Bop Jazz or just Bop (sometimes ReBop) evolved from the Swing Jazz of the 30s and 40s. Swing bands relied on strict arrangements and any solos within the song were usually just the melody repeated with a bit of improvisation.
And in this article, I’m going to provide you with my list of the 13 best Bebop jazz albums you can own on vinyl. I’ll also make sure to break down why I selected each artist and album on this list, so you get a full picture of what made each particular album and musicians so special.
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What is BeBop?
BeBop (or Bop for short) was, quite simply, the end result of talented swing players stretching their legs. The best players would get together to jam, challenge one another and push their improvisational limits.
Bop jazz tunes would begin with a basic melody and then each player would take the music to the next level experimenting with augmented chords, stretching the phrase beyond the bar and basically expanding the limits of music theory at a fast pace (some say to weed out the weaker players).
Bop was considered music for musicians and the folks who played it weren’t concerned with its popularity or commercial viability. They just wanted to play.
The End of Big Bands
When Big Bands became difficult to sustain financially and dance halls were hit with new taxes to fund WWII and began closing, the less formal Bop jazz groups were there to fill in the gap. Usually consisting of just 4 to 7 players, Bop groups required less overhead and were less expensive to hire and, frankly, they were more agile.
Essentially, the legends of Bop rose from the ashes of Swing to create “modern jazz”.
Music for Musicians
Even though Bop was created by musicians for musicians as a way to stretch the boundaries of what is possible within the structure of song, it is still enjoyable to the neophyte. If you are a music major or understand music theory, then we can talk a bit about tritone substitution, diminished chords, syncopation and the “blue note”. If not, you can still enjoy the high-energy magnificence of Bop jazz.
Because Bop Jazz was created primarily as music for musicians, its commercial appeal was not considered nor expected. Therefore, most of the earliest recordings are on smaller, boutique labels with limited pressings. Later reissues can still be found on vinyl and other formats but getting your hands on an original release of some of these records will take some time and, often, a bit more cash.
13 Best Bop Jazz Albums to Own on Vinyl
Let’s begin this countdown with Charlie Parker.
This album marks the final studio recording of Gillespie and Parker together and it’s a real gem. The session took place primarily in New York on June 6th, 1950. The original release was a 10” LP on the Mercury label featuring eight songs. Subsequent releases omit the last song on side one (Passport) and the last song on side two (Visa) as they were recorded by Parker without Gillespie in 1949.
The Bird and Diz session features a five piece group with Parker on alto sax, Gillespie on trumpet, Buddy Rich on drums, bassist Curly Russell and Thelonious Monk on piano. Talk about your super-groups. This album was reissued as-is in 1954 on Clef Records and again in 1957 on Verve but with the aforementioned tracks omitted and a bunch of bonus material included. The first and second releases are pretty rare but there are lots of others from which to choose. Bird and Diz is definitely a must have for the Bop jazz aficionado.
The term “cutting contest” or just “cutting” originated in the 20s when piano players would try to outperform each other resulting in one of them being “cut” from the group and replaced by the better player.
Cutting eventually evolved into a less dramatic (career wise) but equally thrilling back-and-forth solo competition among jazz players. A brilliant example of cutting exists in the dueling alto saxophone playing of Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins on Sonny Side Up. Oh, and Dizzy Gillespie plays trumpet too. The rhythm section is represented by Ray Bryant on piano, bass player Tom Bryant and drummer Charlie Persip.
The 1959 Verve LP features four extended tracks that, while recorded in a studio setting, reflect the excitement of a jam session at some after-hours club. There’s clearly some friendly competition going on between Stitt and Rollins as their differing styles complement each other and their craftsmanship creates one of the greatest cutting sessions in the jazz catalog. Again, the original releases are pretty rare so you’ll have to do some digging wherever you find your used vinyl records for sale.
