Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion

Kevin Fellezs
Takashi Murata's video still from Cone Eater

By mixing different musical and cultural traditions, fusion artists sought to disrupt generic boundaries, cultural hierarchies, and critical assumptions.

Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion

Publisher: Duke University Press
Price: $23.95
Author: Kevin Fellezs
Length: 312 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-08
Excerpted from Chapter Two, “Where Have I Known You Before? / Fusion’s Foundations” (footnotes omitted) from Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion by © Kevin Fellezs, published August 2011. Copyright © Duke University Press 2011. Reprinted with permission of Duke University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Where Have I Known You Before? / Fusion’s Foundations

”This music is new. This music is new music and it hits me like an electric shock and the word “electric” is interesting because the music is to some degree electric music... Electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not the breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging.”

-- Ralph J. Gleason>

“If music has something to say to you—whether it’s jazz, country blues, Western or hillbilly, Arabian, Indian, or any other Asian, African, South American folk music— take it. Never restrict yourself.”

-- Larry Coryell

In tracing the discursive histories of jazz, rock, and funk, I focus on the ways that racialized ideologies support generic categorizations because race was a fundamental fulcrum on which fusion troubled established relationships between music and meaning. Accordingly, a central problem for many listeners was that, independent of the genre they claimed as “their own,” the aesthetics of jazz, rock, and funk were simply too disparate, primarily because of the ways in which genres had been racialized. This idea of incommensurable mixture goes to the heart of the debates surrounding the “ain’t jazz, ain’t rock” music of these young musicians.

By the mid-1970s, jazz, rock, and funk were widely recognized as musical genres with distinctive aesthetics and histories, including a defining core of musicians and recordings. These distinctions would necessarily emphasize the differences among the three genres. To cite an easy contrast that reflected the general sense at the time: where jazz was seen as sophisticated, intellectual, even abstract, rock and funk were in essence primal and visceral, less able to shake off their orientation to the sensual in the way jazz had slowly done as a corollary to its move from a popular form to an art music. Rock and funk, meanwhile, enjoyed their own distinctions in terms of representation and performance—differences that were often openly discussed in racial terms. Rock and funk’s connection to particular bodies (white for rock, black for funk) enabled or constrained musicians’ attempts to mix the two, as the racially integrated rock band Mother’s Finest attested to in its 1976 song “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll.” As we will see, in combining these traditions, Williams, McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Hancock were accused by some listeners of creating a sonic Frankenstein’s monster, depleting jazz’s cerebral delights while divesting rock and funk of their celebrated physicality.

Nor did they limit their blendings to rock and jazz. A wide variety of music attracted the attention of Williams, McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Hancock, who collectively cited Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Ravi Shankar, and Allah Rakha, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, the MC5, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, as influential—not to mention McLaughlin’s study of South Asian music or Mitchell’s affinity for the music of folk musicians such as Tom Rush.

As their cited influences attest, however, these musicians consciously avoided an “anything goes” attitude in their musical hybridizations. They were highly selective about the composition and balance of their mixtures, neither arbitrary nor naive in their borrowings of elements from various musical traditions. They did not simply cart over everything from a given genre or tradition and match it up to their counterparts in other genres or traditions. However—and this is the cause for much of the concern from critics—they could be unapologetically idiosyncratic in their choices for combining various genres and traditions. Following their own tastes, they selected specific elements within a chosen genre or tradition, sometimes disregarding the uses any element may have fulfilled in its original context and reengineering them to suit their own eclectic aesthetic.

Yet for the most part, after the heated debates of the late 1960s and 1970s, jazz critics seemed to settle the question of whether fusion music was jazz by simply ignoring it. Part of the reason fusion created such strong divisions within the jazz community was due to the sense by mainstream jazz musicians and listeners that fusion’s aesthetic compromises hastened the “death of jazz”—a trope that has haunted jazz periodically since the moldy figs and their swing adversaries contested the definition of “real jazz” in the 1930s. Indeed, until recently, trade and scholarly publications that focused on jazz were uniformly circumspect about fusion. Jazz critics applauded Tony Williams for his postfusion acoustic jazz recordings, for instance, while remaining virtually silent about Lifetime, his seminal fusion trio. Likewise, Williams’s final recordings with Bill Laswell, which returned him to the decidedly avant rock direction Lifetime first explored nearly three decades before, have been largely ignored by jazz critics.

