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Chronology: The Early Bebop Education of Howard McGhee

A look back at a founding trumpeter of the style

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Chronology: The Early Bebop Education of Howard McGhee
Howard McGhee, September 1947 (photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee, and Fats Navarro—the first three bebop trumpeters out of the gate—once crossed paths in Chicago. Navarro’s biographers Leif Bo Petersen and Theo Rehak think the summit occurred in August 1944. McGhee was subbing in Billy Eckstine’s band, which included Gillespie. Navarro was likely in town with Andy Kirk. After their gigs, the threesome would jam in a park around 4 a.m. 

“We’d play trio—one guy playing lead, the other second, the other third,” McGhee recalled in an unfinished autobiography that his son, Howard (Boots) McGhee Jr., shared with me. “Next chorus we’d switch parts or chop it up a bit and play around. Sometimes I’d take eight bars, and then Fats would take eight, and then Dizzy. Then all of us would play together or else play different lines on the same chords. The three of us had a ball. I wish we could have recorded it.” 

You and me both, Maggie.

McGhee (1918-1987) is today by far the least celebrated of the founding bebop trumpeters. Yet he was a star in the late ’40s. He recorded prolifically, headlined clubs and theaters, and in 1949 won the DownBeat Readers Poll for his instrument. Every young trumpet player in jazz, from Miles Davis on down, lionized him. Navarro, who played with McGhee in Kirk’s band, called him a key influence. 

McGhee had a spitfire personality and a brassy sound with a wide, crackling vibrato rooted in Roy Eldridge. There is a charismatic and combustible frenzy in his early work, but he was also a progressive, his ears attuned to Gillespie and Charlie Parker. McGhee combined dazzling speed and high notes with fresh harmonic ideas and an evolving approach to rhythm and phrasing that traced the swing-to-bop continuum of the 1940s. To follow his career through that raucous decade of change is to chart the emergence of bebop in real time. 

In Scott DeVeaux’s essential history The Birth of Bebop, McGhee plays an important supporting role. He represents gifted but lesser-known players with forward-looking dispositions—black musicians whose careers began in swing-era big bands and who navigated the shifting economic, musical, racial, and cultural terrain of the ’40s to come out on the other side as modern jazz (bebop) musicians.

Listen to the 1942 Kirk recording of “McGhee Special” (Decca), which the trumpeter composed and arranged. McGhee, 24, struts confidently in front of the band. His jaunty rhythms swing on the button of the beat, and his phrases are blocked off mostly in two-bar chunks, markers of the swing era. The piquant harmony, however, hints at the future. The bridge modulates up a minor third from F to A-flat (unusual for 1942, Gunther Schuller notes in The Swing Era), and McGhee’s improvisation touches on prescient flat 5ths, flat 6ths, and flat 9ths. Ascending modulations lead to an exciting climax on a high G-sharp (trumpet key). 

To follow McGhee’s career through the 1940s is to chart the emergence of bebop in real time.

In fall 1942, McGhee encountered Charlie Parker for the first time. Hearing Bird, with whom he’d later work and record, was revelatory. To paraphrase DeVeaux, it focused McGhee’s self-awareness as a progressive musician. Soon he was frequenting jam sessions at Minton’s in Harlem, where Gillespie, Monk, Kenny Clarke, and others were forging a new musical language. McGhee quit big bands in 1944, finding greater expressive possibilities in small groups. He joined Coleman Hawkins’ proto-bop quintet on 52nd Street and headed west to Los Angeles with Hawkins in early 1945.

McGhee spread his wings on Hawkins sides like the harmonically slick “Sportsman’s Hop” (Asch) and the brisk “Sweet Georgia Brown”-derived “Hollywood Stampede” (Capitol). His virtuosity is especially striking on the breakneck version of the latter tune captured in the 1945 film The Crimson Canary. 

The trumpeter took another swing at “McGhee Special” in September 1945 with his own 12-piece band (Modern Music). The tempo is brighter than in 1942, and McGhee generates tremendous momentum. Paced by Roy Porter’s ride cymbal and bass-drum bombs, the trumpeter’s melodic lines lean toward bebop. His phrases are longer, with more strings of eighth notes, more triplets, more chromaticism, and Gillespie-inspired flourishes above the staff. Still, his swing feel remains tied to a slightly bumpy dotted eighth-sixteenth pattern that echoes the past. He lacks the syncopated complexity of Parker and Gillespie.

Two years later, on McGhee’s brilliant Dial recordings in December 1947, he speaks bebop without an accent. On “Dorothy” and “Coolie-Rini,” he controls his improvised lines through spontaneous rhythmic feints and parries and chromatic half steps placed strategically to smooth out his ideas. His phrasing is more legato, the eighth notes played more evenly so they swing in up-to-date fashion. The ideal band includes likeminded modernists: James Moody, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, J.C. Heard. On another front, McGhee’s evocative ballad “Night Mist,” with its Ellington/Strayhorn-like harmonic and rhythmic shifts, suggests that his composing skills remain underrated. 

On the 1948 Blue Note sides with Navarro, McGhee takes another step forward. Particularly on “Double Talk” (parts 1 and 2) and “Boperation,” the two trumpeters at times sound like twins. It can be easier to tell them apart by tone—McGhee has the broader, edgier vibrato—than by their melodic lines.

McGhee’s star dipped precipitously in the 1950s. He lost most of the decade to drug addiction. While his post-1960 LPs have rewarding moments, he never again commanded the technique or intensity that he did in the 1940s and early ’50s. As always, however, the records and the spirit survive. 

Further Listening

Howard McGhee: On Dial: The Complete Sessions (Spotlight, 1945-47)—McGhee’s best early work can be tough to find. This collection appears to be in print and available on some streaming services.

Howard McGhee: West Coast 1945-47 (Uptown)—Terrific radio broadcasts open a window on early bebop in the context of the entertainment business. Also includes rare Melodisc and Philo sides.

Howard McGhee: Howard McGhee & Howard McGhee Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 1950-53)—Compelling playing and writing, dynamite bands, and excellent recording quality, though McGhee’s chops are showing wear. For the indispensable McGhee-Fats Navarro sides, look for Blue Note releases under Navarro’s name or McGhee’s 1948 (Chronological Classics).

Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.