By Peter Helman
In the early 1940s, during after-hours jam sessions at Harlem clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House, a group of young jazz musicians hailing from across the country began to develop a new sound, a new form of jazz music (Lott 598). Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie recalls that, during jam sessions at Minton’s, “Theloni[o]us Monk and I began to work out some complex variations on chords and the like, and we used them at night to scare away the no-talent guys. After a while, we got more and more interested in what we were doing as music, and, as we began to explore more and more, our music evolved.” (Stewart 338). In this evolution, Gillespie notes, “we were…playing, seriously, creating a new dialogue among ourselves, blending our ideas into a new style of music…You only have so many notes, and what makes a style is how you get from one note to the other…We invented our own way of getting from one place to the next.” (Stewart 340).
This new “way of getting from one place to the next,” marked by extreme technical virtuosity, blistering speed, “dissonant chords and melodic lines, tritone and other chordal substitutions, extensive chromaticism, offbeat piano accompaniment (‘comping’), walking bass lines, [and] polyrhythmic drumming,” which was played in small-combo groups that focused on extended improvisation and solos, announced itself as something different from the big band swing music that had dominated the market since the mid-1930s (Porter 422). Although initially placed under the moniker of modern jazz, this music eventually came to be known as “bebop,” or “bop”—“a most inadequate word,” as writer Ralph Ellison described it, that “throws up its hands in clownish self-deprecation before all the complexity of sound and rhythm and self-assertive passion which it pretends to name” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 1). While what bebop is, who its innovators were, and approximately when it emerged, are generally agreed upon by scholars, the questions of how and why remain more slippery. As black intellectual Amiri Baraka asks, “People made bebop. The question the critic [or historian] must ask is: why?” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 28). And although some argue that “modern jazz did not burst upon the jazz scene as a revolution,” instead developing gradually from swing techniques into something that “eventually became recognized as a different style, which, though departing appreciably from swing era approaches, was still linked to the swing era. Rather than being a reaction against swing style, modern jazz developed smoothly from swing styles,” the fact remains that the bebop revolution is commonly perceived as just that—a revolution (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 7). So if it was a revolution, what was it revolting against? Countless narratives have been applied to the development of bebop, and they often seem to reflect the views of their respective authors more than any concrete historical truth about bebop. While some theories are far afield, most offer variations on three themes: bebop as artistic freedom, bebop as political freedom, and bebop as economic freedom.
As the story goes, this moment—the birth of bebop—was the start of the movement of jazz from the world of popular entertainment to the world of high art, from dance music to serious music that demanded cultural capital and a level of respect on par with European classical and avant-garde music (Gendron 130). As Scott DeVeaux explains, quoting various critics and historians, one narrative supposes that “by the early 1940s, swing, once a vital part of the [jazz] tradition, had become ‘threadbare’ and ‘aging’; a ‘harmonic and melodic blind alley’ incapable of further development; a formulaic popular music undergoing ‘death by entropy’; a ‘richly decked-out palace that was soon going to be a prison’; and a ‘billion-dollar rut’” (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 543). Thus, according to the jazz-as-artistic-freedom argument, bebop emerged as a revolution against creative stagnation, against the “preceding style of jazz [that] had reached an impasse” (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 543).
Under normal circumstances, jazz would have kept evolving naturally, but the lure of the market and commercial success kept musicians locked into the creatively unproductive but lucrative business of swing music. Because of this, bebop is represented as a courageous revolt, not against swing music itself but against the “circumstances that prevent jazz from following its natural course of development,” the malign force of commercialism, which is assumed to be diametrically opposed to true art (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 543). By breaking free of the market, bebop resumed the natural flow of artistic development, shedding jazz’s associations with popular dance and entertainment and reimagining jazz as art music—“the implicit goal toward which the ‘straight line of development’ in modern historical narratives, consciously or unconsciously, has always been aimed,” with that line leading from the implied naiveté of folk and blues culture to “the sophistication and complexity of art,” from ethnic and subcultural specificity to abstraction and assimilation into white society (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 543-544). As DeVeaux argues, this reductively transposes the traditional model for the development of European art music onto American jazz. And by characterizing the development of bebop as organic growth endemic to the evolution of any art form, the impetus for change is seen as an aesthetic concern rather than being driven by external social context. Thus, this narrative of jazz as artistic freedom effectively depoliticizes and de-historicizes bebop, smoothing over all of its racial and political associations and the historical particularities and social realities that led to its birth, instead misleadingly constructing bebop as a traditionally modernist triumph, the victory of art for art’s sake over the lure of commercialism.
