Correspondence: Hard Bop

Rifftides reader and occasional correspondent Red Colm O’Sullivan writes from Ireland (where else, with a name like that?): 

And here’s another frequently used term that has no meaning whatsoever: “Hard Bop”. I have NO IDEA what that MEANS (as opposed to supposed to mean).

Hard Bop.jpg
That brought to mind something I wrote for a 2000 compilation CD on the Savoy label. The two-disc album was called The Birth of Hard Bop. It was made up of music recorded in 1956 by groups under the leadership of Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. Among the players are Horace Silver, Kenny Clarke, Arthur Taylor, Barry Harris, Doug Watkins and three people who could by no stretch be considered hard boppers — Hank Jones, Ronnie Ball and John LaPorta. The essay begins:

The urge to put ideas in boxes will not be denied. Accordingly, one day in the early 1950s someone, presumably a critic, dreamed up a box called “hard bop.” The inventor no doubt intended the term to be a synonym for “soul” and “funk.” He or she may also have meant it to distinguish jazz played primarily by black people on the East Coast from jazz played primarily by white people on the West Coast. It seemed important to critics in those days to make that distinction. To some, it still seems important. At any rate, “hard bop” came to signify jazz that had rhythmic drive, leaned on blues harmonies, drew inspiration from church gospel music and was hot, not cool. 

Unfortunately for box theory, try as you will to contain music, it flows around, into and out of boxes. Strict hard bop constructionists cannot force this album’s lyrical “I Married An Angel” into the category with any greater justification than they can jawbone Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud” (the Pacific Jazz version) into the shape of West Coast Jazz. Nearly half a century later, the music in this collection swings on in the category that matters most: the one labeled “Good.”

The notes then discuss the musicians and the 21 tracks on the CDs. 

At the end, the reissue’s producer, Orrin Keepnews, jumps in with a postscript that reads, in part:

…So it is quite possible that there never really was a musical style that could properly be described a “hard bop.” However as Doug’s not quite tongue-in-cheek essay reminds us, there was a powerful music developing in the mid-fifties. I lived and worked in the New York area during that time span, so I was thoroughly immersed in it throughout its early development. I know that I continue to think of this music as “hard bop” whenever I think back on it (which is often), and when I heard it still being played by many of today’s best young jazz people, which is also quite frequently. 

…I join Doug Ramsey in not giving a damn about the legitimacy of the terminology, because what really matters is that the music itself was among the most legitimate and exciting jazz ever created. – O.K.

As always, your thoughts on this or any other topic are welcome. Use the “Comments” link below or the “Contact Me” link in the center column.
By the way, since Keepnews is involved in this post, if you think that jazz critics and writers are a dour, humorless bunch, here is irrefutable evidence otherwise.

DR, OK, DM '92.jpg

                          Ramsey                   Keepnews           Dan Morgenstern

This was several years ago, but we’re still laughing. 
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. says

    “Hard bop” was surely a limiting term, but it still had some use. By incorporating blues and gospel influences into their music, musicians like Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, et al, were attempting to make jazz that was explicitly black. In his memoirs, Nat Hentoff recalls attending the first recording sessions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where Silver told Hentoff that they were attempting to make jazz that white musicians could not play with authenticity. Hard bop tunes were very bluesy, the song titles employed contemporary black slang (think of “Dig Dis” by Hank Mobley), and the music as a whole served to reinforce the idea that jazz was created in the crucible of African American folk culture (though some critics would argue that this overstates things a bit).
    While not all hard bop musicians shared this sense of mission, there is nonetheless an undercurrent of black pride evident in hard bop – hard bop musicians were saying “I’m black and I’m proud” a full decade before James Brown popularized the phrase.

  2. Michael J. West says

    David is right in that the musicians were looking for an idiomatically Afro-American form, and despite what many say there’s an audible distinction between the hard bop of the ’50s & ’60s, and the bop of the ’40s.
    But there’s another important point, which you hinted at, Doug, in your liners. Putting “hard” in front of bop automatically implies the existence of a “soft” bop, and almost certainly that referred to the West Coast movement. But is there a racial charge there? I don’t know.

  3. says

    I think you hit the nail right on the head with the distinction between “hard” and “soft” bop, Michael. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on hard bop, and a quote I unearthed for the paper from Horace Silver seems particularly relevant to your comment. When asked about his musical tastes for a 1956 interview in DownBeat, Silver said, “I can’t stand the faggot-type jazz, the jazz with no… no guts. There’s too much of that on the present scene.” Though I cannot recall the exact context of the question, it was pretty clear he was referring to cool/West Coast jazz. The racial and gender implications of hard bop are quite fascinating indeed…

  4. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    The comments below are exactly what I’m talking about… I mean that music does sound like it comes from its era, but that’s about it. And the racial agenda and the idea of “Soft Bop” are just my hat (despite what I’m sure is an especially unfortunate – and no doubt out of context – quote from the great Horace Silver). I’ll stick to my original assertion. Thank you very much.
    I really would refer back to the end of the recently reposted Bud Shank interview that inspired me to speak up in the first place:

  5. says

    I can send you the full Silver quote if you’d like. I would hesitate before accusing Nat Hentoff of taking a quote out of context, his reputation speaks for itself.
    As for the original assertion, you are correct in observing that hard bop is somewhat of a blanket term applied by critics to a swath of jazz, but many of the musicians who played hard bop were nonetheless acutely aware of the social realities of being black in America at mid-century. Many saw their music as an expression of the dignity and artistry of black Americans, whose humanity was repeatedly called into question throughout American history. By presenting a style of jazz which was both self-consciously Afro-centric and quite popular, these musicians turned a stylistic distinction into a statement of pride and possibility.
    That’s how I think of hard bop.

