Bebop, Hard Bop, Post Bop - Some help please

I enjoy listening to Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, later Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Jaco Pastorius and Alice Coltrane.

But I struggle listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, early Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John McLaughlin. I can’t get a grip on what those musicians are trying to do and what I should be listening for.

I think it’s got something to do with different improvisational styles and the rise of harmonic variation as an end in itself. Charlie Parker, like Miles Davis, falls somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t.

My continuing naïveté in these matters was brought home to me recently when @brian mentioned Helen Sung - (re)Conception in the Listening Now thread. I’ve enjoyed many of Brian’s suggestions, but this one was a bridge too far. Technically the playing was excellent, I can hear that, but how is she trying to make me feel ? What are all these clever intervals and chords trying to do ? I just didn’t get it.

So I turn to you fellow users. What should I listen to that might get me from where I am to where Helen is coming from ?

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I have similar sentiments Andy. I’m not a musician nor a music student. I know what I like and I know that I can grow to like certain genres after becoming familiar with them.

To me, what is more fascinating is how enthusiastic it’s proponents can be. I lose interest in the music and wonder how the heck so many can be so enthralled by it. Here in the USA, NASCAR can be like that for some people: the spectacle of the event rather than the event itself. I see it and ask myself, “What am I missing?”

I asked Michael Lavorgna of Audiostream about this. He replied:

I’d recommend listening Albert Ayler’s /Spiritual Unity/ from
1965 on ESP Disc (and nearly anything else on ESP), John Coltrane’s late
albums like /Meditations/ or /Expression/, Miles’ cross-over albums including
/Bitches Brew/ and /Jack Johnson/, and Ornette Coleman’s /Science Fiction/
for starters.

I’ve always enjoyed John Coltrane’s recording of My Favorite Things and it wasn’t until recently that I learned how his musical style changed not long after that recording. From time to time for contrast I play some early and later Coltrane, hoping the light bulb will go off and I will “get it.” I don’t know if I get it or not but it does seem more accessible.

I probably read somewhere that Bop can be appreciated if one considers it a form of conversation that is being overheard. Sometimes lively, sometimes intimate. Sometimes it’s an argument, a domestic revolution, and we’re eavesdropping on the couple in the apartment next door or the dictator on the palace balcony. We don’t know the words to the language but the emotions tell enough of the story that what we piece together in our imagination fills in the blanks. The Bop listening enthusiasts have these great stories they’ve heard in the music, so the acclaim they give it is the kind of gossip that you can’t tell if it’s true but it sure is juicy.

Sometimes though, especially with Ornette Coleman, I listen and feel like he’s playing a joke on me. That his stories don’t have an arc or they’re like a series of haiku with a hidden theme that only he knows, that if I only listens a while longer I will understand.

I am allowing myself to admit I will probably never fully appreciate most of the Bop genre. That also means it’s adherents and enthusiasts will remain an interesting and elusive club with a velvet rope…

Edit: Listening to Helen Sung’s “re:Conception” album as I wrote. Really nice and accessible jazz. That particular conversation will end very, very well. :wink:


What’s interesting about this question is that most people (I think) have trouble as Jazz gets further “out”. That Helen Sung album is nice, but it’s straight up neo-classicism. That may mean “boring” for you, especially if the material that it is echoing is the older stuff that you’re having trouble with.

Several of your example artists had long-ranging varied careers that spanned all three sub-genres at different times, so it’s giving my brain trouble processing where you are. I think I would have an easier time pointing you in a direciton if your examples were albums instead.

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What’s interesting to me–and I think totally appropriate–is that I don’t perceive superficial patterns in what you like and don’t like. Parker, Monk, and Gillespie are quintessential bebop. You like them, not so much, and not much at all. Great. Jazz is personal. It’s not about categories. Who knows, but the obvious take is that you’re reacting to what you hear in a direct and honest way, unpretentiously.