One other thread of thought holds political revolt to be the key impetus behind the bebop revolution. As DeVeaux writes, “If any movement within jazz can be said to reflect and embody the political tensions of its time—the aspirations, frustrations, and subversive sensibilities of an elite group of African-American artists during a time of upheaval and rapid change—, it is this musical revolution” (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 542). And indeed, the argument supporting the origins of bebop in a desire for political freedom has its strong adherents. In “The Modern Scene,” the final chapter of Amiri Baraka’s 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (published under his former name LeRoi Jones), Baraka provides a political model, proposing bebop as radically political and anti-assimilationist. According to Baraka, in the 1940’s “swing had no meaning for blues people, nor was it expressive of the emotional life of most young Negroes after the war,” but as the dominant form in jazz in contemporary mainstream American culture, “it had submerged all the most impressive acquisitions from Afro-American musical tradition beneath a mass of ‘popular’ commercialism’ (Jones 181). Swing had been creatively suffocated by its ascendance to mass popularity, losing its spontaneity and humanity, its sense of both communal and individual expression, and it was in turn suffocating black culture by reducing it to “platonic social blandness that would erase it forever” (Jones 181). Within this narrative, Baraka positions the beboppers as savior figures, working to “restore jazz, in some sense, to its original separateness, to drag it outside the mainstream of American culture again,” offending both white and assimilated middle-class black sensibilities in the process (Jones 181). The beboppers recognized that any attempt at assimilation was not only futile in an economic and political sense but also a willful erasure of meaningful elements of black culture, so they revolted against mainstream white American society instead: “there was, indeed, no way into the society on one’s own terms…understanding this, the young musicians of the forties sought to make that separation meaningful” (Jones 186). To combat this, bebop musicians deliberately created a “willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound,” and Baraka argues that bebop “re-established blues as the most important Afro-American form in Negro music by its astonishingly contemporary restatement of the basic blues impulse” (Jones 181, 194). As pianist Hampton Hawes remembers, “We were the first generation to rebel…playing bebop, trying to be different, going through a lot of changes and getting strung out in the process. What these crazy niggers doin’ playin’ that crazy music? Wild. Out of the jungle” (DeVeaux, Constructing the Jazz Tradition 542). Thus, Baraka presents bebop as a kind of musical black nationalism, as well as a more direct representation of the lived experience of black individuals in contemporary America. As Langston Hughes writes, in a fictional dialogue with his Harlem-dwelling character Jess B. Semple, “every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP! … BE-BOP!’…That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into those horns and saxophones and the piano keys that play it…That’s why real bebop is mad, wild, frantic, crazy—and not to be dug unless you’ve seen dark days, too” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 20-21).
While this makes for a compelling story, Baraka ascribes too much conscious political agency and too much consistency between sound and ideology to the beboppers, who rarely explicitly avowed any black nationalist sentiments. In fact, as Dizzy Gillespie says, “We didn’t go out and make speeches or say, ‘Let’s play eight bars of protest.’ We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it made every statement we truly wanted to make” (Porter 426). Trumpeter player Clark Terry is quoted as saying, “A note don’t care who plays it—whether you’re black, white, green, brown, or opaque,” and bebop innovators Gillespie and Charlie Parker “made a point of hiring white musicians for some of the earliest bop bands” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 18-19). Furthermore, while most of the bebop musicians were black, the audience for jazz was growingly increasingly white, while “rhythm and blues, not bebop, became the soundtrack for the urban black experience of the late 1940s and 1950s” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 26). As Ralph Ellison writes in an essay on Charlie Parker, “When the jazz drummer Art Blakey was asked about Parker’s meaning for Negroes, he replied, ‘They never heard of him’” (Ellison, Shadow and Act 228) Ellison continues: “Parker was indeed a ‘white’ hero. His greatest significance was for the educated white middle-class youth whose reactions to the inconsistencies of American life was the stance of casting off its education, language, dress, manners and moral standards: a revolt, apolitical in nature, which finds its most dramatic instance in the figure of the so-called white hipster”—the very people that, according to Baraka, bebop was intended to alienate (Ellison, Shadow and Act 228). Thus, Baraka’s view represents an over-politicization of bebop, a molding of the music to Baraka’s own radical views.
