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 

Complexifying on those Primitivist Expectations

This self-conscious return to the African American roots of jazz music was marked by performative displays of blackness. Hard boppers’ “funkiness” was expressed musically by quoting black gospel and spiritual elements along with a renewed interest in blues forms. I do not mean to suggest that bebop musicians abandoned the blues. Bebop musicians did, in fact, manipulate the blues, complexifying the form through the use of, among other things, substitute harmonies and rhythmic displacements. I do mean to suggest, however, that hard bop musicians engaged a more “roots”-oriented approach to the blues. Eric Porter notes that “many be-boppers saw the blues as a symbol of the limitations placed on them as musicians and as African Americans… symboliz[ing] both the primitivist expectations of a white audience and the demands of a culture industry that wanted to pigeonhole black music.” By contrast, hard boppers openly flaunted their blues orientation by emphasizing, for example, short, rhythmic riffs, rather than long, complex lines, and a danceable backbeat rather than the rhythmic displacements of bebop drummers. Hard bop musicians also strayed from bebop’s subversion of popular song harmonies, choosing instead to play on modal and pentatonic harmonic structures.

Songs like Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” were typical hard bop reengagements of earlier black music traditions. While bebop musicians marked out a space for African American high cultural status, hard bop musicians thumbed their noses at such pretense. Deplored by middle-class blacks interested in political and economic uplift, hard bop musicians’ use of black slang was their means of demarcating “soulfulness” and the authenticity of hard bop’s roots. Using black vernacular in titles such as “Moanin’,” “Strollin’,” “Pentecostal Feelin’,” “Dat Dere,” and “Messin’ Around” was a way to actively reengage working-class African American culture, explicitly coding black vernacular speech as a signifying ground on which their music was created, performed, and heard. As a generic marker, hard bop was also less parochial than other jazz styles, encompassing everything from the funky “soul jazz” organ trios of Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff to the more mainstream jazz bands of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the 1950s Miles Davis groups.

But, like many popular jazz styles, hard bop was met with critical opprobrium. In his essay “The Funky-Hard Bop Regression” Martin Williams wrote, “The gradual dominance of the Eastern and then national scene in jazz by the so-called ‘hard bop’ and ‘funky’ school has shocked many commentators and listeners. The movement has been called regressive, self-conscious, monotonous, and even contrived.” Contrary to critical efforts to foreground hard bop’s commercial success as a means to dismiss the style, the music was embraced by some in the black community as a way of affirming black political empowerment. In the words of a Harlem record storeowner, “I think most of that soul music is now being manufactured rather than felt but at least this is one time in jazz history when the Negroes are popularizing their own music. It would take a lot of courage for Stan Kenton or Shorty Rogers [both white jazz musicians] to call one of their albums The Soul Brothers.” Although hard bop hits like Lee Morgan’s “Side-winder” (1963) and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (1962) helped keep jazz in the popular mainstream, however, the politics of dance and the body failed to register with dominant critical discourse as little more than lightweight entertainment. The dance club and mass popularity, for all its valorization in big band swing discourse, engendered very little prestige elsewhere in much of the mainstream jazz criticism of the postwar period.

* * *

Like hard bop, funk music was antithetical to middle-class black aspirations. It represented the same move “backward” in its celebration of black physicality that a black politics of uplift had continually struggled against in a variety of popular culture forms, from minstrelsy in the nineteenth century through the use of jazz as a space of (white) transgression. This debate took a slightly different tangent in the 1960s, when critics such as Amiri Baraka decried the antagonisms the black bourgeoisie felt toward the blues at the time. The issue of black representation in popular music remained a volatile issue within the black community in the 1970s. The funk diva Betty Davis, at one time married to Miles Davis, had her concerts boycotted by black religious organizations and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publicly denounced her single, “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” from her 1973 debut album. Yet, as Scot Brown notes in his study of the Dayton, Ohio, music scene that spawned the seminal funk band Ohio Players, funk music’s formation was largely the result of the increased economic resources of working-class blacks throughout the 1960s: “The availability of relatively high-wage working class jobs in Dayton, from the World War II era through the early 1970s, gave families resources to purchase instruments, vehicles for transportation, and sound equipment.” The distinction between African American middle-class and working-class aspirations of the era is seen in the ways jazz moved toward the symphony hall while funk remained decidedly popular and populist in its appeal. I want to draw attention, however, to the fact that, like earlier blues, rhythm-and-blues, and hard bop musicians (and unlike, say, black minstrels and vaudevillians), a career in funk music held out the promise of upward social mobility from the working class while still acknowledging, even honoring, those roots.

