Dreams in Double Time, Jonathan Leal

‘Dreams in Double Time’: When Bebop Counter-Punched Racist Violence

In this excerpt from Jonathan Leal’s study of Black American jazz, Dreams in Double Time, bebop gives the music a “new accent” and the outsider citizenry a “new language” for counter-punching rebellion.

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

Among the CDs and long-playing records in my late grandfather’s personal music collection, eclectic and piecemeal as it was, there once lived a crisp reissue of Bird and Pres: Jazz at the Philharmonic, a Norman Granz production recorded in 1946, nearly two thousand miles from my grandfather’s home in the Rio Grande Valley, nearly three thousand from Harlem, there, in the late-night glamour of a storied auditorium that once marked a heart of Los Angeles, I am listening to this recording now, seated on a metal bench in Pershing Square, a stone’s throw away from where that concert took place, baking in midday autumn warmth. Laser disc spinning, headphones ablaze, my mind drifts between layers of sedimented time, retracing routes of musical travel and noting, amid the din of overhead helicopters and the twists of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s solo on “Lady Be Good,” the energies linking generations, the sounds drawing memory close.

Listen: on “Lady,” after the opening applause, after Arnold Ross’s loping piano introduction, after the first portion of Charlie Parker’s blues-shaped solo, after he clicks seamlessly into double time against Billy Hadnott’s walking bass line, note the nested microrhythms blooming against the established pulse, every downbeat cracked and shimmering like broken glass in lamplight; note how Parker’s infectious rhythmic sensibility nudges the accompanying musicians ahead slightly, energizing them into a forward lean; note the gap that immediately follows the solo’s end, filled by a bass feature, tenor sax giant Lester Young reluctant to follow Parker’s choruses; note Young’s eventual step out, his buttery tone, his contrasts with Parker’s style, and yet his resonance with it.

The second Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert, of which this moment was part, marked one of the earliest major West Coast performances of what was by then known as bebop. It featured a now-storied lineup of musicians, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who had traveled westward a few months after the war’s end, eager to see what new dimensions of their insurgent musical vocabulary they might hone, what successes they might enjoy. Today, for me, the recording of this concert does not serve only as a link to my grandfather’s life, an invitation to try to listen through his ears; nor only as a new connection to this lettered, coastal city, long its own dream factory, its own site of radical intervention; but also as an entry point into some of the awakenings this East Coast vocabulary made possible, as well as an invitation to ask, once again, how bebop came to be.

As the story goes: Minton’s Playhouse on 118th Street in Harlem served as bebop’s physical epicenter. Founded in 1938 by owner, musician, and American Federation of Musicians delegate Henry Minton, the club quickly became the go-to location for improvising musicians to experiment free of industry sanction. In 1940 Minton hired manager and pianist Teddy Hill to run the Playhouse, granting him programming responsibilities, and shortly thereafter, a house band was put in place, making it logistically feasible to feature jam sessions in the club’s regular performance scheduling. The house band’s members—Kenny Clarke (drums), Nick Fenton (bass), Joe Guy (trumpet), and Thelonious Monk (piano)—effectively became primary voices in the new sound’s formation. Together, these and the other musicians frequenting Minton’s and its companion club, Monroe’s Uptown, pursued new musical stylings during lengthy, after-hours Monday-night meetups that afforded participants the institutional and imaginative elbow room to push one another into new sonic terrain. Drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach reimagined the flow of musical time by shifting the drum set’s timekeeping function from the bass drum to the cymbals, freeing up the kick for surprising, syncopated “bomb” beats and solidifying the ride cymbal patterns now synonymous with jazz drum set performance. Bassists including Jimmy Blanton and Oscar Pettiford explored more complicated accompanimental lines, often pulling closer to improvising soloists and thus reenvisioning what musical support could sound and feel like. Bud Powell, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk sketched out new and idiosyncratic possibilities on piano, expanding harmonic and rhythmic horizons while reimagining traditional right-and left-hand roles. Players like Charlie Christian, J. J. Johnson, Stan Getz, and especially Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker developed bombastic new soloistic vocabularies that made productive use of melodic saturation, rhythmic complexity, timbral exploration, and harmonic surprise (e.g., tritone substitutions). Vocalists like Sarah Vaughan showed through virtuosic scat improvisations and nuanced song interpretations that this new, modern style was not solely the domain of male instrumentalists. And through the form of the small combo, a performance unit more economically and logistically pragmatic than a large ensemble, these musicians were able to augment the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic palettes of blues-informed popular music with new colors, tensions, and moods, emphasizing extended solos that flouted the logistical, performance, and market strictures of the traditional bandstand.

