Hard Bop and Its Critics Author(s): David H. Rosenthal Source: The

Hard Bop and Its Critics
Author(s): David H. Rosenthal
Source: The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 21-29
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1215124
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Hard Bop And Its Critics
BOP, as a dominant school of jazz, flourished between
1955 and 1965-a decade unrivalled by any other in jazz
history for the number of musically brilliant records that
were issued. The decade's masterpieces included drummer Art
Blakey's Ugetsu (Fantasy/OJC 090), trumpeter Miles Davis's Kind of
Blue (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CJ-40579), tenor-saxophonist
Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus (Fantasy/OJC 291), alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean's Let FreedomRing (Blue Note 84106), bassist
Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CJ40648), and pianist Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners (Fantasy/
OJC 026). In addition to these magnificent recordings-and many
others could be cited-the period also witnessed an outpouring of
superb music that, while not quite up to the level of the records just
mentioned, was notable for its passion and beauty.
The foundation for this music was "bebop," a style that
flourished in the late 1940s, whose high priests included trumpeter
Dizzy Gillespie, alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Bud Powell and composer Tadd Dameron. Technically, bebop was characterized by fast tempos, complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and
rhythm sections that maintained a steady beat on only the bass and
the drummer's ride cymbal. Bebop tunes were often labyrinthine,
full of surprising twists and turns. As a style, bebop was remarkably
of a piece, best played by the small group of musicians who had
been responsible for its technical and aesthetic breathroughs.
The 1955-1965 years (which were preceded by the vogue for
"cool jazz" in the early fifties) were a time of both consolidation and
expansion. Yet the exact nature of those shifts in perspective
among jazz musicians, which brought jazz from the brave but
somewhat constricted new world of bebop into the more diverse
and expressive realm of the late fifties and early sixties, has eluded
many jazz writers, who too often have been satisfied with defining
the music by using such cliches as "soul," "funk," and "returning to
the roots."
Though the fifties were a time of renewed interest in blues and
gospel among jazz musicians, these genres represent only two
shades among many in a broadened musical palette that included
styles ranging from classical impressionism, on the one hand, to the
dirtiest "gutbucket" effects on the other. Bebop, by the middle of
the decade, was being treated as only one genre among many by
jazzmen. A dazzling little world full of velocity and the joy of
creation, its primary affects had been audacity and lucidity as
musicians broke the molds created by the "swing" style of the 1930s
and learned to think at breakneck speed. Hard bop was an "opening out" in many directions, an unfolding of much that had been
implicit in bebop but had been held in check by its formulas.
What this unfolding meant will be clearer if we look, for example, at the pianists who emerged in the late fifties, who offered a
number of approaches to their music that reworked, altered, and at
times subverted the bebop idiom. Among these were Tommy
Flanagan, Kenny Drew, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Horace
Silver, Randy Weston, Ray Bryant, Sonny Clark, Elmo Hope and
Wynton Kelly. What a variety of emotional and stylistic orientations
these names conjure up, as compared with the compact nucleus of
bebop! Though all these men belonged approximately to the same
generation, and all took bebop as their point of departure, their
styles ranged from Ray Bryant's light-fingered, Teddy Wilsontinted musings at one extreme to the starkly minimalist, fiercely
driving solos of Mal Waldron at the other, with infinite tones
between and around them.
One could take a single pianist, say, Kenny Drew, and find in his
playing many of the decade's dominant features: funk (extensive
use of blues voicings on tunes that were not strictly speaking blues),
Debussyesque-lyrical embellishments, finger-busting uptempo
solos, and multiple references to earlier styles, both the gently
contemplative (such as represented by Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole)
and the hot and bluesy (as in stride piano via Monk). In such an
eclectic context, it is not surprising that many more pianists with
individually recognizable styles appeared in the fifties and early
sixties than had been on the scene in the forties. Though hard bop
was certainly a return to the pulsing rhythms and earthy emotions
of jazz's "roots," it was much else besides.
This "much else" makes it difficult to pin down a precise definition of hard bop. Like many labels attached to artistic movements
(for example, "imagism" in poetry or "abstract expressionism" in
painting), the label "hard bop" as applied to jazz has vague implications, and the fact that it was above all an expansive movement,
both formally and emotionally, makes the term still more awkward.
