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How Do I Listen to Bebop and Hard Bop? This Author, Composer, and Saxophonist Can Help

When it comes to learning the mechanics of bebop, there’s no more monumental tome than the Charlie Parker Omnibook, which Jamey Aebersold and Ken Slone compiled in 1978. One educator described this 60-page landmark in Charlier Parker transcription as “the Bible for anyone serious about learning improvisation.” However, given its subject, the Omnibook isn’t for novices, or even intermediate players, which limits the number of people that can benefit from it. To open up the music, alto saxophonist, author, composer, and educator Jim Snidero decided to write a series of his own — one that offered an entryway to jazz without breaking your brain.

black and white Jim Snidero headshot

Courtesy of Jim Snidero

“When I was teaching, I was using the Omnibook and things like that — solos of the great players — but I found that a lot of them were too difficult for plenty of students to realize what was going on conceptually,” Snidero tells Discogs. “Sometimes they could maybe play the notes, but it was too advanced. So, I got this idea of writing some etudes that were authentic but, in general, pared down a little bit. Then, I realized if I wrote them in such a way that they’d be applicable to any instrument, they’d basically be universal etudes.” The result was 1996’s The Jazz Conception Series, which aimed to be more accessible and comprehensive than the Omnibook and remains part of mainstream jazz education as a result.

Snidero took 15 years off from authoring, returning in 2018 with The Essence of the Blues. Now, Snidero has followed that up with The Essence of Bebop, a concise manual for alto and tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, flute, and clarinet that Advance Music released at the end of 2020. “There are clear explanations of theory and practice techniques, and the soloing concepts are excellent,” saxophonist George Coleman raved in a blurb. “I highly recommend this material to both students and professionals.”

But what if you aren’t a student or a professional? The Essence of Bebop still has immense value to those interested in bebop and hard bop. By encouraging readers to understand the music’s intent, slow down their listening, and focus on the swinging, the series can help a jazz newcomer dig this cerebral, often pulse-pounding music.

“To enjoy it, you don’t have to understand it, necessarily. You have just to feel it,” Snidero says of bebop and hard bop. “Most people who listen to music aren’t able to know what’s being played at that time, realizing that it’s this chord, this line, or this rhythm. That’s something a highly-trained musician would do, but most people are just trying to experience the feeling they’re getting from a musician — the overall feeling and flow of it.”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, bebop pioneers like alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Bud Powell took danceable swing music, cranked it up to bone-rattling tempos, and imbued it with hyper-complex rhythms. In The Essence of Bebop, Snidero explains some of the rhythmic differences between swing music and bebop. “Swing eighth notes are almost always played legato,” he writes. “Swing-era musicians often put a lot of space between notes, but bebop musicians tend to connect eighths, using articulation to help a line swing.”

Bebop isn’t just a jumble of notes played athletically; it contains the harmonic beauty of classical music. “Bird loved Stravinsky. I know that for a fact,” he says. “They were listening to incredible 20th-century music, so those harmonies were not from Mars. I’m sure Bird and Dizzy could deeply hear what was going on and realized that you didn’t have to just play diatonically, for example, on a blues. You could use elements beyond traditional harmony and still swing, you know, sound like jazz.”

“Dizzy was very keen on harmony,” he adds. “He knew so much about harmony, was a great piano player, and understood, for example, [Duke Ellington’s] harmonic abstractions.” On the other hand, “Bird brought it all together, meaning melody, harmony, and rhythm. Both saw possibilities within these elements and created this great new language. I don’t want to speculate as to why they did it — I’ve heard many theories — but I think, in the end, it was just something they thought was artistic and felt it was time to explore.”

In The Essence of Bebop, Snidero also boils down the genres to their most common forms (like AABA, blues, and rhythm changes), the predominant chord progressions, scale theory, chord-scale relationships, melodic techniques, and solo construction. However, this doesn’t explain why bebop’s pioneers sped up the music so significantly — which may hinder modern ears.

“I think they consciously developed the technique, ears, and ability to execute the music at those tempos,” Snidero explains. “No one before in jazz had a technique like Bird, Dizzy, or Bud. They had amazing technique that far exceeded anything in the swing era, with the possible exception of Art Tatum. They created these beautiful lines to flow through very fast tempos and had the chops to execute them.”

Snidero recommends zooming out while listening to bebop. “Some bebop is very, very intense as far as speed is concerned,” he says. “It’s important when people listen to fast tempos to slow down the listening process. In other words, to hear it in longer chunks of time and not be going [rapid-fire] ‘1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.’ When jazz musicians play at those kinds of tempos, the good ones feel it in one measure.” Snidero goes on to snap along at half-time. “You start to feel more relaxed at it, and the faster you go, the slower you feel. Understand it in broader phrasing and don’t get caught up in a million eighth notes at a blazing tempo.”