“What we were doing at Minton’s,” recalls Gillespie in his autobiography, “was playing, seriously, creating a new dialogue among ourselves, blending our ideas into a new style of music.” At this style’s core was a new density of form and feeling, geometrically exact and spiritually inspired, propelled by hidden linkages and interplays, allusions and reharmonizations, newly sketched movements “from one note to the other.” “We invented our own way of getting from one place to the next,” Gillespie says. “Musically, we were changing the way that we spoke, to reflect the way that we felt. New phrasing came in with the new accent. Our music had a new accent.”

The musical practices Gillespie mentions transformed sites like Minton’s and Monroe’s into spaces of alternative American possibility, spaces of Black joy and trial that existed at once within and beyond the harsh realities of the American waking world—spaces where risk, experimentation, and the pursuit of new knowledges coexisted with exuberance, laughter, and sweat. Newcomers and interlopers to these sites were often thrown headfirst into the fire by regulars and their unforgiving new sound; uncompromising, impatient, and mischievous, the regulars worked at every turn to preserve a momentarily liberating insularity and to affirm, through their performances, “that old formulas were no longer good enough”—that “the morass of cliches” that had come to dominate many bandstand solo improvisations was outmoded and that what was needed was instead a more searing vocabulary, “a new articulation.”1The jam session, as escape, as ground zero, as utopic underground, became a site of personal and communal transformation, of formal and technical radicality—a space in which convivial, audaciously reinventive musical thinking lent form to frustration and glee and thus began to reshape social possibility in a city beset by racial violence and a world engulfed by war. What emerged was an encounter point, an aural meeting place in which a vast range of musical styles became raw material for an emergent, energetic, and deeply personal musical radicalism—“ New Orleans syncopation, Ellingtonia, southwestern swing, rags, gospel, Broadway show tunes, popular songs, “contemporary classical music,” the blues, as well as Afro-Cuban musical concepts. Through their experiments these musicians conjured new realities, sounding them out in local code; as pianist Mary Lou Williams once recalled, they “worked out a music that was hard to steal.”

Too, Harlem’s specificities, its particulars “as a site of both adjacency to death and alternative practices of freedom,” enabled the unique swirl of joys, urgencies, and local Black experimental traditions across the arts that made bebop what it became, aesthetically, conceptually, and sonically. “Long an ideal site through which to imagine black community within and beyond the United States,” Anthony Reed reminds us, “Harlem sits at the crossroads of a nation and world, past and anticipated future.” Amid the surrealities of war, racial violence, and resource scarcity, Harlem, as a site of safety and danger, as a nexus of not yet, too long, and right here, enabled the creation of “a sonic order that challenged white containments” and, by extension, mitigated pressures to accede to their power.

Those white containments, at once conceptual and corporeal, grew in strength and insistence during the war years, as well as in their aftermath. Fears of domestic destruction and foreign encroachment ushered in a gradual homogenization of whiteness as a racial formation and categorical descriptor, bolstered by shifting boundaries and new “possessive investments,” by a strategic, selective, and differential de-ethnicizing of historically harassed communities—Italian, Irish, Jewish, and others—which effectively hardened an anti-Blackness constitutive of the United States historically and the West generally. In the context of increasing wartime nationalist pressures to conform to an American patriotic ideal, to a national template synonymous with midcentury whiteness, then, interethnic alignments with Black artistry and experiential relation that then translated into divestments from whiteness as a structural aspiration were, and remain, at once transformative and necessary—part of what plenty of radical musicking both emerges from and helps make possible. For a time, that is, and for select listeners, siding with Black cultural forms and Black artists meant resisting the inducements of assimilation and hazarding altogether new “dream[s] of American form.” It meant converging, however briefly, on a new language for rebellion.

Jonathan Leal is an author, composer, and interdisciplinary theorist who studies the long echoes of colonial encounter. Born and raised in the South Texas border region known as the Rio Grande Valley, Leal works as an artist-scholar to create research projects focused on borders and empire, place and belonging, technology and aesthetics, and creative and political practices. (See his full biography here.)

Excerpted from Dreams in Double Time: On Race, Freedom, and Bebop by Jonathan Leal (footnotes omitted). Courtesy of ⒸDuke University Press. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.