Two unique jazz phenoms of the Reagan '80s -- tapping guitarist Stanley Jordan and falsetto scatting legend Bobby "Don't Worry, Be Happy" McFerrin -- are back.
Leg warmers, giant shoulder pads. Baggy pleated pants. Rock stars with mullets and key-tars.
Yeah, the '80s. You remember them with some personal pain. What was I thinking? And, What was I listening to?
The most powerful, historic trend in the jazz of the '80s was probably the rise of a new generation of musicians who would revisit the “hard bop” of the '50s and '60s, the most prominent being Wynton Marsalis. This neo-classicism or mainstream jazz “revival” was celebrated by some folks and lamented by others. It was great to have driving, acoustic jazz crackling from the instruments of young players, but it also felt like some kind of reversal, as if the daring music of the jazz avant-garde in various incarnations was being denied, lost, buried. This trend marks the music to this day.
The other sizable '80s jazz trend was, of course, so-called “smooth jazz”, a form of instrumental pop music that sort of emerged from jazz-rock fusion and also complicated the definitions of the music during this time.
So much of the jazz of the Reagan decade, however, was neither Kenny G’s “Songbird” nor Wynton’s Black Codes (From the Underground). And that's the music that's easier to forget and harder to make sense of.
Two of the '80s Fads Jazz Stars
In 1982, a not-all-that-young singer released a debut album on Elektra/Musician that combined tunes by Horace Silver and Smokey Robinson, Bud Powell and Van Morrison. He wasn’t a regular singer, however, not another crooner (like Harry Connick, Jr, who would also emerge in the '80s) singing Gershwin like a Baby Sinatra.Bobby McFerrin was one-of-a-kind.
McFerrin was a terrific vocalist with a gravity-defying ability to smoothly shift from his appealing chest-deep voice into an even more appealing and unique falsetto. Beyond that, McFerrin had developed an astonishing and playful style, using body and vocal percussion, upper register scatting, and a freedom of tone that made his singing into a party, free of jazz “seriousness” but rich in spontaneity. The debut record’s opening track, the 1975 hit song “Dance with Me”, was so infectious (and so much more alive than the original) that you just had to root for this guy. His wordless falsetto improvisations were genuinely terrific, even on a simple pop tune. And you got a real sense of what he did best on his a cappella, wordless, and overdubbed version of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations”, where he covers melody and bass line in duet, swinging like mad while crafting a bebop improvisation as credible as a horn player’s.
McFerrin’s full astonishment made it to record two years later on The Voice, an album of live solo pieces on which he covered melody, harmony, and rhythm on a full set of tunes without overdubbing or accompaniment. Familiar tunes like “Blackbird” and “I Feel Good” are honored with spare arrangements. McFerrin has a gift for moving between registers, slapping his chest while creating vocal pops, flying across a set of jazz chord changes like Art Tatum, but with the ability to create only one note at a time.
At very nearly the same moment, along comes a guitar player who's pulling off a similar bit of musical trickery and dazzle. Stanley Jordan grew up in the Chicago area and studied music theory and composition at Princeton (with Milton Babbitt and Paul Lansky, to boot). What made him stand out was his development of a unique two-handed tapping technique on guitar that allowed him to play almost like a pianist — tapping with both hands to achieve full melodic counterpoint and harmonic accompaniment.
Jordan made a splash in part because he was the very first artist signed by Bruce Lundvall to the new “revived” Blue Note Records in 1985. His debut for Blue Note, Magic Touch, followed a formula similar to McFerrin’s: a Beatles tune (“Eleanor Rigby”), and canny recent hit song (Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life”), and some jazz standards to demonstrate legit chops (“Freddie Freeloader” from Kind of Blue and Monk’s "‘Round Midnight”). The album sat atop the jazz charts that year for 51 straight weeks -- a record. And, no doubt, the tunes where he plays solo blew listeners away. One guy, one guitar, no overdubs, and he can play all of that on “A Child is Born”? Wowee-zowee.
Both Jordan and McFerrin were most astonishing to see live, of course, where their "slight of hand” was undeniable. McFerrin’s ultimate party trick (seen by many on PBS as part of pledge drives broadcasts) was to perform the entirety of The Wizard of Oz in about seven minutes, flying across the stage, orchestrating vocal contributions from the audience, and making music feel as joyous as it can feel. Jordan really had to be seen to be believed, as well — as the agreed-upon reaction to him was: one guy can’t be doing that alone.
Jazz in the '80s Was Still Only a Few Steps Away From Pop Culture
What's interesting about the McFerrin/Jordan phenomenon is probably not that it happened or that it happened in t'e 180s. There have always been novelty acts in American music, of course, and it can hardly have been a surprise that the Reagan years — a time when the US was doing its darnedest to forget Vietnam, Iranian hostages, and the crummy economics of the '70s in general — producing a yearning to some good ol’ razzle-dazzle. But how unlikely was it that these characters would emerge from the jazz world?
In 1982, however, jazz was closer to the center of American culture than it is today. It was in 1982 when Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell put together a tune called “Rockit” for Hancock’s Future Shock. “Rockit, of course, wasn’t jazz — it was the first hip hop that most folks ever heard — but it came from a jazz musician who was drawing on the grand well of black American music in the tradition of Ellington and Mingus. Jazz brass player Chuck Mangione composed the theme for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics and played the national anthem live on television for a 1983 World Series baseball game. Jazz still had a line into the culture 35 years ago.
