Players such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, etc., invented the jazz genre of bebop. Today, I am told to be good at playing bebop you must listen to the best jazz players and transcribe what they played in order to assimilate the language. But since players such as Powell and Monk had no bebop predecessors to transcribe, what were some things that they practiced to invent this genre of jazz?

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    Check out this question too: music.stackexchange.com/q/85583/9426 The early bebop artists were influenced by the music study-books they practised from. Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 12:04
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    @Haversine, careful--scale patterns only take you so far, & they don't train your ear. If you only practice scale patterns, your solos will sound like scale patterns. You want a practice routine that incorporates the patterns with arpeggios, complex rhythms, & interesting intervalic leaps. Fortunately, such things exist: bebop heads. The time you would put into scale patterns will propel you 10x farther if you put that effort into learning bebop heads. Play with both hands, start at 75 bpm, and go through all 12 keys. Then move up to 77 bpm & repeat, then 79 bpm, etc. until you get to 175 bpm.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 4:45
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    @Haversine if you take anything away from the methods of the bebop giants, take away these lessons: they spent immense time training their ears, they were obsessed with writing & improvising complex rhythms and complex melodies. Their practice reflected this and was varied. Scale patterns were probably a very small part of their practice routines (and if they were any part at all, then they were likely just for warming up). Practice the way you want to play, and if you want to play like a bebop master, then learn all of the bebop heads in all 12 keys & transcribe all of Charlie Parker's solos.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 4:49
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    He may not have transcribed his own solos, but the effect was the same: he arrived at those licks through trial & error, & once he found those licks, he practiced them obsessively. What was that trial and error based on? Where did those ideas come from? They came (a) from sharing a stage with Bud Powell etc., (b) from his tremendous ingenuity, & (c) from his unique musical experiences & strong roots in swing. Mimicking a small fraction of his practice routines without those other elements won't lead us to the same place. If your goal is to absorb the style of the bebop giants, shortcut the
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 19:12
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    trial-&-error step & go straight to the high-yield practice. This might be venturing into a different question, but if your goal is to innovate your own style, there is a common technique that many innovators describe using: loop the same 1-3 measures and look for smaller phrases/licks that achieve the melodic/rhythmic/etc. sound you're looking for. Once you find those smaller ideas, motifs, licks, etc., look for other places to play them, ways to extend, vary, modulate, sequence, etc. those ideas. This will make them ingrained and will allow you to start building your own personal vocabulary.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 19:13

4 Answers 4


A quick note at the beginning--it's important to remember that the solos a bebop musician plays are not exclusively the result of practiced notes. They are a result of ideas one hears, intuitions one has developed, and technique one has established.

Influence of Swing

Many bebop players were heavily influenced by swing. Charlie Parker memorized Lester Young solos and studied Coleman Hawkins extensively. Many of the melodic and even rhythmic elements that define bebop can be heard in smaller doses in swing. Swing doesn't explain everything we hear in bebop, but much of bebop is an adaptation of ideas applied less complexly in swing. So the first answer to your question is: many of the musicians who created bebop spent a lot of time practicing and playing swing.

Open Exchange of Ideas

Another important aspect to bebop's evolution is that it occurred collectively--in groups and in shared spaces. The masters of bebop created the art form literally while standing on the stage (e.g., at Minton's) experimenting in small combos together. By taking turns improvising, these bebop greats were practicing, experimenting, and influencing each other all at the same time. Bebop is an outgrowth of new musical ideas, and by playing together in small groups, they helped to train each others' ears and musical intuitions. Features like high tempos and trading 8's, etc. served as a hotbed for progress. If someone happened to play an especially interesting idea, the other musicians would try it out as well when it came their turn to improvise.


The same experimentation that occurred on the stage was put to practice through composition: a major form of practice for bebop players was to compose bebop heads. Many players then practiced those songs at different tempos and in all 12 keys. These songs often took the form of contrafacts, which became a cornerstone of bebop. These bebop melodies utilized the exact same techniques being put into practice when improvising. So by writing bebop heads--and many were written--one was in effect writing out (and hence, practicing) their improvisation.

