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 

Gettin’ Seriously Funky

Still, by the mid-1960s rock clearly outsold and out-hyped other forms of popular music. Throughout the period the music industry played a part in forming a growing audience for rock music from a group who might have previously been disposed to jazz, as youthful audiences responded to the transgressive and libidinous energies in rock that their parents had heard in jazz. The construction of a market-driven culture industry dictated (apparently) new forms of (in reality) old products, as Adorno criticized. One of the self-perpetuating effects of the continual renewal of popular music forms was that diverse audiences projected their sense of self onto popular music performers and genre-defining performative gestures, basing their projections on delineations shaped, in part, by the music industry.

Yet by the late 1960s, rock musicians did more than simply sell vast sums of recordings to unsophisticated listeners or represent “teen rebellion.” They became spokespeople for a radical youth counterculture advocating serious political and social agendas in more confrontational ways than those articulated by earlier youth subcultures such as the flappers or even the beatniks—groups who seemed less committed to radical social change, at least to the fans of then-underground acid rock bands like the Grateful Dead or mainstream popular bands such as the Rolling Stones. As Ralph J. Gleason would write in 1967, “The most immediate apparent change instituted by the new music [acid rock] is a new way of looking at things. We see it evidenced all around us. The old ways are going and a new set of assumptions is beginning to be worked out. I cannot even begin to codify them. Perhaps it’s much too soon to do so. But I think there are some clues—the sacred importance of love and truth and beauty and interpersonal relationships.” This idea of radical social transformation through musical change—as well as the role of the individual, rather than the collective, in such transfiguration—would have a significant impact on early fusion musicians.

Ain’t Jazz, Ain’t Rock…

“Most critics use formal criteria in evaluating music, but you can’t discuss the “harmonics of funk.” It doesn’t apply. You have to evaluate funk on the level of emotions, the projection of emotions, maybe rhythms. We just don’t have the terminology to discuss funky music critically.”
  —Herbie Hancock

“Yeah, [playing funk] is hard to do, real hard.”
  —Herbie Hancock

“Playing funky” has long registered the racialized meanings attached to black music. At the beginning of the twentieth century the legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden composed a tune known as “Funky Butt,” among other titles, and its suppression by New Orleans police, who, according to the clarinetist Sidney Bechet, “whipped heads” whenever it was performed, indicates the term’s volatile signification. Funk, referring to bodily fluids and excretions, was explicit in its evocation of embodied activity, often hyper-sexualized and racialized—to “get funky,” then, was to be overcome with black physicality. Funky was used to describe early jazz, as well as nineteenth-century minstrelsy songs, and the attachment of physical pleasures—dance, sex, and other forms of physical activities—to the music underlined both its transgressive and its nonintellectual purview. The recurrent crises around popular music have some of their roots in the construction of black music as a space of transgression. The devalued position the music genre named funk occupies in dominant music discourse, scholarly and popular, is indicated by the relative paucity of texts devoted to serious discussions of its history, aesthetics, or cultural meanings, particularly in light of the vast and growing amount of literature devoted to Afrodiasporic music in general.

My central point is that funk musicians in the 1970s were partially shaped by the longer histories of “funky music” in the United States and, assisted by the creative possibilities that technology granted them, created an aesthetic that not only renewed ties to an African heritage but also made “cultural moves,” to borrow Herman Gray’s provocative term for an expansive vision of black cultural production, toward a future free of the various discursive and material constraints they faced at the time. While Gray is primarily concerned with twenty-first-century artists, his argument that “contemporary black cultural politics must get beyond the nostalgic paradigms and moral panics about representation, inclusion, and the threats of technology” motivates this brief look at 1970s funk (and, in fact, guides my concern for situating race in music beyond essentialist celebration or condemnation, broadly speaking). In other words, black funk musicians used funk music to revitalize moribund connections to Africa and preslave pasts while looking to futures beyond contemporaneous conditions of racial discrimination. Indeed, they were active participants in contemporary music-production techniques, freely engaging the technological tools of the time to enhance and extend black histories into an imagined future in which black bodies not only participated in space exploration, for instance, but also imagined space travel as a means to diminish, if not eradicate or reverse, the various meanings funk might register in its relationship with blackness.