Nonetheless, one might try to distinguish among the different
styles by assigning them to one or more of the following classes:
1. There is the music that lies on the borderline between jazz and
the black popular tradition, as represented by such artists as pianist
Horace Silver, alto-saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and organist
Jimmy Smith. These jazzmen, and others of similar leanings, whose
LPs and singles often appeared on Billboard'scharts, drew heavily
on urban blues (Jimmy Smith's "Midnight Special"), gospel (Horace
Silver's "The Preacher"), and Latin American music (Cannonball
Adderley's "Jive Samba"). Without rejecting the musical conquests
and advances of bebop, they played jazz with a heavy beat and
blues-influenced phrasing, which gave it broad popular appeal and
reestablished jazz as a staple on jukeboxes in the ghettos.
2. Then there is the music of astringent quality and a stark and
tormented mood, as in the performance of saxophonists Jackie
McLean and Tina Brooks or pianists Mal Waldron and Elmo Hope.
These musicians-some
of whom (including Brooks and Hope)
achieved recognition only from a small circle of jazzmen and
aficionados-also played music that was more emotionally expressive, less cerebral, and less technically stunning than bebop had
been. The general mood of their work, however, tended toward
the somber. They favored the minor mode, and their playing
exhibited a sinister, sometimes tragic, air, not unlike the mood of,
say, Billie Holiday's "You're My Thrill."
3. Another class comprises music of a gentle, lyrical bent, which
found in hard bop a more congenial climate than bebop had
offered. In a sense, such musicians as trumpeters Miles Davis and
Art Farmer and pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan were
not "hard boppers" at all. They are, however, partially associated
with the movement for two reasons: First, they often performed
and recorded with hard boppers-Miles Davis, for example, featured saxophonists Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane in his bands. And, second, the very latitude and diversity of
hard bop allowed room for their more meditative styles to evolve.
Hard bop's tolerance of slower tempos and simpler melodies contributed as well, as did also its overall aesthetic, which favored
"saying something" over technical bravado.
4. Finally, there is the experimental music, which consciously set
about to expand jazz's structural and technical boundaries. Representative of this are Andrew Hill, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane in his work prior to the 1965 record Ascension (MCA 29020).
This class would include also the performance and composing of
Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, whose inventions were at
once experimental and reaching back toward the moods and forms
of earlier black music, including jazz of the 1920s and 1930s.
Mingus's composition "MyJelly Roll Soul," for example, is simultaneously a tribute to New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton and a
successful attempt to transmute and reformulate his compositional
style in terms of modern jazz. Monk's solos are notable for their
mixture of dissonance and such pre-bebop modes as stride piano;
often the two styles are playfully juxtaposed. These two musicians,
by influencing and challenging those discussed above, kept hard
bop from stagnating. Their performance, even at its most volcanic,
was informed by a sense of thoughtful searching.
It should be noted, of course, that, depending upon the occasion, artists may have fitted into any one or more of the classes
suggested above. Trumpeter Lee Morgan, for example, came close
to black pop music on his juke-box hit "The Sidewinder" (Blue
Note 84157), created a solo of unmatched ferocity on "Caribbean
Fire" (saxophonist Joe Henderson's ModeforJoe, Blue Note 84227),
and showed his ability in handling shifting tempos and modal
harmonies in a somewhat avant-garde context on trombonist
Grachan Moncur III's "Air Raid" (Evolution, Blue Note 84153).
Despite Morgan's dark-toned, "dirty" style, which was full of growls
and aggressively slurred and bent notes, he could also play with
delicacy and restraint, as on the tune "Waltz for Fran" on his album
Take Twelve (Prestige 2510).