Normal Practice Routines

Many bebop players were obsessed with practicing, and they practiced anything and everything they could think of or find. To use Charlie Parker again, he said in an interview with Paul Desmond that he spent a few years practicing 11-14 hours a day. He was known to practice the Klose exercises, to practice in all 12 keys, to practice arpeggios and scales, and to practice building melody from higher chord extensions. He often practiced small bits of songs over and over (2-3 measures at a time), experimenting with different melodic connections and moving licks to different parts of the beat. He also said that he studied Stravinsky in his later life. So a lot of the normal things we expect someone to practice were present for the bebop musicians. This contributed to general technique, which allowed them to express their unique ideas successfully.

Innovation and Genius

Bebop was a highly experimental form of music, and it's undeniable that there was some true innovation occurring. The era was characterized by profound experimentation and genius. Monk is a great example--only so much of what comes from Monk's mind can be attributed to influence; the rest is pure creativity.

Ultimately, bebop musicians practiced just about everything. They practiced swing, they practiced classical music, and they practiced bebop itself.

As some final tidbits, you can hear Parker practicing here, and you can hear a very early 1939 version of Body and Soul played in an early bebop style by a master of swing. It is one of the first recordings created with a bebop-esque feel.

  • Thank you for this extensive answer @jdjazz !. I found the section "Normal Practice Routines" very useful. If I may ask, are there more things others practiced like what you mentioned? Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 0:28
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    I think it probably depended a lot on the person. But probably the thing people most practiced was improvising. Working out ideas, taking licks through all 12 keys, practicing starting the same lick on different beats, building licks from higher extensions, building licks that approached/enclosed/etc. a specific chord tone, creating licks that moved from a first harmonic tonal center to another, building licks based on parallel movement, etc. All of this would be targeted practice on specific improv riffs or techniques.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 2:23
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    But really this is half of what they practiced, because many spent a lot of time practicing swing (or internalizing it by listening) before moving into bebop. The ear training is a major piece. I've heard that the renowned jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc doesn't actually practice any jazz. He simply practices classical music to improve his chops/piano technique, and then he does other things (presumably a lot of listening, singing, thinking, gigging, etc.) to cultivate his ideas. Those two pieces together contribute to his incredibly creative improvisations.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 2:34
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    Oscar Peterson was also well-versed in Classical, as were many other greats. All artists must be open to all forms of Art in order to evolve. Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 9:51

Just one data point, about Charlie Parker. I don't have the book with me to get all the details, but I remember reading the following in Miles Davis' Autobiography:

A few days before Charlie Parker died, some other musician happened to see him alone in Central Park. Parker looked tired, they had a short talk, and when they parted Parker donated to this other guy a bundle of heavily used scores. It was classical music. (I don't remember exactly which pieces, I think they were string quartets. I think it was mentioned quite specifically in the book). A few days later Parker died, and many in his social circle came to know about the story of his classical scores.

Miles Davis goes on to say that he as well as many others had been wondering whether Parker had ever studied or practiced classical music. Many suspected he had, based on certain details of his phrasing and style, but he himself never admitted it. The above story however seemed to positively confirm that he did indeed.

  • That's very interesting! I had never heard that before. I know that John Coltrane also practiced/listened to classical music as it seems Giant Steps is heavily influenced by this: youtu.be/4QotFeQvB0k. Do you know what were the exact scores that Charlie Parker was giving away? Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 18:20
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    @Haversine I can't remember what were the scores he gave away, but I do remember it was mentioned specifically in the book, and I'm almost sure the book was Miles Davis' autobiography. Possibly, but less likely, in Wayne Shorter's bio, "Footprints". I don't have them with me to check...perhaps, if a specific question on that very point is asked on this site, someone will remember it better than me. If I ever find out, I'll be sure to update the answer.
    – MMazzon
    Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 20:32
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    @Haversine, after some asking around, a saxophone player friend of mine says he believes that the composer was J.S Bach and the scores were the Solo Violin partitas. But he doesn't have a source, so for now take it as an interesting suggestion rather than established fact. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – MMazzon
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 14:21
  • oh wow! That is very interesting. Thank you for researching this! Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 22:22
  • Bud Powell was a trained classical pianist too.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 0:25

There is a story that when Charlie Parker was young he got embarrassed on stage trying to improvise. Realizing he didn't know anything about keys or chords he woodshedded on Cherokee by playing the changes in all 12 keys.

