Jazz-Rock Fusion

In the late 60s, jazz began to feel the full impact of the rock revolution. Important jazz venues shut their doors, major labels abandoned jazz to pursue rock, and many jazz artists left the country for better opportunities abroad. Jazz record sales plummeted as rock sales soared, and younger audiences increasingly chose the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, or the politically-oriented folk music of Bob Dylan over jazz. New hybrids of rock and jazz developed as a result, some fueled by jazz players interested in rock and funk, others by rockers interested in jazz. A few late-60s jazz-rock acts like Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Chicago made inroads onto the pop charts, and some youth culture-oriented jazz artists like Charles Lloyd and Gary Burton scored with rock audiences. Numerous late-60s rockers, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, and many San Francisco bands, also began to extend their solos based on the modal improvisations of John Coltrane and other free jazz innovators.

When trumpeter Miles Davis, under the influence of James Brown, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, crossed over to a new rock-inflected form with his influential Bitches Brew album in 1970, the new subgenre of jazz-rock fusion gained jazz legitimacy for about a decade. Numerous graduates of Davis’ experiment—including pianists Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea, drummers Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Airto Moreira, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin, and bassist Dave Holland—went on to success as leaders or members of 70s fusion supergroups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Lifetime, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Fusion was followed a lighter, radio-friendly style called smooth jazz which ultimately diminished the legitimacy of fusion in the minds of jazz purists. Fusion was innovative in its time, however, for it brought electronics and a strong backbeat into jazz, while influencing an entire new generation to begin exploring the style.

Multicultural Note: What Is A Canon?—Is There a Jazz Canon?

The place of jazz-rock fusion in the history of jazz is contentious. Many critics and artists believe that their particular vision of jazz is the correct one, and some feel that styles like fusion are not “true jazz”—they are not part of a “jazz canon.” A canon, according to one dictionary, is “a collection or list of works that is accepted as genuine.” The debate over whether fusion is truly jazz is a debate over the jazz canon.

The concept of a canon in other fields of study has been equally contentions. For the last two decades of the 20th century, professors in many US universities argued over whether or not the university canon—the content of the basic university liberal arts curriculum—should be broadened from its Eurocentric roots to include works from more diverse cultural sources. Many leading universities changed their curriculum as a result.

In the 80s and 90s, as a part of a new traditionalism in jazz exemplified by Wynton Marsalis and the Ken Burns Jazz documentary, fusion was given short shrift as an unfortunate aberration of the 70s. This was seen by some as an attempt to exclude fusion from the jazz canon.

Early Jazz-Rock Experiments
Early experiments in the hybridization of rock and jazz took place on both the East and West coast in the late 60s. Young rock players started to use jazz approaches, and young jazz musicians were not immune to the social and musical revolution of their era, as they tried to find a voice in jazz that did not cut them off from the culture of their generation. Guitarist Larry Coryell recalled his early motivations:

“Everybody was dropping acid and the prevailing attitude was ‘Let’s do something different.’ We were saying ‘We love Coltrane but we also love the Beatles. We love Miles but we also love the Rolling Stones.’” 19
Young jazz artists in New York included guitarist Coryell, who released a 1966 album called The Free Spirits, and vibist Gary Burton, who recorded Duster in 1967. These musicians made a conscious effort to connect with a younger rock audience, growing their hair long and wearing hipper fashions. As Burton noted,
“One reason why jazz isn’t more popular with younger audiences is that it’s hard for them to identify with forty-ish musicians in tailored suits. They could loosen up some.” 20
The artists also consciously employed rhythmic, instrumental, and harmonic influences from rock and free jazz. Burton was successful with his group until the early 70s, and he was responsible for bringing pianist Keith Jarrett onto the jazz main stage. Other New York-based artists formed a series of loosely organized instrumental groups that experimented with a variety of electric, rock, and funk influences.

One of the most significant of the early New York-based jazz-rock groups was Dreams, which featured trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Michael Brecker, drummer Billy Cobham, and guitarist John Abercrombie. Although the group was short-lived, its members went on to influential careers. Billy Cobham’s explosive drumming was featured in John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and later on his own solo outings; the Brecker brothers became successful with their own jazz-funk amalgam for a time, and later as individual players. The brothers even scored a top 40 hit with “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” in 1975.

