10 February 2009

Hard Bop

Last week at Rifftides, journalist and blogger Doug Ramsey wrote a short post on the complicated nature of the term "hard bop." Pointing out the difficulties in hammering out a definition of hard bop, he quotes longtime record producer and jazz scholar Orrin Keepnews, who said,
So it is quite possible that there never really was a musical style that could properly be described a "hard bop."
This sparked an interesting debate in the comments section, and even warranted follow-up posts from Doug and others. The subject of hard bop is something I have spent much time considering. My undergraduate thesis at the University of Florida focused on the social politics of hard bop. Ramsey is correct to note that hard bop is a complicated genre. Unlike bebop or free jazz, it does not represent a progression of jazz, in which new elements were incorporated into the music while other elements were jettisoned completely. Rather, in the words of noted critic Martin Williams, hard bop was a regression, in which a number of musicians reduced jazz to its so-called "roots," namely, African American folk forms like the blues, with a bit of gospel and R&B thrown in the mix.

Of course, the major problem with the term hard bop is that it was invented by music critics* and rarely used by musicians themselves (such was the case with bebop for a long time as well; many musicians simply referred to it as modern jazz). However, this fact does not delegitimize the term. Though assigning genre labels to music can in effect create unnecessary boundaries around that music, it is nonetheless helpful in understanding both the the musical and social forces that contributed to the creation of individual musical statements and the evolution of jazz itself.

So I though I would indulge myself with a longish post on the subject of hard bop. For organizational purposes, I have broken up the piece into several subposts, Ethan Iverson-style. The posts that follow are largely derived from my UF thesis. If you would like to read a copy of the thesis itself, drop me a line (davidhill126[at]gmail[dot]com) and I would be happy to send you a copy. Your comments are as always welcome.

*In his liner notes to the 1957 Art Blakey album Hard Bop, Nat Hentoff writes that John Mehegan first used the phrase "hard bop" while writing for the New York Herald Tribune in the mid-1950s.

Table of Contents

The Musical Definition of Hard Bop
East Coast vs. West Coast Jazz: A False Dichotomy?
The Racial Politics of Hard Bop
Recommended Readings and Discography

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