When Henry Minton began hosting Monday night jam sessions at his night club in Harlem, no one could have foreseen the groundbreaking and experimental genius that would forever change the art of jazz.
Minton’s Playhouse was established in 1938, a time during which the towering giants of the swing era were at their fullest strength. An established and esteemed generation of swing musicians—including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Don Byas—would make regular guest appearances at Minton’s. Already in incredible form, these musicians would duel and push the limits of improvisation, while a crowd of eager young musicians watched reverently and wide-eyed from the audience.
Among these aspiring young musicians were future masters who would grow to dominate the jazz scene of the late 40s and onward. Art Blakely, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Fats Navarro, and Dexter Gordon were among the many who stood up and put their skills to the test at Minton’s. Also in the crowd—before his name became synonymous with the essence of cool jazz—was a young Miles Davis, eagerly absorbing the sounds of his idols.
Minton’s forged a new era of musicianship, in which the conventional boundaries of jazz music were pushed past their apex. On Monday nights, in an environment where the experienced and experimental mixed, clashed, and battled—a new style of jazz was born.
The Birth of Bebop
Bebop music marks a transition from the swing standards of the early to late 30s, to a period of deepening musicianship and virtuosity. The musicians who pioneered bebop were constantly driving the tempo higher, adding more complex chord changes, working with more complicated scales, and challenging themselves to break new musical ground. Bebop became interested in moving jazz outside of swing dance halls and into an entirely new creative stratum.
The members of the house band at Minton’s were the foremost of these explorers and pioneers. The rhythm section alone consisted of Thelonious Monk on piano, Kenny Clarke on set, Nick Fenton on bass, and Charlie Christian on electric guitar. Leading and dominating the developing bebop scene were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—affectionately known as Bird and Diz.
In his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis recalls those revolutionary jam sessions at Minton’s: “Bird and Dizzy would come in to jam… but most of the musicians in the know didn’t even think about playing when Bird and Dizzy came to jam. We would just sit out in the audience, to listen and learn.”
How did these musicians push the envelope of creative expression? Each of them participated in an intellectual and internalized mode of expression, abandoning the traditional roles of the entertainer and the performer. At its core, bebop was “musician’s music,” and its adherents lived outside of the popular, public conception of jazz music.
The development of bebop was a collective effort, but the unsung hero and earliest innovator among the Minton’s house band was Charlie Christian.
Here’s a classic cut of Charlie Christian playing “Stompin’ At The Savoy” live at Minton’s in 1941.
The electric guitar player enjoyed a short career with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra, and his reputation as one of the supreme improvisational talents of the swing era was even more significant given that he was among the first to play guitar as a lead instrument. Like all musicians who frequented Minton’s, Christian was interested in redefining what his instrument was capable of, and he is largely credited with giving shape, direction, and name to the bebop movement.
Christian died prematurely, leaving behind only a few recordings of his monumental talent. Minton’s and its musicians, however, would go on to further innovate and drive bebop forward.
In remembering the giants of bebop music, we should remember that the creative expression and improvised solos of those Monday nights lasted long into the night, well past the time when the rest of the world was quietly sleeping.