When it comes to Bop jazz, there is no performer more revered than the iconic “Bird”, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Sadly, Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34 just as the 33 1/3 rpm microgroove LP was coming into its own. Most of the recorded material Parker produced was originally released in the 78 format. In 1978, Savoy records released Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy Sessions through Arista.
A five disc box set issued with a booklet of notes, photographs, interviews, and transcriptions, it is a chronological documentary of the Savoy Studio recordings of Charlie Parker transferred from the original disc recordings. It even includes false starts and retakes. The personnel featured are far too numerous to list here but include Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Clyde Hart, to name a few. Included is the “Charlie Parker’s Reboppers” session from 1945, one of the most controversial (released in 1956 as The Charley Parker Story) due to the lack of clarity as to who the Reboppers actually were.
It’s unclear because some of the alleged performers were not union members and so couldn’t be listed in the credits. If you can only purchase one Charley Parker item for your collection, The Complete Savoy Sessions is the one.
Originally released on the Sonet label in the UK in 1975, The Bop Session is a demonstration of the legends of Bop doing what they do best… Jam! This is a no-frills record featuring Dizzy, Stitt, Roach, Percy Heath on bass and John Lewis sharing piano duties with Hank Jones. There are a bunch of different releases of The Bop Session on a couple of different labels from around the world.
I personally own the 1987 US release on the Gazell label and one of the things I love about records are the liner notes. This one has an extensive description of the May, 1975 recording session detailed on the back cover. The six songs, including the classic “Groovin’ High” are performed by this group of all-star musicians who aren’t quite past their prime but they are much older than they were in the hay-day of Bop.
There’s nothing groundbreaking on The Bop Session but it is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable session that boost the quality of your Bop vinyl collection.
You know who Red Norvo is, right? Red (aka Mr. Swing) was one of the first vibraphone players in jazz and helped to establish it as a jazz instrument. If you’re a Frank Sinatra fan you may know Red’s band backed Frank on his Australian tour in 1959. Or perhaps you saw Red performing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” with Dean Martin in the film Ocean’s 11.
Or maybe you’ve heard his Fabulous Jazz Session featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips and Teddy Wilson. If not, you should. Recorded in June, 1945 it was first released on Dial Records in 1951. In 1962, Dial re-mastered it and released the album as the Charlie Parker vehicle Once There Was a Bird. Fabulous Jazz Session is unique in that side one is the actual album and side two are later takes of the same songs. The re-mastered Parker version includes a couple of false starts as well.
Norvo is a master of the vibes and his performance on this record is nothing less than stellar. Add Gillespie, Parker, Wilson and Phillips to the mix (not to mention Slam Stewart on bass with Specs Powell splitting drum time with J.C. Heard) and you’ve got the makings of a classic jazz album. Whether you’re listening to the Red Norvo record or Once There Was a Bird, this truly is a fantastic jazz session.
Miles Davis is best remembered for his Cool Jazz recordings of the 60s and 70s but in the 40s and 50s Davis was a heck of a Bop player. His 1957 release Walkin’ is actually a compilation album comprised of recordings he did for the Prestige label previously released in 1954 as the Miles Davis All-Star Sextet and the Miles Davis Quintet in a 10 inch format.
The title track on this record is indicative of the transition from Bebop to Hard-Bop, the latter being a slower, less frenetic approach to jazz compositions. The Dizzy Gillespie penned “Blue N Boogie”, on the other hand is pure Bebop and a terrific showcase for the talents of Lucky Thompson on tenor sax, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Kenny Clarke. There are glimpses of the direction Miles Davis was soon to pursue throughout Walkin’ and the record documents a milestone in the history of jazz. Like most classic jazz albums, Walkin’ has been re-issued, remastered and re-pressed dozens of times over the years in official and unofficial releases.
Of course, you can always seek out the original 10 inch versions or the 2015 French pressing on 180 gram, white vinyl. If your Miles Davis collection starts at Bitches Brew, I encourage you to look back a little farther and enjoy Miles during his Bop years.
