Birds of Fire

Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion

by Kevin Fellezs

16 September 2011

Takashi Murata's video still from Cone Eater 

Freejazz and Fusion, Mirrored

That same year, John Coltrane released My Favorite Things, which became a popular hit for him and “reintroduced” the soprano saxophone back into jazz music. More important, the recording showcased Coltrane’s interest in the musical traditions of India through his use of modal, rather than tonal, harmonic frameworks. Also significant was Coltrane’s announcement of his attraction to free jazz aesthetics with another 1960 recording entitled The Avant-Garde. Coltrane’s involvement with free jazz did much to legitimize the style for jazz critics owing to his proven stature within jazz’s mainstream, having performed and recorded with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, among others.

Ted Gioia posits that by the late 1960s, free jazz and fusion were “mirror images” of each other. As I have been suggesting, while free jazz helped move jazz even closer to artistic respectability than bebop before it, fusion was seen as moving jazz toward popular accessibility, a space devoid of high cultural legitimacy. Gioia asserts that this opposition was little noted at the time by jazz critics because of an increasingly fragmenting jazz world. While Gioia’s view of the joined polemics of free jazz and fusion vis-à-vis mainstream jazz is apt, I want to suggest that the jazz world has always been fragmented, and it has been the glossing by historians after the fact that has given jazz history the seamless lineage it enjoys—at least until one begins to look at the 1960s. Different generations of jazz musicians had always crisscrossed stylistic borders as, most famously, when the vocalist Billy Eckstine’s big band ensemble in the 1940s included Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, and a number of other young musicians associated with bebop, a then-new controversial style of jazz. Yet as Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary series indicated, jazz histories are often at a loss to explain the apparent dismantling of a central jazz narrative in the 1960s.

Although the 1960s are often described as a time of a fragmented jazz-scape, however, it may be more productive to think of the period as one in which heightened accumulations of jazz styles were plied across an ever widening set of practices and critical views. Hard bop recordings sat beside free jazz albums in record store bins while mainstream jazz recordings maintained a bebop-inflected core. So-called Dixieland or traditional jazz experienced a revival, especially in Britain and the West Coast of the United States, where bandleaders such as San Francisco’s Lu Watters and Turk Murphy began recording albums that revisited New Orleans repertoire and performance styles.

But even as the 1960s jazz world struggled to accommodate free jazz, by the end of the decade jazz was being challenged in another direction by fusion. Significantly, the rhetorical positioning, by musicians and critics alike, of free jazz and fusion as oppositional to “straight-ahead” or mainstream jazz signaled a collective movement by jazz musicians away from a central idea of jazz into a multiplying array of “jazzes.” Early fusion musicians’ efforts exemplified the tensions this growing inclusivity brought to bear by matching post-tonality to funk rhythms while claiming that they were fundamentally jazz musicians. While fusion artists shared free jazz artists’ aesthetic struggles, because of fusion musicians’ simultaneous engagements with popular music, their aesthetic and political challenges have been overlooked. Pressing this further, I would also suggest that the link between black nationalist politics and free jazz is a construction and is not the result of a “natural” fit between a political ideology and a musical aesthetic. Free jazz artists were a heterogeneous group with a wide spectrum of political views, as interviews with various free jazz artists reveal. In other words, the links between fusion and an apolitical stance are no more “natural” than the connections between free jazz and particular political ideologies.

For example, the critical perspective that aligned free jazz primarily, if not exclusively, with 1960s-era black nationalist separatists obscured other perspectives. One of free jazz’s leading lights, Albert Ayler, stated in a 1963 interview that free jazz “is based on an integrated theory, white people can play it too.” Ayler suggested that “it is undeniably time for a change, but you have to be ready for it. Everybody’s not. Some people don’t want to be free.” The range of opinions about free jazz found in Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones further illustrated the diversity of jazz’s black artistic community regarding politicized music, free jazz, and the historical moment in which free jazz was taking shape (although the book first appeared in 1977, the majority of the interviews were conducted between 1968 and 1972). Yet a majority of the written material on free jazz is devoted to the links between it and the black political struggles of the period. As Iain Anderson notes, free jazz was increasingly visible as a jazz idiom, though “on the edges of the tradition.”