This upward mobility came at a price, however. The simultaneous commercial success with mainstream audiences of the film Shaft (1971) and Isaac Hayes’s soundtrack cemented the relationship between funk music and representations of “the street.” This link between sound and image has continued to provide the U.S. popular imaginary with authenticating tropes of black urban grittiness represented through a black hypersexual and violent pathology—all supported by a funky backbeat, syncopated wah-wah rhythm guitar, and aggressive bass lines (its continuing resonance is witnessed by the fact that funk has not yet been entirely displaced by hip-hop or rap in movie or television soundtracks as a sonic signifier of a particular kind of urban, “street” blackness). Yet films such as Shaft also resonated with black audiences, who read these films as affirmations of black (male) superiority and power against (white) oppression. Through their relationship to these films, their images and their narrative thrust, funk music provided a rich intertextual linkage, reinforcing not only funk’s blackness but also its confluence with the black power ideological currents of the era.

To return to fusion: Herbie Hancock was explicit about the division between older, jazz-oriented understandings of funky and more contemporaneous ideas about the term, declaring, “Well, [Horace Silver performed] some of the first funky piano playing, though it’s applied towards a jazz sound in the rhythm section. That kind of playing overlaps what I’m talking about, but they’re not the same thing. Horace is within the jazz framework, and I’m closer to the R&B framework. There’s a stylistic difference, even though there’s a common ground.” Hancock underlined rhythm’s fundamental place in understanding funk, declaring, “There’s another reason for my present style: I haven’t found a way to do more advanced things harmonically without losing the funkiness of it. That’s why I don’t like a lot of jazz/rock fusion music. They lose the funkiness because they put more emphasis on harmony than rhythm.” As Hancock also notes, while there are shared elements among the various kinds of musical funkiness, there are distinctions in kind, as well. For example, as I have mentioned, similar to their peers in the rock world, funk musicians were also exploring and utilizing the latest studio technology. Additionally, where rhythm and blues was built around star vocalists backed by anonymous studio bands, funk musicians were more likely to be members of self-contained bands, performing and recording songs they composed and arranged themselves—similar, again, to the rock bands of the era.

I want to conclude my admittedly too-brief look at funk to suggest that privileging “the one” can be conceived of as more than a call to a particular musical groove. Looking at the 1970s helps us consider the ways in which funk musicians—jazz, pop, or otherwise—transformed the meanings blackness registered in the popular imaginary through their reconceptions and performances of an aesthetic that recognized and paid tribute to Afro-diasporic connections at a time when black sociopolitical movements were challenging the subordinate, even degraded, status of blackness itself. As Tony Bolden notes, “James Brown’s 1972 hit single ‘Make It Funky’ codified a clarion call within a wide spectrum of black (organic) artists and intellectuals, just as Duke Ellington had theorized self-reflexively in his 1932 recording of ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Importantly, funk musicians reached out beyond the borders of the United States—indeed, of the planet—as a means to locate their music and aesthetics within a broader space than allowed by the commercial genre considerations dictated by historically racist music industry practices. In this light James Brown’s call to “hit on the one” also points to the connections among Afrodiasporic musical practices, a unified yet dispersed and diverse grouping of musical traditions that ranges from BaBenzélé hunting songs to Pentecostal gospel, through Brazilian samba and Puerto Rican plena, as well as can be heard in Trinidad and Tobago’s soca and Jamaican reggae. As Radano argues in Lying Up a Nation, black music, as a category, was constructed out of a complex set of possibilities, arriving at the end of a long discursive trail marking the distinctions between white and nonwhite musical traditions, particularly as demarcated in the “new world” of chattel slavery of African-descended peoples. Pointedly, Brown’s calls emphasizing “the one” speaks to the multiple historic and aesthetic connections among the widely scattered musical cultures created by blacks in contact with other cultures and out of which Brown, Stone, Clinton, and other funk musicians performed and celebrated.

Roger Wyan Photography

© Roger Wyan Photography

Kevin Fellezs is Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University.

© Kevin Fellezs

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