JJ 06/94: Hard Bop: Jazz And Black Music 1955-1965

Thirty years ago Mike Shera gave us a handy definition of hard bop as he welcomed a provocative and fairly comprehensive book on the subject. First published in Jazz Journal June 1994


Hard bop can be described as a simplifica­tion of bebop, with more catchy melodic lines, a leavening of R&B and soul ele­ments, and a tendency to use minor keys. It flourished in the decade 1955-65, and died in the late sixties, because it appealed less to black audiences than jazz/rock, Motown, etc, and some of its leading exponents moved into ‘free’ jazz to some extent (eg, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins).

In this often provocative book, the late David Rosenthal argues that hard bop was a very ‘broad church’, in a way not dissimilar to mainstream. (If so, why did its appeal not endure, in the way that mainstream’s has?) The ‘broad church’ encompasses such diverse elements as Horace Silver’s and Cannonball Adderley’s funk, the astringency of Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, the lyricists (Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, etc), tenor/organ combos, Rollins, Miles Davis, Monk, Mingus and pre-Ascension Coltrane.

Certain musicians are dealt with in some detail, eg, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill, Tina Brooks and Lee Morgan. Pianists singled out for spe­cial attention (usually by discussion of one or two LPs) include Wynton Kelly (Full View), Sonny Clark (Leapin’ And Lopin’) and Elmo Hope (Trio, on Hi Fi Jazz). Other pianists discussed in less detail are Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.

One of David Rosenthal’s more contro­versial inclusions must be Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, who is discussed in detail in the tenor/organ combo chapter. A fine musician, but a hard bopper? Major omissions include Hank Mobley (only dis­cussed in the context of Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers), Booker Ervin (only in the context of Mingus’s Ah Um) and Johnny Griffin (many mentions but no in-depth discussion). Surely these were three of the finest hard-bop saxophonists, and deserve proper consideration. One LP each by Ervin and Griffin, but none by Mobley, are listed in the recommended records section of the book.

Many of the best hard-bop albums are to found on Blue Note, which differed markedly from Prestige in that Alfred Lion allowed adequate time for rehearsal. But he was a stickler for clean ensemble playing, and this was often the reason for rejecting albums which were not issued until many years later (eg, the Tina Brooks Mosaic set).

Rosenthal gives details of best selling albums and singles, which are interesting and sometimes surprising (eg, none of Miles Davis’s albums featured in Billboard’s Top 200 LP charts before 1962, although by 1960 he had a townhouse in Manhattan, an expensive sports car and wore tailored Italian suits). Blue Note’s all-time bestsellers were Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder, Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Boogaloo and Horace Silver’s Song For My Father, all of which sold over 100,000 copies. This contrasts with albums such as Jackie McLean’s New Soil, which had initial sales of 6,000 to 8,000 copies (break-even being 2,500).

Rosenthal chronicles the death of hard bop in the late sixties, due to the rock explosion and the defection of black lis­teners to R&B, which resulted in an exclu­sion of hard hoppers from airplay, clubs and record dates. It forced some musicians into jazz/rock (eg, Freddie Hubbard), and when they returned to the jazz fold, they were never the same again. Rosenthal also deals with what he calls the ‘neo bop revival’, and complains that many of the musicians lack individuality – he hasn’t much time for the likes of Wynton Marsalis or Terence Blanchard. David Murray and Henry Threadgill he finds worthy of praise, however. The book ends with a list of 100 recommended albums, including 37 on Blue Note, 18 from Riverside and 13 from Prestige, but omits a number of other albums generally con­sidered to be important.

I found this book both informative and enjoyable and, despite its sometimes controversial nature (or perhaps because of it), I commend it to all those interested in hard bop. The price is also very reason­able.


Hard Bop: Jazz And Black Music 1955-65, by David H Rosenthal, Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, pb, 208 pp, £7.99. ISBN 0-19-508556-6