’ is usually stated to be nonsense syllables which were generated in scat singing, and is supposed to have been first attested in 1928. One speculation is that it was a term used by Charlie Christian, because it sounded like something he hummed along with his playing. Dizzy Gillespie tells that the audiences coined the name after hearing him scat the then-nameless tunes to his players and the press ultimately picked it up, using it as an official term. However, possibly the most plausible theory is that it derives from the cry of ‘Arriba! Arriba!’ used by Latin American bandleaders of the period to encourage their bands. This squares with the fact that, originally, the terms ‘bebop’ and ‘rebop’ were used interchangeably.

While the swing music popular in the 40’s tended to feature orchestrated big band arrangements, bebop music highlighted improvisation. Typically, a theme (a ‘head,’ often the main melody of a pop or jazz standard of the swing era) would be presented together at the beginning and the end of each piece, with improvisational solos based on the chords of the tune. Thus, the majority of a song in bebop style would be improvisation, the only threads holding the work together being the underlying harmonies played by the rhythm section. Sometimes improvisation included references to the original melody or to other well-known melodic lines (‘allusions,’ or ‘riffs’). Sometimes they were entirely original, spontaneous melodies from start to finish.

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