Remain open-minded, resist categories, and keep listening. If you listen to the same stuff over and over, you’ll get bored, you’ll seek something new, and there’s plenty out there. Some of it will work for you and some of it won’t. That’s how it is for me and, I think, for most honest jazz lovers. Don’t be lazy–listen hard, try things–but don’t force it. Like the athletes say, let the game come to you.

As an extension of this, you may find, if you listen in this honest way, that the same artist can be very different at different times. I’ve avoided Ornette because I’ve always thought of him as too free–and then I found his Stockholm concert, which I like a lot. So now there’s a new artist for me to explore. Dolphy in some of his live, solo albums is brilliant and boring; with Mingus he’s transcendent.

Don’t worry about it. Just keep listening.



Thank you all very much,

I will listen to the albums recommended by Michael Lavorgna (I know and like Bitches Brew, but the others are new to me) and step through Coltrane again (I have Blue Train and A Love Supreme, need to listen the second more) as part of my remedial Bop education. @dbtom2’s recollected comments about overheard conversations are really interesting and I will keep them in mind when approaching this stuff. I suspect, like him, that Coleman may remain beyond the velvet rope. I feel a bit like the child sharing a plate of olives with his grandfather and bursting into tears; when asked what’s wrong he responds “Grandad’s getting all the good ones !”

I think I have done Helen Sung a disservice. Listening further to (re)Conception it was only the first track that left me initially adrift and after some familiarity with it that has become easier to approach.

I find it intriguing that my understanding of improvisational music is improved by familiarity. It seems that a musical approach conceived and implemented by a gifted performer in seconds can take me hours to partially comprehend. I’m not whinging about this, good art usually requires something of its’ audience.

@brian may have one or two other things on his mind at the moment, but if he was in the mood for a story I would be interested to know how he came to like this type of jazz. Was it always there ? A gradual growing familiarity ? A sudden epiphany ?

Anyone else is welcome to add their thoughts and impressions about music in these genres and particularly any recommendations for my “Bop for Dummies” education.

Edit: Wrote the above before seeing @Jim_Austin’s comments. Thanks very much for those words of encouragement. I will keep at it because in the past I have grown to love things (including but not just music) that at first were confusing and opaque; abstract expressionism being a case in point. Coleman’s Stockholm Concert is noted and will, in due course, be an attempted foray beyond the velvet rope. More Mingus before then.

I’m not sure I get what you don’t like. I get the sense that you are saying, “when it gets really out there” I can’t follow it/like it.

First, don’t worry about it - no reason you should be uncomfortable about what you like. Second, you may never like it, even if other people think it is great - so what.

In spite of that, a few suggestions:

Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come; especially “Lonely Woman”; was very out there 50-60 years ago, seems less so today. If you can appreciate that, you may appreciate some of the other stuff in time.

Old and New Dreams: album “Old and New Dreams” #2. More modern music by Coleman “alumni”.

John Coltrane Quartet: “Coltrane” (the 1962 album, not the 1957 one)

A little more out there than “My Favoirte Things”; not all the way out there. If you like that, try Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.

Don Cherry, “Art Deco”

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Uri Caine is fun, especially since he’s usually well-recorded. I’m a fan of Dark Flame, but you’ll want to know some Mahler.



I would be interested to know how he came to like this type of jazz. Was it always there ? A gradual growing familiarity ? A sudden epiphany ?

Both of my parents are [not professional] musicians, and I am too. I put in my share of hours in NY jam sessions in my late teens/early 20s, and spent a lot more time in the jazz clubs listening after I came to terms with the reality that I didn’t have 4 hours a day to spend in a practice room to keep up with those guys.

The first albums I spent a lot of time with were all pretty straight-ahead. Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Blue Train, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Collosus, George Shearing’s Blues Alley Jazz, Dexter Gordon’s Tangerine, Dizzy Gillespie’s Sonny Side Up, and a lot of Charlie Parker.

As I met more musicians, I was exposed to more stuff. One of my musician friends started doing publicity/booking/promotion work for Jazz in NY, and over about 10 years grew into one of those guys that knows everyone in the industry, and he fed me music constantly, which really pushed me. A lot of my absolute favorites stemmed from a few recommendations from him that grew by exploring associated musicians.