Perhaps the most compelling and viable model for examining the bebop revolution is the idea of bebop as a vehicle for economic autonomy as proposed by Scott DeVeaux. As DeVeaux notes, jazz musicians were not primarily modernist composers, creating art for its own sake, but rather “’mere’ performers,” forced to navigate within the framework and demands of the marketplace in order to make a living (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 9). Thus, “for the black jazz musicians of the 1930s and 1940s…mass-market capitalism was not a prison from which the true artist is duty-bound to escape. It was a system of transactions that defined music as a profession and thereby made their achievements possible” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 16). The black bebop musicians were not “self-conscious revolutionaries” but artists and members of a small, highly skilled, professional elite (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 26). And swing, rather than a simple style of music or set of techniques, was “an integral part of the burgeoning entertainment industry, a genre of dance music embedded within an elaborate network of linking musicians with booking agents, dance-hall and theater operators, songwriters, publishers, journalists, radio broadcasters, record companies—and of course, the public” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 29). The bebop revolution then, was a “decision to break, or at least to radically revise, their relationship” with this system, “an attempt to reconstitute jazz—or more precisely, the specialized idiom of the improvising virtuoso—in such a way as to give its black creators the greatest professional autonomy within the marketplace” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 27-29).
During World War Two, increased defense spending invigorated the American economy, giving people more spending money, which they in turn spent on entertainment, creating a boom in the entertainment industry. When a military draft was instituted, the pool of available skilled music professionals became smaller—and, as that pool was comprised largely of draft dodgers, they often exhibited a strong anti-authority, individualistic streak (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 247). This shortage of manpower increased the cost of labor, which in turn decreased most of the profit that swing bands got from higher fees. Simultaneously, a shortage of rubber used in tires, which was imported from areas of the Pacific southwest cut off by the Japanese, forced a shift from automobiles to trains as bands’ primary method of transportation, which had the effect of making travel more difficult and clustering musical performance in major urban centers, where bands often played in week-long engagements at hotels or theaters. Extreme segregation and racism in the music industry and larger American society made for poor working conditions for touring black musicians. At the same time, “jazz aficionados created a market, both in live performance and on recordings, for small-combo jazz, pulling the distinctive aesthetic and procedures of the jam session out of the private and into the public sphere,” and “the resolution of the union ban on recordings in 1943 indirectly encouraged the creation of scores of small independent record companies, providing an outlet for the commodification of new strains of improvised music” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 30). Thus, the high degree of professional freedom offered by the shortage of manpower, the increasingly unattractive prospect of touring in large swing bands, and the emergence of new professional opportunities led to a shift towards an alternative professional network based on improvisation within small-combo groups in a night club setting.
The improvisational language that these bebop musicians created also offered unique economic opportunities, equalizing the performer and the composer. At the time, only notated scores could be copyrighted, privileging predominantly white modes of musicianship and composing over the improvisation of jazz. But through the methods of quotation and abstraction, the beboppers were able to circumvent the institutional racism in copyright legislation that funneled money into the pockets of white composers, “a powerful strategy of economic and political resistance” (Stewart 339). As drummer Max Roach said, when bebop musicians began playing downtown clubs for white audiences,
people wanted to hear something they were familiar with like…’What Is This Thing Called Love?’ Can you play that? So in playing these things, the black musicians recognized that the royalties were going back to these people, like ASCAP…the Gershwins. So…they began to write parodies on the harmonic structures. Which was really revolutionary. If I have to play it, I will put my own particular melody on that progression, and people would ask, ‘Say, what is that?’ And we would say, ‘Well, you asked for ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ and that’s what it is.’…If you made a record, you could say, ‘This is an original.’ (Stewart 339)
The reason that the economic narrative of bebop is so compelling is that it collapses the false distinctions between artistic, economic, and political motivations. As Dizzy Gillespie says, “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival (Porter 426). Because the musicians were artists, and they expressed themselves and effected change through their art, all of their actions were, in a sense, centered on aesthetic practice. And because they were black, members of a marginalized group, any movement towards economic autonomy was an inherently political act. As DeVeaux points out, “economic issues are inseparable from the issue of race,” and “by extension, there can be no history in jazz that does not take fully into account how deeply bound up the music is in the political implications of ethnicity—the gross imbalance in power relations between the races that has kept black Americans from enjoying the full citizenship nominally guaranteed them by law” (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 17–20).