Other more rock-flavored efforts also appeared in the East. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix recorded the popular Electric Ladyland in 1968, containing extended improvisations that blurred the boundaries between rock and jazz. One of the most successful East coast-based jazz-rock groups was Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Inspired by late-60s big-band innovations of trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Don Ellis, the nine-piece group featured a five-person horn section with a diverse, carefully-arranged repertoire. The group’s second album in 1969 produced three hit singles—“You've Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel”/“More and More,” and “And When I Die”—and won the Grammy as Album of the Year. Another jazz rock-inflected horn band that emerged in 1970 was Chicago. The seven-piece act featured a three-piece horn section, and its early double and triple album releases allowed for extended jams that encompassed jazz and rock flavors. Chicago was ultimately one of the top ten best-selling US pop acts of all time, producing hits like “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday In the Park,” and the Grammy-winning “If You Leave Me Now.”

There was also considerable jazz-rock fusion activity as well on the West Coast. San Francisco, in the throes of a psychedelic rock renaissance, often saw jazz artists as opening acts at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium. One such act was fronted by saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who recruited pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette to create a sound and image—complete with love beads and tunes like “Love Ship”—to appeal to rock audiences. Another influential San Francisco fusion musician was Australian pianist Mike Nock. With his band Fourth Way, Nock was one of the first to pioneer electronics in jazz—using synthesizers, ring modulators, flanges, Fender Rhodes piano, phase shifters, and wah-wah pedals. San Francisco psychedelic bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane also showed the influence of the free improvisation of Ornette Coleman and the modal approaches of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in their extended improvisations and interest in Asian musical motifs. Nor was LA rock immune to the inroads of jazz flavors in the late 60s. Many listeners heard jazz influences in the work of the Doors, and the eclectic Frank Zappa—using musicians like respected pianist George Duke—made frequent forays into electronically-inflected jazz. Steely Dan, another LA-based group, featured complex jazz-influenced harmonics and some of LA’s best jazz and studio players—including saxophonist Wayne Shorter on the group’s 1977 Aja album.

Internet Listening Example

Larry Coryell: “Lady Coryell”
Brecker Brothers: “Sneakin’ Up Behind You”
Blood, Sweat, and Tears: “You Made Me So Very Happy”
Chicago: “Beginnings”
The Grateful Dead: “Dark Star”
Charles Lloyd: “Forest Flower”
Steely Dan: “Aja”

Miles and His Disciples
Meanwhile, Miles Davis was observing Charles Lloyd’s popularity, listening to Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, and being pressured by his label to put out records that matched rock sales. He made an initial move in a new direction with the release of In A Silent Way in 1969, with a deep electric groove produced by guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Tony Williams, and three keyboardists—Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul. According to critic Lester Bangs,

“This is the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music. It’s not rock and roll but it’s nothing stereotyped as jazz either. It’s part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away.” 21
A year later Davis released the classic Bitches Brew album, which pointed the way toward jazz-rock fusion and validated the new direction for many listeners and artists. With his trumpet channeled through a wah-wah pedal, Davis presided over a thick electronic ensemble of two keyboards, two bassists, three drummers, an electric guitarist, a percussionist, and two reed players. Record company promotion called the work “a new direction in music,” and by the end of its first year of release, Bitches Brew had reached the top 40 and received a Grammy. Davis’ subsequent engagements at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and Fillmore West—together with a new wardrobe—signaled the artist’s new path. He continued with several more albums in the new genre, experienced a hiatus in the mid-70s due to health problems, and returned with funk-pop flavored work in the 80s.

Davis’ former sidemen struck out on their own to produce influential fusion work that dominated much of the 70s. Pianist Herbie Hancock put together a funk unit that yielded the influential Head Hunters album (1973) and the hit single “Chameleon,” and he focused on electric music for the rest of the decade. Drummer Tony Williams formed the group Lifetime with guitarist John McLaughlin and produced several albums, including Emergency. McLaughlin next teamed up with drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, whose signature was blistering tempos and unusual time signatures, as heard in albums like Inner Mounting Flame. Pianist Chick Corea formed Return to Forever and seemed ubiquitous on the fusion scene for over a decade, releasing fusion standards like “500 Miles High” and “Spain.” Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Joe Zawinul joined with bassist Miroslav Vitous—and later bassist Jaco Pastorius—to form Weather Report, one of the most popular of the fusion supergroups. For 15 years and as many albums, the band’s free-floating sound combined jazz, rock, funk, Latin and world musics to produce releases like Weather Report, Black Market, and Heavy Weather. The group’s “Birdland” became a hit and jazz standard.