Also known as Moanin’ due to the popularity of the opening track, this 1958 Blue Note release features the work of drummer Art Blakey and a quartet including the tenor saxophone player Benny Golson. In fact, four of the six cuts on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were written by Golson who wasn’t with the Messengers for very long (this was his only American recording with the group).
Pianist Bobby Timmons is responsible for creating the hit song “Moanin’” which saw renewed interest a couple of years ago when it was featured in the Japanese anime show “Sakamichi no Apollon “ (Kids on the Slope). And the Messengers’ take on the Mercer/ Arlen standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a great example of how Bop can take a familiar classic and turn it into something fresh, fun and exciting, specifically the trumpet work of Lee Morgan and the stellar bass of Jymie Merritt. Art Blakey was famous for sticking with the Bop style (in this case Hard Bop) even when experimental and freeform were taking the lead in the world of jazz and we thank him for that.
If you’re a vinyl purist, hold out for the first LP release of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers as some later pressings have quality issues. It was quickly repressed in 1959 to capitalize on the success of “Moanin’” and then they just changed the name of the record to Moanin’ for the same reason. It appears the original mono pressing is one of those rare vinyl records but you may be able to find it at your local record shop if you look hard enough.
Choosing the “best” Thelonious Monk album is an exercise in futility. Monk was one of the masters of jazz piano and his playing style is rich, unorthodox and inspired.
Having any Thelonious Monk album in your collection is a bonus whether it’s his earlier work with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet, the recordings he made for the Prestige label or his collaborations with John Coletrane. 1957’s Brilliant Corners, while not as accessible as some of his other recordings, is an amazing piece of jazz and arguably marks the moment when Monk became Monk.
The title track is so complex that, even after 25 takes, his quintet couldn’t quite get it right so it was eventually pieced together from several takes by producer Orrin Keepnews. The album consists of five tracks, over 42 minutes total length, and features the work of Max Roach on drums and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. Brilliant Corners has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, included in the National Recording Registry and has been re-released numerous times by Riverside Records so it’s relatively easy to come by. You may not want to start your Monk collection with Brilliant Corners but it’s truly a must-have for any serious bop jazz fan.
Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon has been there and done that. He played with Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie. His record The Hunt with Wardell Gray was referred to in writer Jack Kerouac’s classic On The Road. Heck, he was an early influence on John Coletrane and Sonny Rollins.
There are a number of Dexter Gordon albums I could have chosen for this list and all of them would have fallen into the “must have” category. Most bop jazz fans agree that 1962’s Go! is not only one of the best Dexter Gordon records but one of the best Blue Note releases of all time.
The up tempo numbers like the opening track “Cheese Cake” resonate with fun and excitement. The ballads are soulful and rich with expressiveness as in the Jimmy McHugh/ Harold Adamson penned “Where Are You”. It’s not just Gordon’s dexterity on tenor sax that gives this record its charm. Sonny Clark does a solid job on the piano as does bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins. Without them, it is possible Go! would not be the Bop jazz gem it is. Go! has been re-mastered and re-released a number of times over the years so it should be an easy add to your collection.
A legend among legends, saxophonist John Coltrane is best remembered for his forays into experimental, modal and free jazz. Nevertheless, he began his musical career in bop performing with greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, to name a few. If you’re looking for the best album of his Bop period then you absolutely must listen to Blue Train.
There is a reason he has become one of the most influential jazz musicians ever and part of that reason can be found on the only Blue Note recording he made as a leader. His work on Blue Train borders on magical and it is filled with hooks that will stick in your head for the rest of the day. It’s much more accessible to the average, non-music student listener than some of his later work. It’s easy to get lost in this album and not realize it’s time to flip it over to the other side until the silence compels you to do so.
I have been listening to this record for years and I never get tired of it. Blue Train has been re-mastered and reissued dozens of times since the original 1957 mono recording with subtle variations in quality between pressings. However, Blue Note recently made Blue Train available as a limited release 180-gram LP pressed on opaque blue vinyl with black swirls.
