Dreams in Double Time, Jonathan Leal

Dreaming As a Radical Act: Bebop Demands We Listen Again

Dreams in Double Time explores how bebop created new possibilities for marginalized people in the early 20th century. Bebop demands we listen again.

Dreams in Double Time: On Race, Freedom, and Bebop
Jonathan Leal
Duke University Press
August 2023

Jazz, and bebop especially, has been mythologised since its earliest days. As with so much art originating from Black Americans, a predominantly white critical gaze has attempted to explain away its complexities as the work of raw, individual genius. At best, this reading undermines the creativity, intellect, and invention involved in producing such art and ignores the role of collaboration in favour of the (almost always male) heroic musician. At worst, this reading furthers a racist and culturally chauvinist attitude towards Black peoples’ capacity for artistic expression that persists to this day.

Scholar-musician Jonathan Leal’s Dreams in Double Time serves not only as a corrective to this unhelpful (yet persistent) mythologising but goes much further, exploring how bebop created new possibilities for marginalised people in the early 20th century. Focusing on three individuals with three very different experiences of oppression during and after the Second World War, Leal provides a thoughtful and, at times, personal study that is academic in its rigour and musical knowledge while also genuinely illuminating and inspiring.

Leal, a jazz musician himself, is the ideal narrator for these (until now) obscure stories. By drawing on his knowledge of music theory and history, the text benefits from in-depth dissections of music, including that of his subjects, relating their contributions not only as individuals but to a broader artistic context and historic moment. Bebop may have originated in Harlem, but its reach and influence crossed geographic and racial boundaries.

The subjects of Leal’s study, whose lives and creative practices at times overlap, include a Japanese-American who discovered the music while interned, a Mexican-American who wrote jazz poetry while incarcerated, and an Afro-Chinese American who not only collaborated with many of bebop’s defining stars but went on to be an important community figure, creating opportunities through his work at Newark City Hall. These three figures are joined not just by their appreciation of the music but by the ways in which they, like the originators of the sound, were oppressed and othered by American society, be it through the shameful policy of Japanese internment, a carceral system that continues to brutalise and limit the lives and potentials of minoritised people, or the intersecting racisms experienced by those of dual minority heritage, in this case, Asian- and African-American. 

Leal’s style of writing is refreshing and engaging, not just for his attention to detail and knowledge of the subject matter, but for his thoughtful and appropriately lyrical reflections on music. Dreams in Double Time‘s chapters often begin and end with a reflection on music, his relationship to it, and its role in expanding one’s horizons of what is possible in a world that often seems to do the opposite. The “dreams” that Leal refers to in his title and throughout the book are these moments of inspiration that can come about through appreciating, experimenting with, and performing music. 

Leal is keen to point out the radical origins of bebop, not only artistically but socially, as well as its liberatory potential. Crucially, he writes of bebop not as an artefact of a past time but as a living, breathing record of experiences, ambitions, and possibilities. “When we listen across these stories for Bebop as a mode of radical, alter-American dreaming,” he writes, “we can hear the ways an underground’s spirit was modulated across disparate scenes and nonwhite communities, the ways it afforded a generation of young people new opportunities to challenge ‘the racial norms of the wartime United States’ by embracing unity in difference, a mode of connecting.”

Leal’s investigations into these three obscure but significant contributors to jazz music and creative practice are revelatory. His first subject of study, James Araki, is considered not only for his work in the form but for his innovations in recording techniques, namely overdubbing. As Leal writes of his 1959 album, Jazz Beat: Midnight Jazz Session, “[It] became a record of Japanese American musical crossings and one of the earliest in the jazz tradition to foreground overdubbing as a creative and radically experimental practice.”

As Leal points out, this forward-thinking approach to multitrack recording was controversial, but it would later be embraced and celebrated, as it was on Bill Evans’ Grammy-winning 1963 album Conversations with Myself. Leal explores how both artists may have come to similar conclusions about their musical practice, noting: “Araki’s own push to experiment with overdubbing four years prior to Evans’s was of the same spirit: to reveal and respond to one’s multitudes, to write from the space between ‘group’ and ‘solo categories’ and to do so in relation to others.” Again, Leal emphasises Bebop as a collective endeavour rather than the traditional narrative of virtuosic individual genius.

Community, and the kind that can be fostered through music and social struggle, informs both the stories of and Harold Wing. In the case of Salinas, a Mexican-American dealing with the racist injustices of the American carceral system, Bebop was not just music to be enjoyed but a means of forging solidaristic relationships and being inspired to write poetry and criticism, even behind bars: “like others, Salinas turned to Black experimental musicking as an entry point into understanding relation and solidarity […] he reached for his own suitable vocabulary […] attempting to write like his favourite musicians sounded.”

Leal not only turns a critical gaze to Salinas’s artistic work but also highlights his role as a jazz critic – not least in a context that then (and in some respects still is) dominated by white voices. As Leal notes: “When we read Salinas’s words in the context of what was a predominantly white, male-dominated jazz critical establishment, in relation to a largely Black musical sphere, they highlight a lesser-celebrated kind of relation: a nuanced sense of unity and difference.” 

This unifying yet complicated and dialogic aspect of bebop is further explored in the example of Harold Wing, who embodied such cross-cultural and cross-communal exchange as a musician with both Chinese and African-American heritage. As Leal writes of Wing, an incredibly accomplished drummer who played with virtually all of bebop’s greats: “to be an Afro-Chinese American Bebop musician was to deal with entwined racial and gender stereotypes in public, to navigate and improvise […] to learn to accompany well in and beyond music, to begin dreaming among others, was to start challenging these stereotypes and the systems creating them […] toward relational praxes, to begin pursuing an accompanimental ethos, a virtuosity of communally sustaining virtues.” 

The strength and weakness of Dreams in Double Time lies in its writing. While often exciting and lively, the terminologies used could be regarded as a little too academic for a public audience. Similarly, Leal’s admirable approach does not make concessions to those unfamiliar with jazz music, so his study may be better suited to those who already have an interest and some knowledge of the history of the scene and sound rather than complete newcomers. 

Dreams in Double Time is a fascinating and expansive text that not only shines a light on three of the many, many lives for whom jazz provided community and opportunity but also encourages a new reading and engagement with the music. Despite commodification and co-optation by a white establishment, bebop still has relevance today. Far from being a museum piece and the sole preserve of historical study, the music is a testament to the collective creative power of oppressed people to imagine better worlds for themselves. We all ought to listen again. 

RATING 8 / 10