One thing to keep in mind with listening to Bebop is that it’s a transitional form. Not that anything else isn’t, but Bebop was more distinctly a pivot point. Bebop artists were taking apart existing, well known, popular tunes, and writing these technical melodies for them, and then improvising over those chord changes. Audiences at the time would feel a sense of familiarity as the chord changes passed by, in a way that doesn’t happen today for people who have lost touch with the originals.

For example:

  • Donna Lee (Charlie Parker) ~= Indiana
  • Dig (Miles Davis) ~= Sweet Georgia Brown
  • Oleo (Miles Davis) and Dexterity (Charlie Parker) ~= I’ve Got Rhythm
  • Ko-Ko (Miles Davis) ~= Cherokee

Part of understanding that kind of bebop is having that relationship with the original tunes so you can see the difference between what was already there and what the artist is contributing.

In a lot of ways, listening to bebop is like listening to the Roots of Rock and Roll. I don’t know many hard rock/metal fans who regularly listen to Chuck Berry, just like I don’t listen to Charlie Parker very often. When I do, it’s with a more historical/anthropological mindset.

Appropriation gave way to a lot of people writing completely original tunes that weren’t based on old chord changes. “Jazz” tunes. These were recycled into later rounds of appropriation and reinterpretation. There is this continual give and take between what is old and what is original.

For example, John Coltrane’s “Countdown” is Miles Davis’s “Tune Up”, but with Coltrane’s signature chord substitutions a new melody. Coltrane’s Body and Soul keeps the melody from the original, but substitutes the chord changes in a structured way that keeps the tune intact, but changes the harmony. Coltrane’s _26-2_is Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. Many of Coltrane’s originals from the 1950s, like Giant Steps and Central Park West are built on the same cycle of chords trundling up by a minor third then resolving down by a fifth repeatedly. Giant Steps is practically a tutorial on this harmonic structure, and his improvisation is a linearized representation of the chord shapes with almost no alteration. It is almost as if Coltrane invented a new musical technology and then went around applying it until he ran out of outlets, and then moved onto his next phase.

Part of why I enjoy Uri Caine so much is because he is participating in a modern version of the same tradition, but with a broader canon–there is structure, and layers to how that music was conceived that I can sink my teeth into. Caine builds on Verdi building on Shakespeare. And the irreverence with which he does it is brutally compelling, but also not inconsistent with what Charlie Parker was doing in the 1940s.

One example that’s a little bit outside of this framework is Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio. They have been pumping out roughly the same thing for 30 years, but without accepting much outside influence or borrowing much from the “new”. Their “thing” is perfectionist piano trio renditions of classic Jazz and American songbook compositions.

That Helen Sung album is along the same lines. Lets take apart track 1 a bit.

It’s a song called Conception and was written by George Shearing in the late 1940s, as an original. Conception is an institution built by all of the musicians who continue to contribute to and translate it. It’s not just fun to listen to, it’s fun to watch them build it, one brick at a time.

It is very difficult to make a meaningful contribution to something like Conception–we hold this sort of attempt to a higher standard. But perhaps more importantly, if this was your first time hearing a recording of Conception, there’s some context to fill in.

She’s reformatted the melody, removing the trailing three quarters of the A section and replacing it with some sparse, punchy harmony–that’s her contribution. She keeps Shearing’s original bridge–which is a significant choice because not everyone (particularly Bill Evans!) went that way. Her articulation on the bridge is distinctly Jarret-esque–to the point where I’m sure she’s listened to his version on Whisper Not at least a few times before recording this one.

Personally, I think her entry falls short compared to some of the others. It’s tough to compete with Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and George Shearing, so this isn’t really much of a negative statement.

Part of me wonders if the stuff you’re having an easier time with tends towards original compositions–which are more likely to stand on their own, and maybe you lose track of it when the musicians start appropriating and referencing a canon that you’re not as well versed in.