I first read it in a booklet from Jamey Aebersold. The original source is an interview between Parker and Leonard Feather called "Rappin with Bird." I've not actually heard the recording. The text is:

CHARLIE PARKER: “I knew how to play two tunes in a certain key, the key of D for saxophone (alto sax), F concert. I learned how to play the first eight bars of Lazy River and I knew the complete tune to Honeysuckle Rose. I never stopped to think about there being other keys or nothin’ like that. So I took my horn out to this joint where a bunch of fellows I’d seen around were, and the first thing they started playing was Body and Soul, long-meter, you know. So, I go to playing my Honeysuckle Rose and there ain’t no form of conglomeration, you know so … they laughed me off the bandstand … they laughed at me so hard ….. I was about 16 or 17 at the time. I never thought about there being any more keys, you know.”

I've always liked that story, because it's so specific and right from the man himself.

I couldn't find a published copy online, but I was able to find an interview between Parker and Paul Desmond on Youtube that sheds some more light on the subject.

Parker specifically mentions "studying" the horn 11-15 hours a day for about 3-4 years and "...it was done with books."

There really is a second part to your question: how did they develop be-bop. Here are some good links to sources...

...where Parker talks about playing the upper chord extensions to get the sound he had been hearing in his head, and about making a new tune over the Cherokee changes to avoid copyright royalties. Parker mentions the composer Hindemith a few times which is a great insight. Also, that linked Google book recounts the story about getting laughed off stage in his youth.

I mention these points about Charlie Parker only because I've seen them many times in many places, and they seem well documented. I wish I new more about Thelonious Monk. I haven't tried researching him, but I imagine there are good sources available.

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    Yes, I do know that story, but that does not answer the question of what he practiced. Can you please update your answer to answer the question? Thanks Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 18:16
  • What do you mean? Exactly what melodic patterns he was playing? Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 18:22
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    Not necessarily. Just what Charlie Parker or other bebop masters practiced in their shed. Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 18:24
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    Cherokee. What else is missing? My take on the interview transcription I read was pretty literal. It seemed clear he meant that he played that one song over and over in 12 keys. That took him from absolute beginner to being able to play. Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 18:31
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    You mentioned that he practiced 11-15 hours "with books". Do you know which books these were? Commented Apr 19, 2020 at 0:22

Some of the people you mention are not necessarily bebop "masters", but bebop INVENTORS. To me, you cannot master something that does not exist. Everyone after them is trying to master what they invented, we are copycats to a degree.

They studied everything but what specifically would differ from person to person. I've read that many of these musicians were inspired by classical music, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. Keep in mind too that bop is not the beginning of Jazz and many of these players had gigs in big bands, and dance bands playing swing.

The book Jazz and Justice by Horne goes in to some detail regarding the social environment these players lived through and how it influenced their music. Some of the factors that influenced them were NOT musical but social. Bop is not dance music that is an important factor. Many of these players earned a living (or tried to) playing in dance joints and during the Jim Crow era this led to problems especially with mixed bands and audiences. I'd recommend reading book to get a more accurate account of this point, as I'm sure I'm butchering it, but during this period jazz changed from dance music to purely listening music.

Another factor in the creating of bop had to do with white musicians stealing licks and melodies from black players. The same book as mentioned above described the attitude of Charlie Parker and his contemporaries with the supposed quote (I paraphrase) "I want to play something no one can steal" and this was a motive for the lightning speed, rich structure of the changes, and very intricate melodies.

It is for these reasons that I often say that Jazz is more than a musical style, it is a culture. You can't understand any art form if it's completely divorced from its roots. Learn the culture. If you really study Parker's solos you will find motifs from blues and swing so the influence is there, but it has been suggested that these players were really trying to invent something NEW. And there is nothing you can study to do that, you just have to work hard to give birth to new ideas.

To this end, if your goal is to master bop then study Parker, Diz, and their contemporaries. It is beautiful music. But all who came after and just copying. If your goal is to be like these players and create your own sound (like Miles Davis did after trying desperately to follow the bop players in NYC) then DON'T listen to bop, listen to things in your head, music from other countries like India, Japan, Africa, and incorporate (steal) those ideas and merge them with the western tradition.

  1. Learn all you can about existing musical traditions and music theory.
  2. Train our ear+brain to identify what you hear.
  3. Master the mechanics of your instrument.

Bop inventors took number 3 very seriously. To play like that you need to know your instrument inside and out. To that end, play EVERYTHING.


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