Of course, McFerrin would become a true '80s pop culture icon in 1988 when the first track on his overdubbed classic Simple Pleasures became the first a cappella song to hit the top of the pop charts. The ironic “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” lassoed listeners by the millions on the strength of McFerrin’s infectious sound, a video featuring Robin Williams and Bill Irwin (as well as the singer), and a zeitgeist-catching message of optimism. Within the year, the Berlin Wall would fall and US optimism seemed ascendant over Soviet autocracy. In such a world, maybe a jazz singer really could be a star and jazz guitarist an innovator who would change the face of an entire instrument.
Stars Burn Bright but Briefly
Novelty acts don’t tend to last. Jordan had his magic two-handed tapping, but the biggest hit on that debut record was the Michael Jackson cover, where he was just playing pentatonic licks over a Yamaha DX7 rhythm section, and on other tracks he was just keeping up with a straight ahead band. A whole career of two-handed tapping turned out to be unlikely, and as a straight jazz guitarist, Jordan was... just okay. Even the tapping stuff felt thin when the dazzle wore off. The tone Jordan got from the tapping was brittle, and his note choices seemed constrained and dull at times, as if the pianistic approach required by the technique lent itself to standard, staid harmonies. By the early '90s, the revelation attached to hearing Jordan for the first time was forgotten at a time when “conventional” jazz guitar in hands of John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell was flourishing with creativity beyond technique.
McFerrin’s career went differently. He seemed to sense that his unique talent required a unique path. In the early '90s, he focused on a series of collaborations: with cellist Yo-yo Ma, with jazz pianist Chick Corea, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, with the smooth jazz outfit The Yellowjackets. In these guises, McFerrin was neither a pop star nor a jazz innovator but something interesting still: a pure singer working across different genres but with a clear sound and identity — a brand of one, but a delightful one.
Despite their differences, the careers of Jordan and McFerrin have a lot in common. Both came from jazz and made an impact as jazz musicians used to: as astonishing technicians who also speak to the heart. Both would be linked to the rising “smooth jazz” scene without ever really being smooth staples or defined by that genre’s weaknesses. They made appealing music that drew, simultaneously, on both pop/rock tunes and jazz standards without making that seem odd — and in that sense they were the leading edge of a practice that would become commonplace a decade or so later.
In most respects, however, their artistry came to feel like a dead end: a vein of jazz that couldn’t reasonably be repeated or extended by another artist. Two-handed tapping on the guitar, for the most part, began and ended with Jordan. Despite plenty of a cappella groups adapting McFerrin’s chest slapping percussion, the notion that other jazz singers would become falsetto-crazy one-man-bands was absurd. McFerrin was singular in the best sense, and the worst.
Yet Their Careers Continue, and Joyously
So, it seems inevitable that someone like me would write a “where are they now?” column about Jordan and McFerrin that might have a sadness about it. In America, is there anything worse than being famous and then falling out of the public eye? The good news about McFerrin and Jordan is that they have both found ways to keep playing and to keep bringing joy. And their latest work is full of that good feeling.
In 2008, Jordan released his first music in a decade after a “self-imposed exile from the rat race”, and State of Nature wasn’t very good. But attempting to rejoin the rat race isn’t usually a good move. Jordan had been out there studying music therapy, however, and has now come back with a recording of duets with fellow guitarist (and fellow pianist, as it turns out) that brings you a sense of peace and good vibes for sure.
Duets is released this month, and it features just these two players; guys each steeped in jazz but indelibly touched by popular culture (Eubanks as Jay Leno’s Tonight Show bandleader for many years), coming back to an intimate program that doesn’t even feint toward popularity. The most “produced” track is called “Vibes”, using overdubbed instruments (including Eubanks playing vibes) to create a delicate tone poem. It's as quiet as music gets, which allows Eubanks’ acoustic nylon string guitar to shine.
Equally good is the duo’s take on Thad Jones’s great ballad “A Child is Born”, where Jordan’s old tapping style feels perfect over a gospel-tinged acoustic piano accompaniment from Eubanks. Then, for “Blue in Green”, the guys switch places and we hear Jordan reharmonize the Kind of Blue classic on piano as Eubanks plays a sharp lead.
The latest release from McFerrin is from 2013, a glorious spiritual/gospel record called spirityouall that manages to integrate McFerrin’s unique voice into a set of arrangements on familiar, comforting material. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is built on layers of voices atop layers of guitars and percussion — a gauzy, impressionist kind of gospel. The old spiritual “Joshua” incorporates all that scatting and slapping that we love from McFerrin, but it stays direct. McFerrin is still incorporating classic rock tunes by pulling off a version of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that totally rethinks the harmony and feel. If you think you’ve heard enough of “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” for a lifetime, what if it got a New Orleans zydeco remake with slide guitar, accordion and Esperanza Spalding for good measure?
These two albums may not be at jazz’s cutting edge, but that was never the goal of these artists. When they emerged, McFerrin and Jordan were fresh sounds who brought jazz to wider audiences. They did it with astonishing technique and with feeling. As time has made their unique skills seem less breathtaking, the feeling has persisted.
Of course, art isn’t about technique in the end. It's about feeling. Music tries to reach into you to touch something personal — it has the power to stir the soul. And these latest efforts from artists whose “glory days” are 30 years past still have the power to stir. It’s the only power that matters over time.
Splash image: photo of Bobby McFerrin, by © Carol Friedman, from Bobby McFerrin.com