Nor is hard bop dead today, at least not in the sense that New
Orleans jazz is dead. Recently Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers featured two musicians in their early twenties, trumpeter Terence
Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison, who can stand comparison, both stylistically and in regard to their technical skills and
inventiveness, with the hard boppers mentioned above. Though
they both have easily recognizable musical personalities, Blanchard
takes hard-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard as his role model,
while Harrison clearly has listened closely to John Coltrane's early
The years 1955 to 1965 represent the last period in which jazz
effortlessly attracted the hippiest young black musicians, the most
musically advanced, those with the most solid technical skills and
the strongest sense of themselves, not only as entertainers but as
artists. During this period, hard bop was the dominant jazz style in
the neighborhoods where such youngsters lived. Hard bop was
expressive. It was sometimes bleak and often sorrowful, but-like
the blues and soul music-it transformed those qualities both by
"getting them out" and reenterpreting them through sheer verve
and musical alertness. "Bad" in the sense that James Brown is bad,
hard bop was at once menacing and cathartic. The attraction jazz
exercised upon the ghetto's most talented teenagers, plus the relative popularity of jazz at the time, account for the astonishing flood
of creativity that characterized the era, which has now slowed to a
Despite this remarkable record, hard bop was bitterly attacked
during its heyday by some jazz critics. Even someone as sympathetic
as Martin Williams felt obliged, in his essay, "The Funky-Hard Bop
Regression," to begin his discussion on the defensive, saying:
The gradual dominance of the Easternand then national scene in jazz by
the so-called "hardbop" and "funky"school has shocked many commentators and listeners. The movement has been called regressive, self-conscious, monotonous, and even contrived.'
This was not the only charge leveled against hard bop. As the
word "hard" may suggest, the music offered an outlet-previously
uncommon in jazz and perhaps most strongly foreshadowed in
some of Billie Holiday's singing and Bud Powell's piano playingfor the darker feelings, such as rage, despair, and malicious irony.
These emotions could be, and were, expressed in hard bop's preference for slower tempos, extensive use of the minor mode, and
blues-influenced phrasing. If the popular image of beboppers
(wearing beret and horn-rimmed glasses, with pipe) suggested the
literary intellectual, the image of the hard boppers reached back to
the roots of black music, the blues and gospel. This orientation was
heralded by a sudden proliferation of tunes with titles referring to
"funk" (the term being upgraded from implying an unpleasant
odor to denoting emotional authenticity), "soul," and "black
cuisine"-for example, such tunes as pianist Horace Silver's "Opus
de Funk," organist Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack,"
and Charles Mingus's "Better Git It in Your Soul."
Many critics felt that hard bop's rage and celebration of blackness had to do with the black jazzman's hostility toward whites, and
these critics were sometimes guilty of confusing the musicians'
personal attitudes with their music. In TheJazz Life, for example,
Hentoff comments:
Among the modern "hardboppers,"there are severalmusicianswho have
played with unalloyed hatred. "This guy doesn't fit on the date,"one critic
observed while listening to a "hard bop" session. "He doesn't hate
In terms of the present discussion, this anonymous remark
would seem to refer to a recording session involving a band whose
music was rather aggressive, but whose personnel included one
musician of lyrical bent. The comment gives rise to a number of
questions. Though fury is certainly an element in much hard bop,
is hatred, which involves an attitude toward a specific
object, something that can be expressed in instrumental music? Jazz has been a
battlefield for racial hostilities ever since its beginnings; is this
even today, racially mixed ensembles are rare? As Hentoff and
others have pointed out, jazz is to be counted
among the more
integrated spheres of American life; was this truer in the 1960s
than it is today?
It is commonly known that black musicians have resented the
fact that whites have made more money in
playing watered-down
versions of black music then have the black musicians themselves.
Have the whites benefitted from racial discrimination and from the
white public's preference for blander sounds? What is due those
who are jazz's real geniuses and innovators? How does one account
for the relative success of bandleader Paul Whiteman as
to Fletcher Henderson, or Benny Goodman as compared to Count
Basie, or, in modern jazz, of pianist Dave Brubeck in comparison to
Bud Powell?
Most white jazzmen are not rich, however, and after devoting
years to jazz, often with scant economic rewards, they may naturally
feel abused when attacked by contemptuous and resentful black
jazzmen. Jazz critics, most of whom are white, have to put up with
more abuse from those they write about than do, say, literary or art
critics, and their comments generally are taken more personally by
jazzmen. Of all the generations of jazz musicians to date, those of
the 1960s-the hard boppers and the free jazz practitioners-have
had the reputation of being the most hostile. How much did this
have to do with the critics' evaluation of their music, such as stated
in the comment cited by Hentoff?