And by limited release, I mean it is limited to 1000 copies worldwide and available exclusively from The Sound of Vinyl. Regardless of which pressing you find, Blue Train needs to be in your collection.
But it would be cool to have a blue one.
By 1963 tenor saxophone player Dexter Gordon had left the US and moved to Europe living in both Copenhagen and Paris at different times. The move appears to have influenced his musical sensibilities as illustrated on the 1964 album One Flight Up. Recorded in Paris, this record is a shade darker and moodier than his earlier releases.
Consisting of three tracks, One Flight Up starts with the 18 plus minute “Tanya”, written by trumpeter Donald Byrd (who also plays on the album). Not to diminish the quality of “Coppin’ the Haven” and “Darn That Dream” but, for me, “Tanya” is the highlight of the record. Gordon plays with intensity and gives the other players room to move, to innovate and express themselves creatively.
The result is pure jazz wonder. To listen to One Flight Up is to take a musical journey with Gordon and his quartet from the swing years in the USA to the European influence on Bop in the 60s.
According to Stephen Cook, “Sonny Criss qualifies as one of the most overlooked giants of West Coast jazz”. Like most alto sax players of the era, Criss was influenced by the great Charlie Parker but by the time this 1966 release came out his technique had evolved and he had created his own style of interpretation.
And, man, Criss could blow!
His take on the Mancini/Mercer classic “Days of Wine and Roses” is mind-blowing. If you’re in a mellower mood, “Black Coffee” is a hung-over Sunday morning at the kitchen table with the rain pouring down and reaching for salvation at the bottom of your mug good.
Featuring Walter Davis on piano, the eight song, 1966 pressing of This Is Criss! on the Prestige label is still out there but it was re-mastered and re-released by Prestige on vinyl again in 1990. Procuring this record is a perfect way to add to your catalogue or get to know Sonny Criss for the first time.
No list of Bop records to own on vinyl would be complete without the inclusion of the First Lady of Song, the legendary Ella Fitzgerald. Ella developed her “scat” style of vocalizing while performing with Dizzy Gillespie, trying to replicate what was happening with the horns using her voice. The results were stunning, to say the least.
Especially when backed by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra as she was in September, 1947 when the live recording that became It Happened One Night was created. Included in her set of six songs are her fantastic renditions of “Flying Home” and “Oh, Lady Be Good”. As an added treat, side one of this record is five songs by the Dizzy Gillespie/ Charlie Parker Quintet.
Sadly, no Ella on side one but these five classic Bop songs, especially their performance of “Confirmation”, are worth the price of the record. Miss Ella on the B-side is a bonus. It was released as an LP around 1995 on both Natural Organic records and J and B Productions. Keep in mind this is a live recording and the sound quality reflects that fact but it is a moment in time that hasn’t been repeated and that’s what makes It Happened One Night a nice addition to your Bop jazz collection.
The fun fact regarding the Bop Jazz era is it started as an excuse for some killer musicians to get together and jam. By all accounts it was not made for mass consumption or commercial appeal. You’ll notice that many of the best musicians jammed together often, either formally or informally, and thankfully recordings were made for us to enjoy.
To the untrained ear, Bop can occasionally sound confusing and random. But I’ve found the more you listen, the more you realize just how extraordinarily talented the musicians are your appreciation of the genre increases exponentially. So, if you’re not currently a Bop fan, I encourage you to give it a listen with an open mind and enjoy the experience that is Bop jazz.
This list is but a sampling of the tremendous amount of material available for the Bop enthusiast. Treat it as a starting point to establish your jazz vinyl collection or as a list of choice albums to add to your existing collection. As a fellow vinyl lover, I often enjoy the hunt almost as much as I enjoy the listening experience. I encourage you to seek out these records and have fun exploring the world of Bop jazz.
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