Attracted to Bebop

“I never know how to describe my work. It’s not always the same thing. It’s like asking Miles, ‘How does your horn sound?’”
Jean Michel Basquiat


Portrait of Miles Davis, date unknown


Discography II, 1983


What attracted Basquiat to bebop is the way it used repetition, reproduction, and improvisation to transform, or “artistically other”, the shape and meaning of somebody else’s originals, and to do so in the name of black protest against the restrictive social structures of American Racism. For LeRoi Jones, what most characterized bebop was its “antiassimilationist sound”, its rapid improvisations, its jagged time shifts, its wild solo flights, its embrace of melodic and rhythmic dissonance-its willfully harsh resistance to being swallowed up into the unisonance of American harmony. Bebop musicians understood the importance of communicating their racial difference from the American mainstream through their music.

While bebop was the music Basquiat inherited from the radical past, it was the radical present of hip-hop that he was born into. Basquiat was coming up as a painter and graffiti tagger on the streets and subways of New York City just as the music culture of hip-hop was being born on the very same streets and on the very same subways. In many ways Basquiat was hip-hop’s first galley artist, the first audiovisual hip-hopper to be legitimized, popularized, and substantively supported by the official New York art world.

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