The Roots of Rock Music Instrumentation in Bebop Jazz

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Genealogies of rock music usually trace its roots to blues and country music.

But, both of these genres were heavily influenced by jazz music. One aspect of jazz particularly effected other popular music genres – its instrumentation. Jazz bands established the template for the size and instrumental composition of a musical group which other genres followed.

Prewar jazz music, during the swing era, was primarily performed by large, “big” bands, sometimes referred to as orchestras. Big bands were grounded in a rhythm section, typically a drummer, bass player and piano player, often augmented with a guitarist. The rhythm section drove wind and brass sections. Some bands had vocalists who were one of the instrumentalists or a solo singer.

Swing Jazz Band Instrumentation, Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band, “Old Man Blues” (1930):

Sometimes small groups of musicians from big bands would perform after hours in small clubs. These groups improvised – “jammed” – for the sheer pleasure of playing. They might be joined by other musicians, but the ensemble size stayed small, more conducive to the intimate interplay between musicians that characterizes improvisation.

Swing jazz diminished following World War II. Jazz modernized and evolved. A new sub-genre emerged, bebop jazz. Bebop was small-group music, not orchestral music.

Although the instrumentation of different bebop groups varied, a template emerged: a rhythm section – drums/bass/piano – with one or more solo instruments such as trumpet, saxophone or guitar. That’s not to say that the rhythm section players never soloed, in fact they typically did.

Bebop Jazz Ensemble Instrumentation, Charlie Parker (saxophone), Hank Jones (piano), Ray Brown (double bass), and Buddy Rich (drums):

This template was also found in blues and country music of the time.

In postwar urban blues, a typical group would be composed of a rhythm section as described above. A rhythm guitarist might substitute or augment the pianist. The rhythm section often backed a vocalist, lead guitarist or harmonica player, or a vocalist who also played lead guitar or harmonica.

Postwar Urban Blues Band Instrumentation, Little Walter, “Jump”:

Early country music groups also followed this template. Steel guitars and fiddles substituted for saxophones and trumpets, but the intimate interplay of the ensemble remained, even in boisterous performances.

Country Swing Group Instrumentation, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, “Ida Red” (1951):

When rockabilly, the earliest rock and roll, emerged, it, too, followed this template. A rhythm section trio – drummer, bassist and guitarist (who often played both rhythm and lead) – would back a singer, who often also “played” guitar (some, like Elvis mainly used it as prop, backed by a superb accompanist).

Rockabilly Group Instrumentation, Johnny Burnette Trio, “Train Kept A Rollin’”:

Rock and roll and rock followed and developed this template. The first rock bands such as the British Invasion groups of the mid-60s were typically composed of a drummer (think Ringo), a bassist (think Paul), a rhythm guitarist (think John), and a lead guitarist (think George).

To understand the significance of this template to the music, we need to go back to its origin, in bebop.

Bebop was a paradigm shift in many ways. I would argue that the most significant innovation it introduced was the shift from traditional composition to improvised composition. A bebop performance uses an existing composition as a springboard to a new, improvised piece of music. While in big band music musician-to-musician interplay was subservient to a song’s composition and arrangement, in bebop it became dominant.

Instead of a single composer or arranger creating the structure of the performance, an interplay of several performers created it. A more emotionally true and alive sound resulted. Subtle shades of life experience previously unexpressed in popular music, including those of the hip underworld of the jazz musician, were now more open to expression.

Bop introduced the notion of popular music as intellectual rebellion, a subversion of the “square” overworld.

The intimate scale of the bebop ensemble, I argue, made this new destabilizing sensibility possible. When other genres adopted bop’s ensemble structure, this sensibility followed.

Even though country, rockabilly and rock and roll returned to the more song-oriented and less improvisatory nature of prewar popular music, the best music produced by these genres reflected the aliveness and raw authenticity engendered by small-group interplay.

When rock emerged in the 60s the most innovative and vital bands – the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, and Kinks, for example – sustained this antinomy of cool hipness and raw vitality.

Rock music Group instrumentation, Yardbirds, “Train Kept A Rollin’”:

Of course, other factors probably affected the instrumentation of early rock music. And various permutations of musician lineups have occurred. Rock music has seen many atypical band forms. Rock’s precursors include folk music, with its own history of small groups.

But it seems likely that a direct line of influence exists between bop and rock.

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013




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