In the 1955-1965 period, Downbeat was the most widely read
jazz periodical in the United States. Its reviewing staff included a
number of critics whose views of hard bop verged on the hysterical,
and with incomprehensible perversity, Downbeatpersisted in assigning many of the best hard bop records to such critics for review.
Take, for example, Art Blakey's The Big Beat (Blue Note 84029),
with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Bobby
Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass. The record bristles
with relentlessly exuberant invention, epitomizing jazz's blend of
youthful defiance, high spirits, and emotional self-exposure
(among other things, it offers our first chance to hear Wayne
Shorter's fiery brass anthems). The review of this recording is so
short and dismissive that it is worth quoting in full:
Except for the opening ensemble on PaperMoon,this is merely a repetition
of material that has been gone over time and time again by the Jazz
Messengersand other groups. The general atmosphere is typified by Dat
Dere, which is a mechanical repeat of something that was better the first
time around. Morgan, Shorter, and Blakey live up to average expectations.3
Another record assigned to a Downbeat critic at about the same
time was Jackie McLean's Capuchin Swing (Blue Note 84038), with
Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Walter Bishop, Jr., on piano, Paul
Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. While not up to the
level of The Big Beat, Capuchin Swing did showcase a saxophonist
whose searing tone and ardent delivery, backed up by some of the
solidest swingers in jazz, raised virtually all his solos above the level
of the commonplace to the exalted. The following review reveals an
antipathy (perhaps unconscious) not only towards the music
played, but also towards the musicians themselves:
The men involved in this set are all capable musicians, and they have
turned in a capablejob. The only trouble is that it isn't very interesting.
None of the musicians is sufficiently distinctive to lift a routine group of
pieces from the level of the routine. McLean plays a good solo on "Condition Blue," but spoils it by staying on far too long. On other pieces he is
inclined toward a shrill monotone. Mitchell blows his usual crisp phrases,
but they lead nowhere. Bishop, a chomping, milling pianist, is given a full
solo outing on "Don't Blame Me," which is pleasant but, like the rest of the
disc, disappears after being heard without leaving a trace in the listener's
The Big Beat and CapuchinSwing were given two stars, Downbeat's
"fair" rating. Some idea of the jazz-critic fraternity's general tastes
can be obtained by noting which records were given four-and-ahalf or five stars in the same issue of Downbeat that contained the
McLean review: pianist-composer John Lewis's The Golden Striker,
baritone saxophonist-composer Gerry Mulligan's The ConcertJazz
Band, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer's TheBlues Hot and Cold, and the
Third Stream Music of the Modern Jazz Quartet and composer
Gunther Schuller. Of these four records, three place at least as
much emphasis on writing as on improvising (in contrast to hard
bop): Third Stream Music is an attempt to fuse jazz and classical
music by combining jazz soloing and classically-influenced
orchestration; The Golden Striker is a collection of John Lewis's delicate
compositions; and the Mulligan work features his arrangements
for big band. All four project an amiable, civilized mood that is a
far cry from the emotional urgency of most hard bop. Moreover,
Schuller's disc is a self-conscious effort to project jazz into a particular future that he had in mind, which would bring about a union of
jazz and classical music. Perhaps this is what appealed to the reviewer's "historical sense."
Jazz critics frequently have been better at, and more interested
in, constructing historical schemata than at analyzing the work of
individual jazz musicians. Consider the case, for example, of Coleman Hawkins, who established the tenor sax as a major jazz
instrument, and Lester Young,(who foreshadowed and influenced
bebop's "advances" in his use of flexible phrasing that often flowed
across bar lines and of "complex" harmonies; they always have
been given more attention by the critics than Ben Webster. Was this
because Webster's uniqueness lay more in such subtle areas as
timbre, delivery, and rhythmic sense than in obvious "breakthroughs" like Young's or Hawkins's? Nonetheless, it is generally
agreed-at least among musicians-that Webster was as "great" as
Hawkins and Young.