Thanks very much Brian and other posters, interesting and helpful comments and guidance all around. Particularly enjoyed Brian’s breakdown of Helen’s approach to Conception.

As with most complex things, I think this genre of music repays careful study, particularly gaining familiarity with the underlying songs and chord structures which people are tearing down or improvising around. It’s hard to understand a reactionary movement without knowing what it is reacting against. There is real force in Brian’s observation about original compositions being easier to approach, that certainly seems to be the case with Monk who is probably the Bebop artist I enjoy the most. I’ve got quite a few references in this thread to check out.

And I’ll also try to fret less about not getting something. I like some music in many genres, but I don’t think there’s a genre where I like everything (yes; even some Trucking songs …). If Ornette Coleman goes places I can’t follow, then I’ll be content to let him go and tread more well worn paths without feeling I’m missing out on something.

Hi Andy,

Looking back to your original post, John McLaughlin was mentioned but hasn’t been mentioned in subsequent posts.

I guess that, for most, McLaughlin will be thought of in terms of ‘Inner Mounting Flame’ and subsequent recordings. I find this work of his technically impressive but emotionally uninvolving. Reading your original post suggest that you have a similar reaction.

You might want to try earlier work - particularly where he plays more as ‘support’ than ‘lead’ - and leaves some space between the notes! Examples include some tracks on Extrapolation (1969) and Where Fortune Smiles (1970). The peak, though, for me, is his wonderfully understated playing on In A Silent Way (Miles Davis, 1969).

Also, might be worth following the route taken by John Surman (who played with McLaughlin in late 60s). Some of his later work on ECM - The Road to St ives, Thimar (with Anouar Brahmen) is very evocative - in the way that (for me anyway) Keith Jarrett makes Helen Sung interesting but a little boring.


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That’s more of a ‘When’ than of an ‘If’. :slight_smile:


I felt like I had reached some sort of milestone in my appreciation of free jazz when I could answer the question “what’s your favorite track on Coltrane’s Interstellar Space” confidently.


Ornette Coleman is pretty remarkable. The first time I heard “Lonely Woman” I was entranced. The Shape of Jazz to Come seemed an apt title. I had never heard anything like it and in some ways music has never caught up to it. By contrast Kind of Blue was released the same year and was considered revolutionary at the time but is positively mainstream today.

Check out this Slate review of the album and main track,

Coleman was a musician’s musician. The jazz press at the time sometimes ridiculed him and trumpeter Don Cherry - Coleman might have earned it by playing a plastic saxophone on occasion. But when people like Mingus and Coltrane heard him, they knew he was onto something.

I do not love all of Ornette’s stuff. But here are some suggestions:

  • You must audition The Shape of Jazz to Come and especially “Lonely Woman.”
  • Sometimes the easiest way to appreciate Coleman is to listen to his music as played by others. So my next suggestion is an album called The Avant-Garde by John Coltrane and Don Cherry. Three of the five songs are composed by Ornette (from The Shape of Jazz to Come). It’s not small praise when John Coltrane basically releases a cover album of your work.
  • Next give Charlie Haden’s (Colemans’ bass collaborator) The Private Collection a try. It’s a double album from Naim that includes a completely different rendition of “Lonely Woman.” (Specifically it’s on the Live at Webster University, St Louis, April 4th 1988 disc.)
  • Still not feeling it? Try Joe Henry’s album Scar which has Ornette Coleman on sax. He’s a bit more reined in which gives a different perspective on his work.
  • Someone else mentioned Coleman’s Stockholm concert, which is a great album. I wanted to see Ornette while I still had the chance. So about 10 years ago I flew up to SF (from LA) for his performance - it was masterful.

One other suggestion unrelated to Coleman. Give Frank Zappa’s Rubber Shirt a try for some “free” music. But there’s a trick: none of the musicians were ever playing together or working from the same composed piece. Zappa found the individual tracks in his tape vault and basically composed the song from completely independent lines.