Most contemporary popular music audiences hear funk as a genre fashioned by James Brown and his band’s transformation in the 1960s of earlier rhythm-and-blues shuffle rhythms by placing an emphasis on the first beat (also known as the “downbeat”) or, as James Brown expressed it, “the one,” as well as maintaining a hyped up backbeat. Drummers, while emphasizing the downbeat, incorporated the square rhythmic underpinning of a rock steady hi-hat against R&B’s more swing-oriented backbeat, accentuating funk’s polyrhythmic complexity. More important, it was a musical idiom that emphasized polyrhythmic interplay not only between percussion instruments but by organizing the entire musical ensemble—including the electric guitar, organ, horn section, and, the instrument that would come to define much of the sound of 1970s funk, the bass guitar—as a “rhythm machine.” Sly and the Family Stone’s bassist, Larry Graham, is widely credited with inventing the “slap bass” technique, “slapping” the bass strings with his thumb and “popping” the strings with his fingers to create a percussive sound, supplementing rhythmic value to the melodic and harmonic capabilities of the instrument. There were other influential bassists, such as Bootsy Collins of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic (as we will see later, the fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius dramatically transformed the rhythmic orientation of this technique by using it thematically, as well).

By the 1970s, funk was a musical genre created by, marketed to, and popular with an urban African American audience, sounding out the social realities brought by urban “renewal,” white flight to the suburbs, and the political sensibilities that emerged in an increasingly pessimistic post–civil rights era. Funk musicians played with urban African American codings and interacted ironically with dominant understandings of black urban experience. However, I want to avoid reducing funk’s politics to what Matthew Brown terms “politics at the gestural level” and rendering its aesthetic dimension as little more than a shout-out to its advanced polyrhythms or its seductive charms as a “groove” music.

To be sure, funk, like jazz or the blues before it, was marked by the primitivist and hypersexualized meanings attached to black cultural life by dominant white readings. Importantly, though, funk remained distinct from jazz by refusing to attenuate those readings by reducing or obscuring the blackness of the music’s sonic or discursive signifiers in order to achieve mainstream cultural legitimization. Rickey Vincent cogently describes funk as “an aesthetic of deliberate confusion, of uninhibited, soulful behavior that remains viable because of a faith in instinct, a joy of self, and a joy of life, particularly unassimilated black American life.” Indeed, funk musicians foregrounded difference through displays of black flesh on record covers and advertising posters, by embracing black sexuality and physical pleasure, and by otherwise celebrating the black urban experience while critiquing structural and systemic modes of oppression. Gina Dent argues that black pleasure as expressed through and by black music engages a political stance in which black bodies mobilize a counternarrative to those of victimization and humiliation. In this light, “gettin’ down” and “gettin’ it on” were more than salacious calls for sexual play but functioned as entreaties for the vitalization of a black politics through an engagement of black aesthetics. Being funky was a political as well as aesthetic decision, as James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” testified in 1968.

Vincent argues that funk music was “the successor to the soul music of the 1960s in terms of its representations of popular black values—particularly those ideals of social, spiritual, and political redemption.” Vincent explains that as the optimism of the 1960s civil rights movement decreased in the 1970s across black communities and political groups throughout the United States, the cheerful, upbeat sounds of soul music were displaced by the harder-edged sounds of funk. Brian Ward supports Vincent’s assertions by detailing the ways in which the move from soul music to funk occurred in a historical context in which the liberal promises of black integration after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were increasingly dashed by continued educational, employment, and housing inequities between whites and blacks in the United States. As James Brown exhorted audiences in 1974, “People, we got to get over before we go under,” further advising them to “turn on your funk motor, get down and praise the Lord, get sexy, sexy, get funky and dance,” advocating a politics of funk, if you will, in a period of economic “stagflation” linking economic empowerment to a black erotics.

Musically, funk bands such as the Bar-Kays, ConFunkShun, Lakeside, Cameo, and Kool and the Gang moved black popular music away from mainstream notions of consonant harmonic and melodic elements and toward the gritty, even “greasy,” sounds of 1970s urban black life as announced by the band Tower of Power on its 1970 debut recording, East Bay Grease. It is no coincidence that soul music parlayed a strong connection to gospel into a commercial idiom that sounded more conciliatory to integrative desires than to the black nationalist ideals of the black power movement lauded in funk anthems such as the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.”

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