Bebop was a product of its particular historical and social moment, and that particular moment was one marked by great political tensions, artistic ambitions, and economic opportunities. As social historian Eric Lott writes, “it is impossible to absorb the bop attack without its social reference, as it is difficult to understand New York at that time without consulting the music”(Lott 597). The 1940s saw “an acceleration of migration, proletarianization, urbanization, and immersion in mass culture that had begun earlier in the century” (Porter 425). The booming wartime economy offered black Americans new economic opportunities, which in turn raised their expectations for further democratization of American society (Porter 427). When these expectations were not met—in fact, according to DeVeaux, interracial violence reached a peak in 1943—black Americans’ outrage at the continuing inequalities imposed on them by racist American society sharpened, thus fostering a sense of collective black identity and instigating the birth of a new militant black consciousness (DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop 25). According to Porter, this consciousness developed into a “worldly intellectual orientation and experimental aesthetic sensibility” that he calls “critical ecumenicalism” (Porter 425). Thus emerged a new black intelligentsia that offered an alternative to the leftist New York intellectual elite, predicated on a “collective ethos involving exploration, aversion to categories, mental acuity, group pride, and an understanding that racial categories and assumptions be called into question” (Porter 430). The bebop musicians represented the musical wing of this culture, turning the chaos and dissonance of the times into chaotic, dissonant music. The music was born out of displacement—racial displacement, economic displacement, geographical displacement—and in return, it was expressed through “an aesthetic of speed and displacement—ostentatious virtuosity dedicated to reorienting perception even as it rocked the house” (Lott 600-601). Although bebop music may not be political in the sense that Baraka argued, it functions as a reflection of the political, social, and historical moment. As Lott argues, “bebop was about making disciplined imagination alive and answerable to the social change of its time” (Lott 597). And as Charlie Parker said, “Music is your own experience…your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn” (Porter 435)
Perhaps this is why the narrative of bebop is so difficult to parse. The music emerged from a crucible of contradiction, and the beboppers wholeheartedly embraced that contradiction in their music and their culture. As Porter writes, the bebop musicians “resisted cultural boundaries, whether based on high-brow ‘legitimacy,’ race, or national identity; often rejected the generic categories that separated jazz from other kinds of music; and, at times, refused to accept the political meanings ascribed to their craft” (Porter 428). And as Charlie Parker famously declared, “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art” (Stewart 332). Parker even chafed under the label of bebop:
Let’s not call it bebop. Let’s call it music. People get so used to hearing jazz for so many years, finally somebody said “Let’s have something different” and some new ideas began to evolve. Then people brand it “bebop” and try to crush it. If it should ever become completely accepted, people should remember it’s in just the same position jazz was. It’s just another style. (Porter 439)
The very act of labeling bebop is antithetical to bebop as Parker imagines it, tantamount to crushing the source of its creative power. Bebop is the rejection of the desire to categorize, to label, to resolve tension. Perhaps Baraka was right in describing bebop’s sound as “willfully harsh” and “anti-assimilationist.” But the assimilation here is not that of the black man into white society but that of the individual into the collective. Bebop was “a soloist’s music, despite the democratic ethos of jazz,” centered on “the self-assertion of genius” (Lott 602). Through their technically virtuosic improvisation, the beboppers violently asserted their own individual creative identities, rejecting the idea that their identities could be determined for them. To return to what Dizzy Gillespie said about bebop, “We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it made every statement we truly wanted to make” (Porter 426).
