Dizzy Gillespie’s music always reminds me of Jack Kerouac. Jazz and Kerouac go hand in hand, especially bebop shit like this because it’s so very Jack. It makes me want to type in super long crazy ass wild run-on sentences on taped together sheets of paper that seem to be speed-fueled creations straight outta the Beats. I did a lot of that sort of thing in my 20s, only without the speed. I wanted to be Jack so badly, and I did tape together lots of sheets of typing paper so I could write my own masterpiece in the manner of On the Road.
I want to dig out that scroll and see what it was all about. It was written in my early 20s and was about my best friend and me, I think. I don’t remember what I called it, but I worked diligently on it every night for months. I remember not wanting to take it out of the typewriter, because that was way too much work when I had to feed it back through once I was 20 or 30 pages in. So it usually sat in the typewriter unless I needed to for something else, which I tried to avoid. I played lots of Dizzy and Miles and Mingus and Monk, among others. Jazz inspired Jack, and it worked for me, too.
Everything in this collection was recorded in 1945 and 1946, a time when the world was changing, thanks to the end of WWII. Not only were American society and politics and world affairs different, but the music industry was going through some major changes as well, specifically when it came to the technology of recording and promoting music. It was still not common to hear black artists on the radio, but that was about to change along with the way people heard and responded to music.
Blacks and whites alike had enjoyed jazz for decades, and historian Manning Marable noted that “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that jazz played a powerful role in the cultural education of millions of young blacks and whites” during the late 1940s and 1950s. Rock and roll’s popularity a few years later drew from some of those same audiences of blacks and whites who were looking to music for entertainment as well as inspiration, and, like jazz, rock provided a cultural education for its followers that helped design a new atmosphere in which racism and segregation could be effectively contested.
War rationing reduced by 70% the number of phonograph records produced, and materials necessary for radio and jukebox manufacturing were in short supply in order to aid the war effort. Once the war was over and raw materials could once again be used freely, technological changes in the record and radio industries could flourish and allowed for more widespread distribution of a variety of musical styles through recordings and radio programming. The creation of Vinylite 33⅓ long-play records and 45 rpm disks in the late 1940s revolutionized the way fans listened to music. The jukebox, not radio, was the primary manner through which new music was broken. The jukebox industry benefitted significantly from the new style of records, as they were now less fragile and took up less space than heavy, brittle 78 rpm disks. In 1946, the Federal Communications Commission began issuing radio licenses to hundreds of new stations across the United States, and within five years the number of radio stations per market had doubled. The majority of these new stations were owned independently of network affiliation and they used phonograph records, something the major networks shunned. The growing number of stations per market influenced radio programming, and stations had to find a way to distinguish themselves. Previously marginalized musical genres like country and western or rhythm and blues were now able to find their way to public airwaves because independent stations were willing to play music recorded on smaller labels.
Artists like Dizzy Gillespie benefited greatly from these changes. The bebop sound of which Dizzy was, according to the liner notes on the Savoy reissue of this album, “chief Ambassador to the jazz public,” was often seen as a confusing mess of musical notes. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong hated it, and bandleader Tommy Dorsey said that “Bebop has set music back 20 years.” Rock ‘n’ roll has roots in many styles of music, and bebop’s fast pace, unconventional rhythms, and catchy beats directly influenced early rock performers.
There are a lot of catchy songs on this album, but the two that get stuck in my head most often are “Salt Peanuts” and “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam.” Great, great stuff. Listening to this music makes me feel happy and calm, even though I am tapping my fingers and toes. Some of it, like “One Bass Hit—Pt. #2,” has a sort of loud-quiet-loud style that I can find in many songs that came later. There are many layers to this music, even though bebop’s critics felt it was plain dumb and a bastardization of what they considered “traditional” jazz; they certainly had a short-term memory, because all the pre-bebop jazz was also considered by critics to be dissonant and offensive to the listener. Every time I hear Groovin’ High I hear new notes, and I pick up on melodies and themes I had never heard before.
Thinking about these songs in a historical perspective, I see them as essentially liberating. They were recorded shortly before and after the end of WWII. People had grown weary of war, as patriotic as they were. When victory was declared, happy days were here again and everyone was ready to party and return to normal. I see this album as a celebration of freedom and individuality, yet it also celebrates the way different sounds (i.e., people) can come together and make something beautiful and meaningful. Americans had to come together to support the war effort, even though our military was segregated until after the war ended. And music is one of the most important things that can unite people, no matter what their background.
Jack Kerouac and his friends listened to bebop. They worshiped it. They ate and slept and drank it. It brought them together. It inspired them. Kerouac called his writing style “bop prose,” and he imitated bebop’s sense of urgency and spontaneity on his pages. Fellow Beat writer John Clellon Holmes wrote much about his obsession with jazz musicians, and he composed this little paragraph in 1948:
As far as bop: I have stayed up very late with Jack [Kerouac], listening to Symphony Sid (“the all-night, all-frantic one”), who plays six solid hours of bop “at your request and in our groove.” I’m still puzzled by it as music, although I hear plenty of fine things in Dizzy and Parker, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a…response to this post-war period.
Exactly. Bebop started before the war ended, but I believe its popularity increased after WWII because it was so free and easy and fun, and people needed to let loose. And Dizzy Gillespie was more than happy to oblige.