February 3, 2021

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Bebop 1945-1950: The Bebop Incubators: Mintons and Monroes

February 3, 2021- Today's Bebop Era Topic: The Bebop Incubators- Minton's and Monroe's

Both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie continued to follow their innovative paths and by the early nineteen forties began to be heard on a wider basis.  Dizzy with Cab Calloway and Bird with Jay McShann.

Calloway travelled extensively and recorded frequently and on the few occasions Dizzy got to solo, young musicians heard that he was doing something new and unique.

Charlie Parker’s solos on the first McShann recordings were ground-breaking to young musicians as well but it was McShann’s booking at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom where word really started to spread.

Both Dizzy and Bird were fairly limited in how much they could stretch out with Calloway and McShann but they both frequented after hours jam sessions where the new ideas were on display.

The two most important after hours spots were both in Harlem and both played a major role in the development of modern jazz.

Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House.

The after hours jam sessions that took place at Minton’s and Monroe’s have reached mythic proportions in the annals of jazz history and rightfully so.  Young musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charlie Parker shared the bandstand with swing era heavyweights like Don Byas, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster.   There was an on-going experimentation and exchanging of ideas that was vital to the music’s growth and development.

Minton’s Playhouse was located at 210 W. 118th St. between 7th Ave. and St. Nicholas Place inside the Cecil Hotel.

The club was opened in 1938 by Henry Minton who was the first African American delegate to the Musician’s Union Local 802.

Minton started a jam session policy early on and allowed guest musicians to eat and drink for free which ensured plenty of participants to the sessions. 

In 1940 Minton hired ex-bandleader Teddy Hill to manage the club.  The same Teddy Hill whose 1939 band had included Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke.  Hill had fired Dizzy for his unorthodox playing style and now ironically ends up managing one of the clubs where Dizzy’s style was at the forefront.

Hill decided to hire a regular house band that could be augmented with guest performers.    The first person he hired was his ex-drummer Kenny Clarke.  Clarke then assembled the house band.  His first choice was Dizzy Gillespie but Dizzy was on the road with Cab Calloway so he settled on Joe Guy who had actually replaced Dizzy in the Teddy Hill band.  Guy was another progressive minded young trumpet player and fit with what Clarke had in mind.  The rest of the rhythm section was filled out with Nick Fenton on bass and a young unknown pianist named Thelonious Monk.

Monk’s unusual harmonic ideas combined with Clarke’s innovative style of drumming provided the perfect setting for experimentation to take place.  Several modern jazz standards were born at Minton’s including both “Epistrophy” and “Rhythm-A-Ning”.

Monroe’s Uptown House was located a little further north than Minton’s at 198 W. 134th St.
It was opened in the mid 1930s by Clark Monroe and originally featured small group swing.

Just like Minton’s, Monroe’s established a house band in the early 1940s and hosted after hours sessions.   The house band was led by pianist Al Tinney and included trumpeters George Treadwell and Vic Coulsen, Ebenizer Paul on bass and various drummers including a young Max Roach.

Many of the same musicians that frequented Minton’s also frequented Monroe’s.   Minton’s was open from 10pm to 4am while Monroe’s stayed open until 7am.  It wasn’t unusual for musicians to start the night at Minton’s and end up at Monroe’s.

The young musicians were innovating on the bandstand and the transition from swing to bop was taking place but there were no live broadcasts or commercial recordings to document the happenings due to a strike between the musicians union and the record companies. This led to a "recording ban” which prohibited instrumental musicians from making records and lasted from 1942-1944. 

The two or three year period where the new music was crystallizing went completely unnoticed due to the absence of records and broadcasts.

Fortunately there are a handful of recordings made by Jerry Newman.

Newman was a 23 year old student at Columbia University who was a regular at both clubs. On several occasions, mostly during the spring and summer of 1941, he took his Wilcox-Gay disc cutter along and captured some of the music live. 

The results of Newman’s efforts give us a great deal of insight into a time and place that would otherwise be guesswork at best.   

Thanks to Newman, we get to hear the legend come to life.   We hear Monk in his very earliest days on the bandstand as well as the young modern players crossing paths with the established stars.