Internet Listening Example

Miles Davis: “Bitches Brew”
Herbie Hancock: “Chameleon”
Tony Williams Lifetime: “Emergency”
Chick Corea: “Spain”
Mahavishnu Orchestra: “The Noonward Race”
Weather Report: “Birdland”

Smooth Jazz Slides In
Fusion was popular until the end of the 70s. In its place rose a less aggressive form of popular electric instrumental music called smooth jazz. One of the early precursors to smooth jazz was guitarist Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life, an album produced by Creed Taylor, who subsequently founded CTI Records. Throughout the 70s and 80s, CTI released a series of string-infused, listener-friendly, pop-jazz albums by artists like Grover Washington, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, and Stanley Turrentine. The Crusaders (formerly the Jazz Crusaders) codified the groove-based, jazz/funk instrumental style of smooth jazz when they moved away from hard bop in the early 70s to produce the funky instrumental hit, “Put It Where You Want It.” Downbeat magazine described the flavor of the Crusaders:

“Crusader style music combines a brand of jazz that rocks, and rock that swings, along with some down-home funk that has gospel overtones.” 22
The sound of smooth jazz was also disseminated into the American entertainment mainstream via movie scores and TV show instrumental themes. By the mid-70s, some critics like Robert Palmer argued that jazz-rock seemed to have surrendered to commercial homogenization:
Electric jazz/rock fusion music is a mutation that’s beginning to show signs of adaptive strain. Fusion bands have found that it’s a good idea to stick with fairly simple chord voicings. Otherwise the sound becomes muddy and overloaded. This means that the subtleties of jazz phrasing, the multi-layered textures of jazz drumming and the music’s rich harmonic language are being abandoned.” 23
In the late 70s, many major early fusion innovators like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and the group V.S.O.P.—which brought together Hancock, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Wayne Shorter‐dispensed with electronic instruments to return to an acoustic format.

Smooth jazz grew throughout the 80s and 90s, propelled by popularity in films, TV, records, and new FM stations. The successful smooth jazz radio format blended soft R&B with pop-jazz instrumentals, and guitarists like Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, and Jeff Lorber became masters of the new genre. The biggest-selling smooth jazz artist was soprano saxophonist Kenny G (Kenny Gorelick). A former member of Jeff Lorber’s group, Kenny G debuted as a solo act in 1982. The artist became a star in 1986 with “Songbird.” A subsequent release, Breathless, topped eight million copies in sales—an unheard-of feat in jazz circles, and the artist ultimately sold 70 million copies over a two-decade period.

Multicultural Note: Why Does Kenny G Anger Jazz Purists?

There is little doubt of Kenny G’s appeal to hundreds of thousands of casual radio listeners. He focuses on melody, plays with emotion, and does not tax the listener.

Mention of Kenny G to some jazz purists and jazz musicians, however, can provoke an angry response. Criticism ranges from the artist’s pitch problems (he is said to play flat), to his sideways embrochure, his lack of improvisational skill, even his hair. Most angering to many was a 199? release in which Kenny G dubbed his own playing over a classic track by jazz legend Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World.” Guitarist Pat Metheny’s angry denunciation of the release was widely circulated over the internet:

“Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture.” 24
Do you think that the anger of some jazz aficionados and musicians over Kenny G’s work is justified?

The GRP label became the home of choice for many smooth jazz fusion acts in the 80s and 90s—artists like David Benoit, Eric Marenthal, and groups like Spryo Gyra, the Yellowjackets, and the Rippingtons. Smooth jazz was established as a potent commercial force, and artists wrote tunes to coincide with the requirements of rigid formatting. One radio station manager clearly laid out the commercial imperative:

“We are looking for bright tempos and melodies that are recognizable. We want melodic strength that the casual listener or non-aficionado can pick up on.” 25