  6. says

    There’s a sub-component of hard bop that some have called “soul jazz,” that tries to be more authentically black, but then there is the work of the Max Roach/Clifford Brown groups that don’t emphasize that elements quite as much. I see some similarities between Cannonball and Konitz, even though they belonged to opposite schools.

  7. Larry Kart says

    Having lived through that era, I find “hard bop” to not be a dreamed-up term at all but a sound response to a readily discernible from bop new style that was around and fresh for a good while. Here’s British critic Jack Cooke’s IMO classic formulation of the hard bop aesthetic in “Modern Jazz: The Essential Records 1945-70” (Cooke is writing about the album “A Night At Birdland”):
    “With [Art] Blakey … the high-hat … cymbal is introduced on the second and fourth beats … the [ride] cymbal beat is emboldened to match, and the various accents raised to the degree of becoming strong, lengthy rhythmic designs in their own right, setting up in polyrhythmic opposition to the basic beat. Inevitably, this is a style in which the drummer no longer functions as accompanist pure and simple but often, and for long periods, becomes a contributor on the same level as the soloist , playing parallel with him, competing with him, sometimes even dominating him, It is a style well suited to a leader, and it seems no accident that it flowered at the point when Blakey became just that.
    “Silver was building the same kind of attacking method for the piano .. and he and Blakey became a rare combination of wit and ferocity….”

  8. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    Correspondent “David”: I was thinking I should indeed have qualified my comment with regard to the venerable Nat Hentoff too, but I had just pressed “Send”. Nevertheless, it, and much that has now since been contributed addresses social questions (very real, rather profound and ongoing ones) but not, for me, necessarily musical ones (I guess I’ll admit the crucial word is “nessecarily”) – even if it is my hero, Horace Silver, doing the talking.
    I’m not convinced of an actual vocabulary that would merit a term which I’m just used to hear being used in such a cavalier and annoyingly casual way. Like I say, I do concede that this music does sound of a particular era, but must argue, rather, that it’s just a natural evolving consequence of modern jazz (Now THAT is a term I understand) the lingua franca, after all, being absorbed.
    Mr. Kart, also, with whose formidable reputation as an authority I am familliar and readily acknowledge, introduces this partial definition of a syntax or vocabulary I suppose, but it doesn’t satisfy me as being other than a description of Modern Jazz and, indeed, of an especially engaged and maybe inspiring, drummer (I’m a Jazz Messengers guy myself, I’m proud to say).
    The social arguments of the actual political realities of being black in 20th (and 21st, Goddammit!) century America are ALWAYS relevant… But still I just don’t accept this term as being descriptive of “a music” (or is it simply that if Art Blakey plays it then it’s “Hard Bop”?).
    Also, I’d hate for this just to be an East Coast vs. West Coast thing (which amazingly confoundingly really really was a huge stand-off back in the day, with even the musicians themselves getting involved: how bloody silly, as Bud Shank powerfully asserts in his original interview with Mr. Ramsey; still worth checking)… If it’s a black vs. white thing, though, how well are we doing exactly if the term still has currency?? (And, after all, I do mean as a musicological term. You dig?).
    (Actually, as I think to myself here in Dublin, and looking at my shelves, increasingly it may seem to me that it’s just a question as to what record label the music was on. No? By this standard, if it’s on Riverside it’s almost Hard Bop, but maybe not entirely; Blue Note, well definitley; and so forth).
    Thank-you, though, everybody for giving me a run for my money…
    PS.: Oh yea this oft repeated (even in Ken Burns’ thing, Gawd help us), to me, cannard, of “Gospel” and “Blues” influences converging to create a style called “Hard Bop” is not what I hear. I do, though, hear some catchy and genuinely melodic ditties being written by such distinctive compositional voices as Bobby Timmons and so forth. (So is it simply, then, that if Bobby Timmons writes it it’s “Hard Bop”?).