In the summer of 1945, just as bebop was emerging in Harlem, Ralph Ellison was beginning to write what would eventually become his magnum opus (and only finished novel), Invisible Man (Spaulding 481). While Ellison appreciated the importance and influence of bebop, his relationship towards the music was, at best, highly ambivalent. He attended some of the early jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, and he described the music somewhat unflatteringly as “a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully formed; its melodic lines underground, secret and taunting; its riffs jeering…its timbres flat or shrill, with a minimum of thrilling vibrato. Its rhythms…out of stride and seemingly arbitrary, its drummers…dedicated to chaos” (Spaulding 482-483). A long-time devoted admirer of Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, and Duke Ellington, among others—and somewhat critical of bebop innovators such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—Ellison displayed a strong sense of traditionalism in his appreciation of jazz (Lee 45). Despite this, the aesthetic of the beboppers offers a strong parallel to Ellison’s own creative project in Invisible Man. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of Invisible Man as a “jazz novel” (Spaulding 481). But to be more specific, Invisible Man could be described not just as a jazz novel but also as a bebop novel.
In the introduction to the novel, Ellison describes his writing process: “I knew that I could draw upon the rich culture of the folk tale as well as that of the novel, and that being uncertain of my skill I would have to improvise upon my materials in the manner of a jazz musician putting a musical theme through a wild star-burst of metamorphosis” (Ellison, Invisible Man xxiii). The bebop musicians transcended the traditional jazz form by synthesizing the past with improvisatory explorations of their own unique identities, melding folk tradition and European art music. As Dizzy Gillespie says, “we had some fundamental background training in European harmony and music theory superimposed on our own knowledge from Afro-American musical tradition” (Stewart 340). In the same way, Ellison transcends the form of the protest novel as imagined by Richard Wright by merging African American oral tradition with the European art of the novel. In his writing, Ellison uses many of the same strategies that the bebop musicians employ in their music. In an essay on Charlie Parker, Ellison describes Parker’s style of playing as
characterized by velocity, by long-continued successions of notes and phrases, by swoops, bleats, echoes, rapidly repeated bebops—I mean rebopped bebops—by mocking mimicry of other jazzmen’s styles, and by interpolations of motifs from extraneous melodies, all of which added up to a dazzling display of wit, satire, burlesque, and pathos. (Ellison, Shadow and Act 223)
This description, however, could just as easily apply to Ellison’s own virtuosic writing. Just as Parker and others “based complicated melodies on pre-existing chord changes and harmonic forms drawn from the Tin Pan Alley tradition,” offering an abstracted version of jazz standards and the “vernacular blues form,” Ellison extensively uses the stylistic conceit of quoting in his writing, interpolating traditional sources and modes of storytelling while transfiguring them into a modern narrative voice (Stewart 6). For example, in the prologue, the protagonist and narrator gives an account of listening to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue” while high on “reefer,” when “the unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its pieces, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak” (Ellison, Invisible Man 8-9). After this point, the font of the text switches to italics, signifying a shift away from traditional narration and into something akin to the literary equivalent of improvised soloing. In this jazz reverie, the narrator heavily employs black dialectic dialogue, and in his drug-induced dream, he hears “an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body” (Ellison, Invisible Man 9). Next he hears a woman addressing the congregation in a black church, which draws him into a bizarre dream interlude that concludes with a direct quotation from Armstrong: “What did I do / To be so black / And blue?” (Ellison, Invisible Man 12). While the subject matter thus directly draws on both the black folkloric tradition and the more traditional jazz music of Louis Armstrong, the form of the narrative remains abstracted, improvisatory, fluid, and experimental, mixing dialogue, narration, dream, and reality. Similarly, within the novel proper, figures like the poor black sharecropper Jim Trueblood and the blues singer Peter Wheatstraw continue to represent the African American tradition of oral storytelling, interrupting the narrative to add their own soloistic voices.
