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To Be or Not To Bop

 To Be or Not To Bop

by Amiri Baraka


I was into the Orioles, Ruth Brown, Larry Darnell, Louis Jordan, The Ravens – ya know, the late ’40s, just going into high school – when my 1st cousin George let me have his older brother Sonny’s BeBop collection!

I got those old Guilds, Manors, Savoys and a whole world unfolded before me, beginning with the names: Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Yardbird Parker. The names: Bud Powell, Max Roach, Klook, Kenny Clarke. The names, the language— another world had opened.

Oop Bop sha Bam (a koo koo mop!) – the language, another world. The Land of Oo Blah and Dooie Blee on us. ‘Swing Low Sweet Cadillac.’ (Didn’t one of them dudes in the horn section answer after wadie wadie wadie wadie yo wambo …. YO MAMOO?)

And from the beginning of my entrance into that world, it was Diz who was the central figure, the beckoner, sitting there looking out at me from Esquire, the beret and horn-rimmed bebop glasses. ‘To Be Or Not To Bop’, the caption said, and called Diz the ‘High Priest of Be Bop’. And that was it for me, then. All the wild stuff they said about Diz, trying to make you think this or that, escaped me. What I saw was my leader. The twinkle behind the tam: I thought I understood what he was signifying. That’s what Diz taught fundamentally – how to nut out on the square world. That word Hip! That was with it, too, from the beginning. They and I got in it, too; we were Hip, Hip cats. Cats. I’d rather be a cat than a dog, right now!

The Square versus The Hip, and I never forgot that. Even now in this square and ugly world, to be hip in a square world would make some square call you dizzy.

The Ethiopians called the Pyramid ‘the angle of success’. They called the Square, ‘the angle of failure’. The cultural continuum even across the middle passage. Like

Oop shoobee doobee
Oop Oop
Oop shoobee doobee
Oop Oop!
You dig?

‘A lovers’ conversation.’ In ‘Kush’ or ‘Nights In Tunisia’ or approaching ‘Tin Tin Deo’. We could also dig the funk of burning ‘Manteca’! Dug the circle as

the whirl
O world
the pyramid as
the rising focus
of endless energy. I
and I.
So the square, goes
no where. Like the box
we in. It might rock but
it sure can’t roll (censored censored
censored censored censored censored
no matter how high it go
it always resemble its lowest self-

And I went to work then, trying to find out what was really happening. That language, too. What’s happening? I had gotten Max Roach & His BeBop Boys. Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. Stan Getz. Opus De Bap. Thriving On A Riff. I copped Bird’s Repetition w/ Strings. Wow.

The titles of the songs drew me in further. They were so … yeh, weird. Then I dug the real high priest, in shades and another tam, looking past all of us into the hipnopocity of everything, Monk. Diz was the leader, the speaker, the political cadre, pushing the music by his playing, by his Dizness. He was His Royal Dizziness. Monk, on the other hand, was inside the deepness, the heaviness of what it was. He made no statements, no daunting alarms (yeh). He was the High Priest, but Diz was royalty.

And Diz titles always carried you somewhere up the street and around the comer where the hip shit was. ‘Tin Tin Deo’ and ‘The Champ’ were two of my 1st self-reliant purchases. Now I was in high school and could get an after-school gig.

‘A Night In Tunisia’, ‘Kush’, ‘Con Alma’, and with the Ooo Bop Sha Bams and then Woody Herman’s ‘Lemon Drop’, and Babs’s 3 Bips and A Bop, the language of BeBop became easily my own, and still to this day remains.

Diz BeBop. The beret, Bop glasses, and a goatee, don’t forget that. For a couple of decades journalists around the world would sum up the music, or make cracks about it, using that stereotype of early Diz. Bopper jokes became the norm, for alluding to the crazy, the wild, the frantic – and that’s what they called us, because that’s what we said.

The language registered our psychological expressions of our social life (and the U.S.’s). We were ‘wild’, ‘crazy’, ‘frantic’, as opposed to trained, nor/mal, static, like regular bourgeois culture. It was an emotional expression of the common psychological development of urban Afro America.

But that language was a shower of new images. Diz and Bird and Monk and Max and Klook and Bud. ‘Un Poco Loco’ was what Bud said, and everybody thought that’s what Bop was – craziness.

But like the Zen masters knew, inside Diz’s laughter was an absolute rationality. As to how corny this bullshit white-face slavery exploiting society was, we needed Diz’s assurance that it all could be laughed at. And if you wadn’t doing anything else, you at least needed to do that. Dig?

Dig? The language. Like Thelonius, you dig? It scrambled me, shot some disparate colours into my mind trying to make me understand some stuff I needed, to grow. Things, feelings, revelations, my own acts. That I was entering a higher intellectual culture, in which art was validated as personal experience.

To Be Or Not To Bop. But Diz was already Bopping. He & Bird, Bud, Monk, Klook, then Max, Miles, Sonny had created it, as a new speech, a new song. Like a dialectical expression of the new feeling the times demanded, in contrast to the careful dead arrangements the corporations had co-opted swing into.

The big classic swinging jazz orchestras had created a fresh expanded contemporary form for Afro American music. But soon the big band became a commercial and artistic jail, as it was subsumed by the commercial, largely white swing (as a noun) bands. Like ’60s jazz was co-opted by fusion.

