Place and Innovation in Popular Music: The Bebop Revolution in Jazz

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper explores the relationship between place and processes of innovation in popular music, focusing on the example of the bebop style of jazz. Bebop emerged during the 1940s both as a reaction against older jazz styles and as an expression of artistic innovation within a community of younger jazz musicians. The process of its creation and early development was situated in a set of "nested" locales centered in New York City. This analysis examines the diverse nature of these locales and the distinctive ways in which they fostered interactions among bebop's creators and their various audiences. The analysis reveals that different locales played dissimilar roles during specific stages in bebop's emergence, as it evolved into an increasingly coherent form of cultural expression. Most importantly, certain jazz clubs in Harlem provided a setting for the early experimentation that culminated in the bebop style, but the style's subsequent formalization and popularization depended on its exposure in jazz clubs in midtown Manhattan, at first along 52nd Street and later on nearby sections of Broadway. These findings confirm the importance of place in understanding the dynamic nature of popular music and the processes of innovation integral to it.

The relationships between place and popular music have been a central concern of the geographical literature dealing with music as a form of cultural expression (for examples, see Carney 1994). An implicit finding of much of this research is that place plays an important role in the processes of popular musical innovation. While new forms of expression in popular music may ultimately appeal to widely dispersed and heterogeneous audiences, they often arise out of patterns of musical activity embedded within particular local settings. In such cases, musical innovations are tied to local interactions between their originators and initial audiences, usually in the context of live performance, before achieving wider dissemination. Consequently, musical innovations frequently develop strong associations with particular places during their formative stages, and may derive their identity and much of their appeal from the locations where they first achieve popularity. Studies of the "Northwest Sound" by Gill (1993) and the "Miami Sound" by Curtis and Rose (1983), for example, demonstrate the importance of such ties between place and the rise of distinctive musical forms.

This paper extends existing research on place and innovation in popular music by examining the dynamic nature of the interactions between local settings and the processes through which musical innovations rise to popularity. Although this theme has not been extensively examined in the geographical literature, it represents a crucial feature of the relationship between popular music and place. Particular local settings provide the necessary context for the interactions among musicians and audiences that lead both to the initial emergence of an innovation and to its subsequent popularization. The nature of those interactions changes as the innovation develops, however; and therefore, popular musical innovations are tied to distinctly different types of local settings at different stages in their evolution. In the language of structuration theory, the development of new forms of expression in popular music occurs within a series of diverse "locales" (Giddens 1984), each defined by a particular set of activities that provides a context for the social interactions needed to further the innovation's evolution.

The following analysis advances the specific thesis that innovations in popular music generally develop within two distinct types of locales: relatively isolated "hearths," where musicians engage in processes of joint experimentation before a limited audience of cognoscenti; and more public "stages," where musical innovations become increasingly formalized and more widely popularized. In this context, hearths represent locales that accommodate anomalous or experimental forms of musical expression, outside the existing cultural mainstream. …


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