  9. Larry Kart says

    A footnote to my previous post: The quintessential hard bop recording IMO (in terms of quality and what was involved stylistically) is the title track of Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin'” (Blue Note, 1957). In light of what is quoted from Jack Cooke below, you’ll notice that the rhythm section (Clark, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones) varies its comping behind horn soloists Art Farmer and Jackie McLean (“two” versus “four” feel, increasing prominence of melodic pattern-making, degree of rhythmic thrust, etc.) with a near-orchestral unanimity, though it all sounds as spontaneous as can be. (The same pattern making is there behind Clark’s own solo, which is is the track’s first IIRC.) In any case, knowing what to expect, Farmer and McLean interact with that vivid, highly patterned rhythm section activity almost as though this were a big band rather than quintet, and both horn soloists are clearly inspired by what’s going on.
    Yes, the language of the soloists here is boppish, but the overall context is different — as orchestral in its way as a chart by Bill Holman — and that context in turn alters what the soloists say, leads them to build their solos to near shout-chorus goals. Of course, this approach depends on having key figures (Clark, Horace Silver, Blakey, Philly Joe, et al.) who can think and do it this way with the requisite immediacy. In fact, for all the “hardness” of hard bop, it was a delicately balanced affair, and if and when its typical maneuvers become too formulaic (or even, in our day, revivalisitc), the life tends to go out of it. I would say that Horace Silver — being who he is as a player, composer, and leader — was able to sustain the hard bop balance longer than anyone else.

  10. Jonathan says

    You could substitute the name of Max Roach in that quote and it would be more accurate, so I don’t think that really defines hard bop as opposed to bop itself.

  11. Larry Kart says

    Jonathan wrote: “You could substitute the name of Max Roach in that quote and it would be more accurate, so I don’t think that really defines hard bop as opposed to bop itself.”
    Perhaps, as to your first point; but as to the second, and sticking with Roach, the way the Roach-led rhythm section works orchestrally with and behind Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins on, say, “Pent Up House” from “Sonny Rollins Plus Four” has no parallel in any bop-era recording that I’m aware of. The language of the individual players on “Sonny Rollins Plus Four” often is quite “boppish,” but useful new habits of how to play collectively were in the air.

  12. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    I have just, this minute, come accross this on the web, said about one of my favorite musicians, the great Tete Montoliu:
    “During the 1970s, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, consolidating his reputation as a main referent in the Hard Bop movement.”
    it is merely typical of what caused me to comment in the first place. And, really, typical, too, of its actual usage and application, you see. The term itself, divisive at the very least, as elucidated now by several commentators here, certainly doesn’t help in any understanding of jazz music, I feel. How about that? Tete was, indeed, busy in those days playing with such as (on occasion) Art Farmer and Jackie McLean, as well as Billy Higgins, etc., etc. But “Hard Bop”??? (Not that bloody term again!).
    I would be interested to see if Mr. Kart would apply his definitions to any well known Tete Montoliu record…(genuinely).

  13. Jonathan Mayhew says

    I agree with Larry about that orchestrated quality. It is significant, though, that Roach is himself the quintessential bop drummer, appearing on many of those original Charlie Parker performances.

  14. Larry Kart says

    Red writes:
    “The term itself, divisive at the very least, as elucidated now by several commentators here, certainly doesn’t help in any understanding of jazz music, I feel. How about that?…
    “I would be interested to see if Mr. Kart would apply his definitions to any well known Tete Montoliu record…(genuinely).”
    I feel that the term does aid understanding when used carefully, as I think I’ve done in my previous posts (with references to specific recordings and attempts to describe what is going on there). If you don’t feel that way, so be it. I could mention more recordings and go on about them in the same vein, but your “certainly doesn’t help in any understanding of jazz music” tells me I’d be wasting my time.
    As for Tete — I wouldn’t apply hard bop to any recordings of his that come to mind because all I can think of are solo recordings, trio recordings, and recordings where he’s backing a single horn player, all of these in more or less “blowing” contexts where hard bop-like patterns were unlikely to crop up, if only because they tended to arise in regular working ensembles of two or more horns plus rhythm or in jam-session settings where most players were familiar with and fond of such pattern-making. For example, in my teens in Chicago circa 1957, if someone called, say, “Secret Love” at a session, everyone knew the kind of pattern-making that would be involved (and this would be true of a good many other tunes as well). On the other hand, getting back to Tete, while I don’t know his specific musical history inside-out, I’d say that if (as seems possible) he knew and was fond of the playing of Horace Silver and Kenny Drew, he was at least familiar with the climate of hard bop.

  15. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    Mr. Kart, many thanks, and certainly most reasoned – and I don’t want to give the impression I’m not listening to your elucidations (literally: you’ve had me at my shelves & record player), but, hmmmmn…. Your definitions are now so specific and so very particular that maybe “Hard Bop” is beginning to disappear in and of itself after all??
    Can it really be THAT tiny?
    (And, as for the differences between Kenny Drew and Tete Montoliu… well it’s hardly 2 different genres altogether, surely now…?).
    PS.: I have just ordered a copy of “Jazz in Search of Itself”.
    (Good idea. It’s a valuable book. — DR)

  16. says

    Personally I always use definitions just because they’re useful – you say “hard bop” and, since it’s a rather commoly agreed upon term, you roughly know what a hard bop album would sound like (about the definition itself, I always intended it the way David, below, does). Given that, there’s an album missing here, probably the one that made the big clarion call to the movement: the mighty “Walkin'” by Miles Davis!