Diz and the others had worked the big classic bands. Teddy Hill, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, &c. After working those gigs, Diz, Bird, and the others would wind up uptown in Harlem after hours, in Minton’s and Monroe’s uptown house, the black night laboratories of sound, the smoke and whiskey academies of soul, where they gave a new generation their self-consciousness.

The bullet-sharp experimentation in wailing, the sound’s language. To get the blues back into the music, to get the poly-rhythms of Africa back, to get improvisation back as primary – these were the essence of their experiments. To get away from the deadly charts of commercial swing, the tin pan alley plantations.

This was one of the catalysts for Bird and Diz and the young boppers beginning to improvise off the harmonic structure, the chords, of clichéd standards, rather than play those tired melodies.

And those terrible groups that came out of that. Diz, Bird, Klook, Blakey, Max, Miles, Bud, Monk. It was blazing and yes, weird. That was an acknowledged constant. Frantic. Yeh, we called it that. We were trying to get frantic, trying to get away from Kay Kayser and Sammy Kay. The music turned us on. And it was already Gone, if you dug it!

Our language told where we were coming from and where we were trying to go. Frantic, Crazy, Wild, Out, Gone. We were hip not square. We walked that way, the bop walk, used to dance the bop. These squares talking about you couldn’t dance to it—shit, we danced to all of Diz’s shit. We were Boppers. My father even asked me Why I Wanted To Be A Bopper. You mean, ‘Why did I want to be conscious?’

But Diz always held the paramount stature in the music. Bird was the great innovator and genius. But Diz was the leader of the whole shit. Of everybody. The speech and the song. The music and the life style.

Plus, from the beginning Diz, himself, was a musical innovator of great impact. He was a theoretician, a teacher, a performer, a composer, an incredible instrumentalist. Dig, of the two U.S. world ambassadors, they choose Louis and Diz, both the same kind of bloods, both great musicians and great communicators. No matter how jive and bloody the U.S. would be, here would come Louis and Diz, and like Louis said, I’m the real ambassador! Nobody could put them down. They were loved around the world.

Dizzy’s groups have always been signal, his big bands among the most innovative in the music.

Like Diz said when he signed my copy of To Be Or Not… To Bop, ‘For My Idol’ … Hahaha. That’s the kind of ambassador Diz was. He was one of my largest culture heroes. And so he rewards me with assuming my regard for him. Incredible.

But the Lames always purposely misread Diz, being Lames. They confused his domination over squareness as lack of seriousness. To be serious about squares one needs a gun. But in his autobiography Diz says his hero was Paul Robeson. And in the ’40s there was a whole group of black youth who called themselves the Paul Robeson Movement. And Diz was undoubtedly part of that.

The ’40s, when the ww2 made it seem, again, like there might be equality in the offing. There was a social consciousness movement that swept through the black arts as it had done in the ’20s and as it would again in the ’60s.

It was the worldwide resistance to fascism that had undergirded it. So Bop was also a conscious attempt to tear away from the grim corporate establishment that locked the music up just as it did the people.

I have always thought Bop language – Ooo shoobie doobie oop ooo OO shoobie doobie oo oop, for instance – was an attempt to respeak African language still glued in our consciousness, with our history and the syntax of African American language and culture. The scatting (which Louis raised earlier!) and the Bop talk that Diz brought – both were attempts to put the instrumental language back into vocal language, and that unknown language of the black unconsciousness was and is ‘African’ or Afro American.

Diz was always into Africa. As the titles of his compositions attest. (‘Tunisia’, ‘Kush’, &c.) Diz also hooked up the PanAmerican funk to its African origins. Diz was the one who set out the larger expression of what was to be called Afro Cuban music.

Its internationalist focus is unmistakable. Diz hooked up with Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo, Candido, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, and other great Latin American musicians to reconstruct a new Afro Latin sound called Afro Cuban music. What Jelly Roll alluded to as ‘The Latin tinge’ Diz brought all the way into full sight, bringing both the Latino and English Caribbean into focus in Afro American music. ‘Manteca’ is a classic, as is the still not well known ‘Cubana Be’ and ‘Cubana Bop.’

Years later Diz came back from Brazil with what the commercial people tagged Bossa Nova, again linking the Brazilian Samba with Afro American jazz.

Now, it’s too weird to think that even Diz is gone. Almost all the others of that generation have booked. Only the great Max Roach of the original funkateers remains – and a few of the close communers, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, who were younger and among the first disciples. There was a deep, deep sadness for all the departed – Bird, Bud, Klook, Monk, Miles – like part of myself had left, certainly my youth, and the bright unshakable hopes of my generation. But with Diz’s departure, there is not only a sadness, still not completely raised (I mean, I don’t know whether I even believe it yet. Diz might be jivin’, and he might just pop up somewhere. I heard Jon Farris play the other day at St John the Divine’s and I thought maybe Diz was somewhere cracking up). With Diz gone, it’s like you don’t even feel safe around here no more. Really, like you don’t even feel safe!



This article first appeared in print in Chimurenga 15: The Curriculum is Everything (May ’10) .

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