Still, there is a reason free jazz was once called “freedom jazz” by many of its adherents. Many free jazz players looked to liberate themselves not only from conventional Western musical norms and concerns (thematic development, harmonic progressions, rhythmic propulsion) but also from political oppression and cultural exploitation. In this milieu free jazz as avant-garde black music was viewed as political in contradistinction to other jazz styles such as hard bop. Fusion musicians, though less explicitly political, were actively involved with alternative spiritual beliefs and other socially transformative praxis—actions and beliefs that did not register as viable substitutes for direct political action or revolutionary rhetoric during the late 1960s. For example, when the free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp compared his saxophone to a machine gun in the hands of a Viet Cong soldier, stating, “We are only an extension of that entire civil rights–black Muslims-black nationalist movement that is taking place in America,” his politicized rhetoric afforded a certain legitimacy that was denied to fusion musicians such as John McLaughlin or Chick Corea, both of whom advocated religious or spiritual solutions to social and political crises at the time.

Critics may simply have missed, or dismissed, the message. Fusion artists appealed to a variety of nonpolitical changes for their audiences, speaking of spiritual transformation, often in the earnest voice of the newly converted. Chick Corea, the pianist/keyboardist for Miles Davis’s electric groups, as well as leader of his own fusion group, Return to Forever, wrote a column in the October 28, 1971, issue of Down Beat, entitled, “The Function of an Artist.” He argued for an artist’s role in creating, “even if only in our imaginations, ideal scenes of what we would like the world to be like in some not too distant future.” Corea’s view that an artist’s “good intentions” served as a code of ethics was shared by other fusion artists, including his fellow pianists Mike Nock and Herbie Hancock. Corea stated elsewhere:

The true leaders of opinion on this planet are celebrities and artists: people who do something aesthetic for others. People look up to these leaders for evaluation and opinions…  So artists can create a future for this planet by what they think and what they do, which makes the role of the artist one of great responsibility. This is something inherent in the artist, something most artists do without being aware of how they do it. But to be aware of how you do it is even more effective, because you begin to feel the responsibility to continually put out the truth and it kind of puts you on your guard to learn, to be honest, and to improve.

As I will detail in “Meeting of the Spirits,” the idea of enlightening audiences was important for many fusion musicians. However, I want to highlight two things at this point. First, fusion musicians’ interest in various spiritual traditions had more in common with the social transformations advocated by free jazz artists than was noted at the time. This had an impact on my second point, namely, that the focus on spirituality placed many fusion artists in the countercultural rather than the politically radical currents of the era.

Yet, ironically, given the widespread representation of free jazz as the sounding out of radical black nationalism, by the late 1960s, many jazz musicians associated with the free jazz movement found increasing patronage from elite institutions in the form of grants, commissions, prizes, and academic positions. As Iain Anderson points out, “paradoxically, both [free jazz’s] growing association with cultural nationalism, and parallels between free jazz and Euro-American concert tradition, opened doors in the nonprofit sector.” The contradiction between free jazz musicians’ radical political rhetoric and the fact that they were seeking public and private institutional funding would not blemish free jazz artists’ legitimacy in the same way that commercial success would later stain fusion musicians’ creative efforts (in fact, it worked to legitimize free jazz artists as “high culture” artists). Anderson notes the price of this upward mobility for free jazz musicians:

In 1965 Archie Shepp sounded a note of desperation when he told a reporter: “We can’t let the [black] audience escape. We must bring into our music every stench of the streets, every tragedy, don’t let them rest.” By 1968 he admitted to having lost almost all contact with black listeners. Record sales, availability of work, and the reluctant testimony of sympathetic musicians and critics indicate a small, predominantly white, middle-class, and often intellectual or artistic audience. Support in black neighborhoods remained tenuous throughout the decade [1960s], undermining [black] nationalist authority and enabling the trade press to frame free jazz on the edges of the tradition.

Shepp’s eventual turn to an R&B orientation compromised his work for some critics—yet he continued to be heard as a jazz musician. Similarly, though jump blues, hard bop, and soul jazz did not fit into a narrative of jazz music’s increasing complexity and refinement, failing to excite much interest in critical circles, the styles were often heard as part of an expansive definition of the jazz tradition. Jazz critics often dismissed hybrid efforts such as third stream and cool jazz as effete yet still considered them part of a jazz tradition. Like bebop and big band swing before it, free jazz eventually managed to become part of an ever-widening definition of jazz, though arguably remaining marginalized.

By the mid-1960s, however, many jazz musicians recognized their increasing displacement from the popular music mainstream and attempted to regain some ground lost to rock by covering a particular range of rock songs. Beatles tunes, in particular, became commonplace on recordings though these recordings were often seen as calculated strategies to garner larger record sales. In 1966 Duke Ellington recorded his arrangements of the Beatles’ “All My Loving” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on Ellington ’66 (Reprise), while Count Basie also gave a nod to rock’s growing popularity, recording Basie’s Beatle Bag (Verve). Still, the title of Gerry Mulligan’s recording consisting largely of popular music covers, If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em (Limelight 1965), expressed many older jazz musicians’ attitudes about rock music at the time.

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