Guys, just wanted to say thank you! So much insight and so much to discover here! I’m hardly familiar to any of these artists except a few obvious ones.
And it’s great to talk a little about music, actually. All this technical stuff is all well and good, but in the end it’s music we’re talking about, right?


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Best thread I’ve read so far here! Made my listening week. Very grateful to all contributors. I admire your knowledge and understanding of this beautiful and so rewarding music.
I’ve found Ted Goia’s book: “How to listen to jazz” helpful.

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“Caine builds on Verdi building on Shakespeare.”

that’s wonderfully evocative. now I have to go listen. question is, Macbeth, Otello (Othello), or Falstaff (Merry Wives of Windsor)?

Plus weird vocal riffs from KJ.

As has already been said, I wouldn’t worry about categories too much. I think one good way to get into bop and post-bop is to identify some artists you like and move through their albums chronologically. The two obvious examples are Coltrane and Miles, since both their careers span a lot of personal and formal development in this area. My own experience with this approach is that (1) you find a point where material becomes too “free” to appreciate easily, and (2) that point changes over time and with more listening.

Also, @brian’s long (and illuminating) post goes to a really good point about context, which I’d characterize as “The more of this music you’re familiar with, the better you can appreciate additional examples.” Jazz is generally allusive, and (like all music I guess) there are are lineages of who studied/played with whom, so context is a big deal, IMO. To me, standards are a way into this, and Roon (of all things) makes it easy and pleasurable to study up. For example, there are a bazillion versions of “Speak Low” (substitute any standard you’re drawn to here) on Tidal — listen to a bunch of different ones from various time periods.

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Not strictly jazz but tonight I’ve been listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra - The Inner Mounting Flame. I can remember as a teenager and in my twenties finding this quite unappealing, but I’m enjoying it tonight. Amazing what thirty years and a recent varied diet of music can do.

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Insightful comments in this thread. Good discussion on music to listen to in order “bridge” to the further out playing. I think it is useful to think about the Be/Hard/Post Bop in terms of levels of abstraction:
Traditional jazz creates solos within a structured song form of harmony, melody, and rhythm. The soloist will improvise mainly on the melody and rhythm within the harmonic song structure and any tempo shifts will be for dramatic effect - the chord changes remain intact and the solo always is in reference to this structure. It’s not “paint by number” - you can pick whatever colors you want, and as long as you stay within the lines, everyone can see the finished picture.

Bebop is like a first level of abstraction: Let’s keep the chord changes, but now the tempo might be so fast that you barely would recognize the song, even if you kept the melody. But you don’t keep the melody. You create a new one that has more exciting and interesting intervals. So now the “black lines in the paint by number diagram” are gone. You create your own lines, but you do them in reference to the original. Joan Miro in the 1920s looks at old Dutch Masters, develops a symbol for a" bird", a “book”, a “table”. If you know the original, you can see the context. But the new abstraction stands entirely on its own in a very new kind of space.

Hard bop is another level of abstraction: We create a head that establishes some rules to solo. Now play. There is no reference to an original, but there is still structure. And more room to explore or create melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic variation.

Post bop – Let’s let go of structure in order to explore sound. That’s what music is. Let’s use the whole palette of sound. Let’s push our instruments to new limits to create new sounds. There is no need to reference a" song". It is the sound itself that is important and the way the sounds of all the instruments blend together. When a five year old sits at a piano bench for the first time and starts to play with their fists, it’s because it sounds great to them. A few hundred years of theory on which tones sound best together aren’t so important. But knowing how to use the full range of “tones” [noise, as well as melody] to create drama, tension, release requires more than the 5 year old’s skills. And a post bop piece will flow – musicians listening to each other creating each note from the moment they are in. Not to oversimplify – not all post bop is “free”, some will have some structure, “just enough touch points to keep the parachute from collapsing”, as my friend, pianist, composer and teacher Leo Coach likes to say.

I tried to reply to the original post question “what to listen for”. Hope this is useful.