To not trip up students, Snidero put the two fastest etudes toward the end of the series. “I was trying to figure out how to make the pieces progressively more difficult,” he recalls. “Bebop or hard bop, by definition, are going to be a little technical. But, for example, [Thelonious] Monk gave me a perfect opportunity to present something very pared-down — very much like what he would play, but with these simple types of melodic fragments. Monk didn’t play long lines; he was very percussive and riff-oriented. So I felt that blues was the perfect way to begin the series. It’s authentic, but also a way to bring people in without turning them off immediately with a bunch of eighth-note lines.”

If extreme velocity isn’t your bag, try checking out hard bop — bebop’s next evolutionary step, one grounded in gospel music and the blues. “Hard bop musicians often used arrangements to present their music in a more organized manner than bebop jam sessions,” Snidero says in the series. “[They] still used sophisticated bebop language, often to contrast the earthiness of the blues.”

Hard bop can be speedy, too, but it’s more consolidated than bebop. “Many hard bop musicians were often more straightforward rhythmically than Bird,” Snidero says. “They played longer streams of eighth notes with less rhythmic variation, especially at a medium tempo, which can make those solos a bit more accessible to both inexperienced listeners and students. In The Essence of Bebop, the material is equally divided between bebop and hard bop to give both perspectives.”

Hard bop classics — like Hank Mobley’s Soul StationWes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ — feature, in Snidero’s words, “a relaxed intensity.” This brings us to the ineffable heart of bebop, hard bop, and every other kind of jazz — swinging. In The Essence of Bebop, Snidero calls it “the most important, yet most abstract of concepts … it’s almost impossible to define, but you know it when you hear it.”

“You’re stepping on shaky ground when you try to define swinging,” Snidero notes. “There’s just a lift to it that is very alluring. There’s a unique, energized lift to really swinging jazz, and for me, a sense of joyousness. If you’ve got a band that’s really swinging, it’s completely relaxed, but there’s a precision about the time that makes it energized. To me, that feeling of swinging is the most attractive aspect of jazz.”

To illustrate this point, Snidero packaged The Essence of Bebop with recordings of pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Joe Farnsworth performing the 10 etudes. The featured soloists are himself, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, trombonist Michael Dease, trumpeter Brian Lynch, flutist Anders Bostrom, and clarinetist Ken Peplowski. (To avoid “turning people off” and invite them into the music, Snidero included some of the play-alongs in both fast and slow versions.)

“Without question, the band is swinging on the play-alongs,” Snidero writes. “It’s about as good as it gets, so you’ve got an excellent model. After getting the notes and phrasing down, [you could] record yourself with the rhythm-section-only play-along and compare to the quartet play-along, listening for [a difference in the feel of the time]. It’s all about the feeling of the music.”

In 2020, bebop and hard bop — and jazz in general — may telegraph pretension and faux-intellectualism to the average listener. But the affable Snidero, who’s been on the New York scene since the 1980s, is the furthest thing from a tweedy professor lecturing you; he simply believes anyone can love bebop and hard bop if one presents them accessibly. “There’s almost always a positive reaction to excellence, especially when it comes to the power of compelling swing,” he says.

What of the decades of jazz after hard bop gave way to fusion in the 1970s? Welcome to post-bop — the third subsection of bop, and a nebulous but necessary term. “It’s diffused, with no one defining style of jazz anymore,” Snidero says. “There are 60-plus years of jazz history since the hard bop era began, with all kinds of things that have happened, from Trane to MilesKeith to Ornette, then Michael Brecker, and that whole fusion-energy thing in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Lots of things that come under the category of jazz, so many ways to play now.”

If you’re interested in the nuts-and-bolts of bebop and hard bop, The Essence of Bebop will give you food for thought and help contextualize music that might fly over your head at first.

“I feel fortunate to be able to articulate what I feel I’ve learned as a practitioner,” Snidero says. “I owe so much of it to my friends in New York. I came to New York in ‘81 from the University of North Texas with a good background in jazz, and all my peers came from different parts of the country and knew things I didn’t know. They shared with me so much knowledge and pointed me in that direction.”

“It’s exciting for me, man, to think that someone interested in jazz and not a musician would become a better listener by picking it up and checking it out,” he continues. “That’s important for me — to lay out a few things that are core and key to the way someone conceives of their playing.”

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