The Hard Bop


"We'd like to have you all join in with us on this one and help us find the groove by patting your feet, or popping your fingers, or clapping your hands, or shaking your heads . . . or shaking whatever else you want to shake."
--Horace Silver
Doin' the Thing, Blue Note, 1959.

"If you feel like patting your feet, pat your feet. If you feel like clapping your hands, clap your hands. And if you feel like taking off your shoes, take off your shoes. We are here to have a ball. So we want you to leave your worldly troubles outside and come in here and swing."
--Art Blakey
At the Jazz Corner of the World,
Blue Note, 1959.

What is Hard Bop? Well, the above two quotes from, arguably, the co-creators of hard bop, probably said it best: it is music that moves you. If that seems like it covers a lot of ground, I will concede that Messrs. Silver and Blakey were referring to music played by jazz musicians.

Ah, I hear you saying, but if any other type of jazz makes me move, does that make it hard bop? And there you see the trouble with trying to put into words what can only be heard with the ears. The real definition of any music can only be attained by listening to it. Because that is, finally, what music is all about: listening. Which is what this site is all about.

Music in the twentieth century, for better or for worse, has been preserved and disseminated mainly through recordings. Far more people buy and listen to records and CDs than actually attend live musical performances. But for jazz especially--being born at the same time as the invention of recording technology, and being something of a performance art--recordings have been the quintessential medium of preservation.

And so it is ironic that, in the world of jazz criticism, recording has been a topic that has generated so much controversy. Though a record date is obviously one important way that the musician has of making money and gaining wider recognition, the question seems to be, can one particular recording accurately represent the work of an artist who, nightly, might create something entirely different on the bandstand? My contention is that it doesn't need to. The recordings speak for themselves. One moment in time, frozen forever . . . but beautiful.

There have never been sales listings or charts for jazz in the same way there has been for popular music. In fact, the only time you'll find a jazz tune on the Billboard charts is when it makes a showing as a crossover hit, and those are exceedingly rare. So how then can I claim that these hundred recordings are the best? Empirically, I can't. The selections are mine alone, and I make no apologies for them. The sessions I've chosen might not be the best "artistic" work by a particular individual, but I do believe they best represent the essence of hard bop.

Hard bop has taken nothing short of a beating in critical circles almost since its inception. The adjectives bluesy, soulful, and funky--words that have always been associated with hard bop, and actually defined jazz when it began--have somehow evolved negative connotations within the jazz community. The feeling seems to be that this type of music is regressive, that if a style of jazz isn't continually pushing the artistic envelope it must therefore be intrinsically inferior.

The effects of this critical disdain have been far reaching. It has caused much consternation for musicians down through the years, even for some of the greatest purveyors of this music, as they attempt to distance themselves from negative criticism. As early as 1957, Art Blakey complained to Nat Hentoff, "All we do is try to play music, just basic music. Other people put names to it; I don't put names to music. It's just swinging. If we don't swing, it isn't jazz. That's all. That's all we've got is swinging. How are you going to swing if you don't swing hard? How can you swing easy? Even if you play soft, you have to swing hard. Jazz is going to sell itself; it doesn't need any names like 'hard bop.'"

Hard bop wasn't the first new style of jazz to draw critical scorn, though. The initial resistance to bebop was so virulent that it prompted Charlie Parker's famous quote, "Let's not call it bebop. Let's call it music." But even that was nothing compared to the out-and-out contempt directed at West Coast jazz. "Jazz writing of the last two decades leaves little doubt as to the critical consensus: It treats the West Coast phenomenon as an aberration-at best a distortion of taste, at worst a marketing ploy contrived by Hollywood studios."

Ironically, it was free jazz that emerged from the 1950's as the darling of the critics, and the reason why seems to contain an element of "The Emperor's New Clothes." Critics who had obviously missed the boat by panning bebop, did not want to be left behind again, and to this day have clung tenaciously to "outside" playing as the only jazz worthy of merit. To them, jazz has become a secret society of intellectual pursuit that only those with enough mental acumen can enjoy. Is it any wonder, then, that going to a jazz club today is like being in the audience of a classical music recital, sitting quietly during numbers and clapping politely afterward?

Do we really have to choose between "Art" and "Entertainment?" Musicians like Art Blakey and Horace Silver didn't think so. Hard bop was the last jazz that people actually danced to. It was the last jazz that was played on the radio right along with "popular" music. It was the last jazz to be found in juke boxes. Hard bop was the last jazz that was part of our popular culture. And yet, as far as the critical history of jazz goes, the precedent has been to simply ignore hard bop.

It's a shame, because hard bop, for all its emphasis on minor keys, is such a joyous and celebratory music. If any genre of jazz has the potential to change the non-jazz listener's preconceptions about what must, from the outside, appear to be a difficult and coldly intellectual type of music, it's hard bop.

My personal motivation for creating this site is in the simple hope that anyone who might casually look through these pages will read about an album he or she is curious to hear. And that, in listening to one or more of the albums on this list, they might become, however cursory, a jazz fan.

It is also my hope that even die-hard-bop fans will see something they have not have been exposed to before. And that, in touching upon the fringes of hard bop, they will discover how prevalent are the sounds and spirit of the music they love in other schools of jazz.

But if just one person comes to have a greater appreciation of hard bop and its place in jazz history, this site will have served its purpose. The experience of hearing "Cookin' at the Continental," or "This I Dig of You" for the first time, happens only once. I envy those who still have that to look forward to.

So now I invite you to read on and discover jazz's best kept secret. With any luck, it won't stay that way for long.


Any comments, additions or suggestions should be adressed to:
The Hard Bop Homepage / Eric B. Olsen / ebolsen@juno.com
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