If there seemed to be a kind of prissy
squeamishness about
high-voltage jazz among certain critics, hard boppers were soon
getting it from another angle: the champions (black and white) of
free jazz. In the early sixties, for example, a critic wrote in a review
of Into the Hot (MCA 29034), a record Gil Evans used to showcase
pianist Cecil Taylor and composer Johnny Carisi:
Taylor and [Coleman]do not have to worry about the meaninglessantics
of a Cannonball Adderley when there is Coltrane's continuous public
confession spelling out how close to oblivionmusicianslike Cannonball(or
Art Blakey or Bobby Timmons or the Jazztet) had brought jazz.5
My purpose here certainly is not to put down free jazz in the
early sixties, which in any case was nearly as broad a movement as
hard bop. Ornette Coleman's blues-drenched sax playing, for example, is almost at the opposite pole from Taylor's piano work,
which was, and remains, heavily influenced by composers like Bartok and Messiaen. Sometimes free jazz was little more than incoherent noise; at other times it could be music of startling beauty and
originality. But to dismiss as "meaningless antics" the music of
Adderley, Blakey and Timmons is unjust, and, even if it were true,
would not make free jazz any better or worse.
Unfortunately, hard bop has had many detractors and few
articulate defenders; and perhaps for this reason, many critical
opinions have come to be accepted as received wisdom. By the late
1970s, hard bop no longer presented the menace it had posed in its
glory days, but some of the derogatory cliches lingered on:
The hard bop style was exhausted [by 1960], worn out by overuse.... The
central problem was a lack of musicalintelligence,a failure of imagination
on the part of players in the style.6
But that wasn't true! Hard bop was just hitting its stride in 1960.
One thinks of such younger musicians as trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, saxophonists Joe Henderson and Jimmy
Woods, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianists Cedar Walton
and Andrew Hill, and drummers Joe Chambers and Billy Higgins.
In addition to these "new stars," many older hard boppers produced their best work after 1960s; among them, saxophonists
Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Harold Land, and Booker Ervin and
pianists Freddie Redd and Elmo Hope.
Hard bop needed, and it got, a kind of second wind in the early
sixties. This, to a certain extent, came about because of Ornette
Coleman's rejection of conventional chord changes in favor of solos
determined by their own internal melodic logic, but it had far more
to do with developments within the music. Miles Davis's Kind of
Blue, and Coltrane's work on My Favorite Things (Atlantic SD-1361)
and Live at the Village Vanguard (MCA 29009) opened up new
harmonic areas based on modal improvisation rather than chord
sequences. Monk and Davis made significant contributions also
with their practice of using silence as a structural and dramatic
element, and as did Mingus, with his proclivity for frequent shifts
of mood and tempo within a single piece. All these things stimu-
lated young jazzmen to extend themselves-plus the fact that hard
bop in the early sixties continued to attract a far larger percentage
of the most gifted young black musicians than did free jazz. These
factors at least partly account for the school's revitalization at that
Hard bop has showed considerable staying power; many "new
releases" in record stores today are actually reissues of sides cut
during the 1955-1965 years, and most of these are hard bop dates.
Indeed, for many listeners hard bop and jazz have become virtually
synonymous. When most fans think of jazz, they think of hard
bop's mixture of hip "street attitudes" and a kind of hard-boiled
melancholy. Some critics, however, are still lagging behind, as one
commentator notes:
Because so many of them werejazz snobs, the criticsof the late fifties and
early sixtiestended to look askanceat music that openly advertisedits blues
and gospel roots.7
Whatever the reason for the critics' rejection of hard bop in the
past, it is surely time for a reassessment of one of jazz's most
splendid decades. Hard bop has received less scholarly attention
than any other genre of jazz. It is time to rectify this omission and
to celebrate an era of extraordinary musical abundance.
New York City
1. TheArt ofJazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 233. Williams cites no examples.
2. (New York: Dial Press, 1961), 140.
3. downbeat27 (13 October 1960): 35. Both this review and the following
one were written by John S. Wilson.
4. downbeat28 (2 February 1961): 36, 37.
5. Leroi Jones, BlackMusic (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 107.
6. James Lincoln Collier,TheMakingofJazz;A Comprehensive
History(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 452.
7. Robert Palmer, liner notes to TheComplete