Still, we should hear the genre mixtures of Williams, McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Hancock as sounding out the contingencies of transcultural exchanges rather than as the polished efforts of finished cultural projects. Therefore, to understand what motivated fusion musicians to make the sort of musical mixtures they did and why it proved controversial, we need to step back for a brief moment to consider the path these musicians and their predecessors took to arrive at the “ain’t jazz, ain’t rock, (ain’t funk)” music of the 1970s.

Ain’t Rock

”I could put together the greatest rock ’n’ roll band you ever heard.”

-- Miles Davis

“We’re not a rock band.”

-- Miles Davis

In the period between the Second World War and the rise of fusion in the late 1960s, various subgenres of jazz—bebop, jump blues, third stream, soul jazz, cool, and free jazz—were the shifting sands on which the roles that race, gender, and social class played in jazz were debated. For critics reticent to engage the links between race and genre head-on, appeals to jazz as a mark of U.S. national identity helped negotiate around the role social identity played in the relationship between jazz and elite art culture. In 1938 Winthrop Sargeant, while arguing against the idea that jazz was an art music, suggested that “while [jazz’s] ancestry may be African and European, it is none the less a peculiarly American form of musical expression. The spontaneous, improvisatory aspect of jazz is remarkably adapted to the musical needs of a pragmatic, pioneering people. Like the typical American, the jazz musician goes his own syncopated way, making instantaneous and novel adjustments to problems as they present themselves.” Sargeant’s vision of the jazz musician’s individualistic “syncopated way” as the solution to “problems” projects a remarkably autonomous world of individuals free to make “instantaneous and novel adjustments” as their response. His description merges a thoughtful pragmatism—a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself work ethos—to an adventurous pioneering spirit—a willingness to break free of precedent and follow one’s muse. Sargeant heard the resolution, the synthesis, if you will, between the two ideals in a jazz music appreciated by a racially unmarked American subject.

Race was implicit, however, in the arguments between jazz critics and musicians over whether jazz was art music or a popular, even populist, music. In attempting to displace the social and political articulations of jazz artists by inadvertent or intentional inattentiveness to the underlying discourse of race, jazz critics often aestheticized a politically charged cultural practice and attenuated the oppositional strain in the music. As jazz became increasingly recognized as art music—rather than as mere entertainment or as part of an ephemeral popular culture—black jazz musicians, in particular, were both wary and inviting of their rising cultural capital. As early as 1925, Joel Rogers, writing in Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro, recognized that in “white society’s interest in [jazz there was] both a means for jazz to fulfill America’s democratic potential and the risk that black contributions might be erased.”

For their part black jazz musicians often linked jazz to ideas about American individualism and exceptionalism as a way to alleviate racial condescension. Yet working in a social milieu that celebrated their music but continued to bar them from political and social opportunities left many black jazz musicians ambivalent about their position as artists and entertainers. The marked difference between jazz as art and jazz as the “people’s music,” as Sidney Finkelstein called it, has been negotiated in various ways: from Jelly Roll Morton’s insistence on the importance of jazz as “pure music” to Duke Ellington’s engagements with long forms; from big band swing’s mass popularity to bebop’s bohemian exclusivity; from the New Orleans and blues primitivist mythologies to the urbane intellectualism of third stream and bebop; and from the emotional distance of cool to the sweat-invoking dance rhythms of soul jazz. Caught in the bind of American racial politics, Ellington recognized the deep irony at the heart of jazz discourse, writing, “I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores... Its guarded leisure and its music, were all our creations.” Marking American-ness in an explicitly racialized way, Ellington voiced the racial contradiction that jazz music articulated: a “free” music created by “unfree” musicians was American, not simply because the “typical American goes his own syncopated way” through the workings of an innate democratic impulse but, rather, because of institutionalized racism and its effects on black and white Americans.

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