50th Anniversaries of Hard Bop Recordings

Note: In the accompanying tables, only the original 10-inch and/or 12-inch LPs are listed. Much of this music has been reissued on compact disc but I offer neither guarantees of what remains in print nor suggestions as to where available items might be purchased. Many of the covers of the listed releases can be viewed in My First LPs 1953, 1954 and 1955.

The 21st century brings the 50th anniversaries of many recordings that were crucial to the development of the jazz genre known as hard bop and on this page I attempt to pay tribute to some of them. At the outset it should be noted that a website dedicated to this music already exists: The Hard Bop Homepage. Contained therein is a listing of over 200 of the most important recordings made during the incredibly rich and productive period that spanned the 1950s and early 1960s. It is not my intention to duplicate this compilation but rather, to focus on three years, 1953-1955, when bebop, strongly affected by the confluence of certain changes and influences, evolved into the modern jazz variant we now refer to as hard bop.

Defining hard bop is not something that can be done easily or concisely and, in this regard, I defer to the website mentioned above as well as the following sources:
1. Rosenthal, David H., “Hard Bop: Jazz & Black Music 1955-1965,” Oxford University Press, New York, 1992
2. Mathieson, Kenny, “Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-1965,” Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2002

On page 147 of “Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce,” Michael Fitzgerald and I wrote the following: “…bebop evolved through the cool jazz of the early 1950s into what would become known as the hard bop era. As the dust of the bebop revolution settled, hard bop emerged as a more groove-oriented, swinging style that drew upon influences with broader appeal such as the blues, gospel music, and the structured arrangements of the big bands. It should not be assumed, however, that this change was related to any commercial intent. In fact, the new style allowed all of the freedom of bebop, but its presentation was more cohesive and less frantic.”

In my opinion, several factors associated with 1953-1955 are worth emphasizing here:
1. The reemergence of African-American musicians such as Miles Davis, Howard McGhee, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and many others who, for a brief period, had been overshadowed by performers, mostly white, associated with a style nebulously called “cool jazz” including Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Lennie Tristano, George Shearing, Shorty Rogers and Dave Brubeck. Ironically, it was Davis’s nine-piece ensemble of 1948-50 and its recorded output for Capitol Records that was dubbed “The Birth of the Cool.” It should also be noted that as the 1950s wore on, even musicians who had come to prominence as part of the “cool school” were modifying their approaches to incorporate the compelling stylistic nuances of hard bop.
2. A return to the 12-bar blues form as a cornerstone of the repertoire (e.g. Opus de Funk, Walkin’).
3. A major enhancement in the nature and quality of jazz composition leading to a new and often challenging catalog of vehicles for improvisation that, harmonically, went beyond lines based on standard chord structures so common (and overdone) in bebop. Leading the way in this regard were performer/composers including Horace Silver, Gigi Gryce, Benny Golson, Elmo Hope and John Lewis and arranger/composers like Quincy Jones and Ernie Wilkins.
4. The “settling” of the rhythm section into a unified entity that propelled soloists to great heights without being disruptive. Particularly notable was the transformation of drummers from bebop “bomb-droppers” often seemingly on autopilot to dynamics-oriented, supportive musicians, led, in this regard, by Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Max Roach (all veterans of bebop’s formative years), Art Taylor and Philly Joe Jones.
5. The advent of the 33 1/3-rpm, long-playing record releasing musicians from the time restrictions imposed by the 78-rpm single format. In addition, improvements in recording technology and fidelity pioneered by engineers like Rudy Van Gelder vastly increased the sound quality of jazz recordings over what, up to about 1953, had been the norm. The capture of music on magnetic tape rather than the acetate disc was a major factor in this transformation. By 1951, the independent, jazz-oriented labels had begun to issue recordings on the 10-inch LP format. Many of these were collections of material previously released as 78-rpm singles but soon recording sessions were aimed at initial release as an LP. This was the standard in 1953 and by 1955 the 12-inch 33 1/3-rpm disc was the preferred medium allowing 30 minutes or more of music to be included on a single issue. 1956 ushered in a virtual explosion in recording activity that would continue for nearly another decade.

So it is my contention that the combination of these factors, and certainly others as well, led to the recording fifty years ago of much seminal and extraordinary music, some of which is remembered here.

My listings are not meant to be comprehensive and admittedly, were created subjectively based on my own listening experiences. While some of my selections are famous and influential, others are obscure and long forgotten. The reader will quickly note the dominance of the relatively small Blue Note, Prestige, Bethlehem, Norgran, Savoy and Emarcy labels during this period.

No effort of this type can be without controversy and I encourage the reader to contact me with additions, corrections and comments.