From the prologue to the moment in the epilogue when the narrator says he is ready to emerge from his underground cave, the novel can be seen as a dramatization of “woodshedding,” “a term that describes the process of sequestering oneself from public performance for the purpose of developing one’s improvisational skills” (Spaulding 497). Charlie Parker was famously (and possibly apocryphally) laughed off the stage in Kansas City “for unsuccessfully trying out his new conception of improvisation only to return several months later to awe everyone with his advanced thinking and conception” (Spaulding 497). Similarly, the protagonist of Invisible Man refers to his self-imposed isolation as a “hibernation,” which he defines as “a covert preparation for a more overt action” (Ellison, Invisible Man 13). As University of Delaware professor Timothy Spaulding argues, the novel documents the development of the narrator’s improvisational voice, and “his ability to recast the circumstances around his deconstruction through a complex and, at times dissonant, narrative improvisation allows him not only to interpolate the voices of characters like Trueblood and Wheatstraw into his, but also to move beyond the aesthetic models they represent,” which culminates in “the emergence of the narrator’s distinctly modern (though steeped in tradition) improvisational voice” (Spaulding 497). This can be seen in the eloquence and virtuosity of the voice displayed in the prologue and epilogue, which is at odds with the uncertainty of the protagonist throughout the rest of the novel. Ellison writes in an essay on jazz guitarist Charlie Christian that “each true jazz moment…springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents…a definition of his identity as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition” (Spaulding 486-487). The beboppers defined themselves as individuals by simultaneously borrowing from and placing their music in opposition to jazz history. In the same way, Invisible Man documents the improvisational realization of the protagonist’s self.
Thus, in essence, just like bebop, Invisible Man is all about self-determination, the assertion of one’s own identity. As the narrator says at the beginning of the first chapter, before he launches into his tale,
All my life I had been looking for something…. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me much time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. (Ellison, Invisible Man 15)
The story that develops brings the protagonist, the Invisible Man, into contact with a series of powerful ideologues who impress their philosophies onto him. By the end of the novel—or the beginning—the Invisible Man has realized that institutional and political organizations are inherently exploitative: the black college exploits him, and the Brotherhood—a fictional representation of the Communist Party—exploits him. So he retreats from society and sequesters himself underground, rejecting dogma in the same way that the beboppers rejected labels, because “up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern” (Ellison, Invisible Man 576). And through his storytelling, through the act of artistic creation, the Invisible Man creates his own identity and conveys it to the reader. As he says in the epilogue, “my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled” (Ellison, Invisible Man 573).
Like the beboppers—although perhaps more overtly—Ellison and his narrator create art out of the chaos and dissonance of the modern world, particularly as experienced by a black man. Midway through the novel, the protagonist laments, “If only all the contradictory voices shouting inside my head would calm down and sing a song in unison, whatever it was I wouldn’t care as long as they sang without dissonance” (Ellison, Invisible Man 259). But it is precisely when he learns to accept that dissonance—indeed, to embrace it—that the act of creation, of art and of self, becomes possible. As he says at the end of the novel, “in going underground I whipped it all except the mind…And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived…Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos within the pattern of your uncertainties, I must come out, I must emerge” (Ellison, Invisible Man 580-581). The protagonist’s story is forged by dislocation, and it takes that dislocation as both its subject and its form. In fact, art seems more capable of expressing reality than reality itself: “my world has become one of infinite possibilities…Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility. Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos…or imagination. That too I’ve learned in the cellar” (Ellison, Invisible Man 576)
But again as with bebop, to look at Ellison’s novel simply as a political polemic would be reductive and false. In the introduction, Ellison consciously states, “I was…trying to avoid writing what might turn out to be nothing more than another novel of racial protest” (Ellison, Invisible Man xviii). Rather, he argues, “a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment that might keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal” (Ellison, Invisible Man xx-xxi). It is through culture, the intermingling of the artistic, the political, and the commercial in art, that change can be effected, not by directly encouraging political action but by offering a “raft of…perception, and entertainment.”
So why, if their aesthetic projects are so similar, does Ralph Ellison not fully endorse the music of the beboppers? Putting aside the matter of personal taste, Ellison’s distancing himself from bebop could be seen as distancing himself from the criticisms of bebop, which could also be applied to his work. Ellison criticizes Charlie Parker’s doomed struggle to escape the role of entertainer by pointing out the value of entertainment to music—and, by extension, to literature—in creating a populist link to the community. In this way, Ellison wards off criticism of his own work as overly intellectual or self-involvedly virtuosic. And by criticizing Charlie Parker’s status as a “‘white’ hero” with a limited black audience, Ellison affirms his own desired connection to the black community (Ellison, Shadow and Act 228). Ultimately, however, despite their differing media, Ellison and the bebop musicians share an aesthetic practice, and they both position their work as a unique artistic statement simultaneously connected to and transcending a larger African American tradition, a statement that asserts the self in opposition to the world.
But as I should have learned by now, it’s never wise to try to label bebop. As Charlie Parker would have wanted, it’s a slippery thing.
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