Most jazz history books tell us the flow (progression) of jazz music style moves from rag time, to swing, bebop, then to modal, avant-garde, and on to fusion jazz. Just before modal jazz became the focus, we had the genius of Bebop leaders such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (aka Bird) and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (aka Diz) working hard to extend the available harmonic and rhythmic possibilities for jazz players. Their solo work moved jazz harmonies into new areas of the scale, working a an extremely high tempo, they implemented phrasing that flexed and raced across measures with a litany of sixteenth notes never heard before.
Bebop changed and grew with Bird and Diz’s exploration of harmonies, they moved the boundaries way out for acceptable notes applied to chord framework. With this freedom came the need for increased structure and serious communication between the arranger and the players to insure the players knew exactly what the plan was for the song. Harmonic accuracy was part of the goal for bebop jazz, this drove the need for need a clear roadmap to point the way through the song. In Cannonball Adderley’s words, “Bebop’s discipline means that you have to have information about the song to play Bebop.”
I have read a wide range of Jazz histories and studied Jazz at the University of Nebraska. I recall lectures at the University that discussed Miles working during the bebop years as a soloist; he gradually became unhappy with the frantic chord laden arrangements and restrictive instructions that moved from chord to chord with barely two beats per chord. He and George Russell talked often in the early 50’s about an alternative approach to creating solos that focused on the scale rather than the chord charts.
Most of the early Bebop Jazz songs I listened to (that predate Modal Jazz), were brimming with virtuosity and rapid fire playing consistent with the music style. This all changed when modes or scales became the focus rather than boundaries set by the chord pattern. One thing that I noted when I first heard the music on Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (my first exposure to Modal Jazz) was the sonic space created by minimalist chord patterns; there was so much openness (absence of notes), the songs seemed to float in the air. The scale was used as the basis for the improvisation, you could feel the synergism between the instruments, but the chords seemed to function as a counter melody to the solo. The result of this subtle change in focus is profound.
As the era of bebop pass into history, tempo was slowed down, more time was spent on each chord, the soloist was provided with time to think before acting rather than just reacting. The slower tempo and uncomplicated rhythm provided for a more relaxed feeling to the music; both the musician and the listener had time to contemplate where the music was going. In many cases, listening to the modal jazz became the focus rather than dancing to the music. For me, there is something powerful with the melancholy atmosphere, the bluesy feel, and almost classical pensiveness that is typical for modal jazz songs. Albums such as Kind of Blue often cross the typical lines that divide listeners. Punk rockers and classical buffs embrace it. Hip-hoppers and club kids swear by it. Kind of Blue has quietly added to its fan base through word-of-mouth for the last half century. There is something about Kind of Blue that defies explanation. A large part of the album’s magic and mystery will forever be approachable only through listening and feeling. It adjusted the way I see music and opened up an entire new group of musicians to my palate that I would have missed if I had not taken some time and listened.
“He [Charlie Parker] had just what we needed. He had the line and he had the rhythm. The way he got from one note to the other and the way he played the rhythm fit what we were trying to do perfectly. We heard him and knew the music had to go his way…. He was the other half of my heartbeat.” — Dizzy Gillespie