Listening to the History of Jazz Blog: “What is Hard Bop?”

charlieparkerBy KMHD Jazz Radio host Mark Montesano

My radio show on KMHD is dedicated to a kind of jazz that started around the mid-1950’s through the 60’s called “hard bop”. Though categories can be limiting in appreciating music they are also helpful in understanding the history of music. This blog contains some classic recordings that defined that style we call “hard bop”.

Bebop was developed around the end of World War II. Reflecting the times, it was high energy and complex. In contrast to swing it appealed to a much smaller audience. Here’s an example of some great bebop from some of its originators. Notice the speed, complexity and how it compares to simpler popular songs.

Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, “Koko:”


Thelonious Monk

Hard bop was a reaction to bebop. It was designed to appeal to the broader audience that bebop lost. With the decline of swing, big bands, musicians began to cut their teeth in rhythm and blues bands, bringing that influence to jazz. Jazz began to have more appeal to audiences by incorporating R&B, gospel, Latin styles. Also the growing, black middle class made music lessons possible for more young people, enabled them to deal with the complexities of jazz. It was a perfect storm for one of the creative times in jazz history (roughly 1954-1967):

A key figure in the transition from bebop to hard bop was Thelonious Monk, who spanned the entire history of jazz from stride piano to the avant-garde with his unique approach to harmony and his deceptively simple melodies and solos. This particular song from his 1956 album Brilliant Corners features Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, Ernie Henry on alto sax and Max Roach on drums.

One of the first great hard bop groups was the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet: Listen to “Joy Spring” and notice Brown’s melodic, laid back phrasing compared to Gillespie’s trumpet style.

Art Blakey

Art Blakey

One of hard bop’s band leaders, Art Blakey,  believed that if the audience wasn’t moving to beat of the music, his band wasn’t doing their job. Notice the catchy rhythm and bluesy phrases in both the song and the solos in this rare live performance of “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers captured on video from the late 1950’s. Listen to the gospel influence in Bobby Timmons’ song and the bluesy solos compared to Gillespie and Parker’s music.

In his album Kind of Blue, Miles Davis gets away from complex chord changes and just uses scales (modes) for musicians to invent from. Bluesy, simple phrases, appealing to broader audience. His song “So What” remains popular for such reasons. This version features Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers,  and Jimmy Cobb.

Horace Silver

Horace Silver

In “Song for My Father”, Horace Silver’s use of his Cape Verdean roots to pay homage to his father’s Portugese/African roots. Notice the simple singable song and Silver’s sparse solo: always lyrical and bluesy.

The old blues song, “See See Rider”, interpreted by Jimmy Smith incorporates some gospel and blues phrases in both the song and the solos. From his Home Cookin’ album with Kenny Burrell on guitar.

More overt gospel influence can be heard in “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” from Charles MingusBlues and Roots album. Notice the gospel phrases combined with hard driving rhythm, repetitive simple phrases and complex and simple solos. Mingus’ voice is heard in the background, ‘testifying’ as if he were in church.


For further reading: Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965 by David H. Rosenthal. Oxford University Press, 1992.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.