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The History Of Jazz - Part 8
- Fusion Jazz

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The History Of Jazz - Part 8
- Fusion Jazz

By the late Sixties jazz was rapidly losing its audience. Bebop and Swing were both old hat though each had their followers, as had Free Jazz, the new movement of the early Sixties had never won much of an audience outside of Europe.

In New York it was to be found much more often in the low rent lofts of Manhattan than in commercial clubs and even big stars like Miles Davis were finding their record sales and concert attendances were dipping.

Not for the first, or last time, people started to talk about the Death of Jazz, s omething had to be done and once again it was Miles Davis who did it.

Miles' conclusion was that jazz got dangerously 'out of touch' with its natural constituency who were young, urban Afro-Americans as after Bop they had slowly drifted away.  Bop and Cool were not very danceable. ‘The New Thing’ was even less so as all the person in the street could hear was a lot of very unappealing squeaks and gibbers.

The popular black music had long been Soul or Electric Blues. The jazz audience had in fact become largely middle class and white, even the younger middle-class white listeners had now turned more or less exclusively to Rock.

Miles decided that 'if you can't beat them you might as well join them'. He started to listen closely to Sly And The Family Stone, a pop-soul-rock band that was very successful in 1968 and slowly at first he began to move in the same direction.

On 'Miles In The Sky', 'Filles De Kilimanjaro', both from 1968 and 'In A Silent Way' there are new sidemen, the keyboard players Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, British bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John McLaughlin and the sound was becoming truly electric, but the breakthrough album was 'Bitches Brew' (1969) which added a new drummer, Jack DeJohnette and unveiled a completely new style i.e. Jazz-Rock Fusion.

'Bitches Brew' is one of the most divisive jazz albums ever made. To some it is another of Miles's great steps forward, a session to put beside 'Birth Of The Cool' and 'Kind Of Blue'. To others it marked the point where he ceased to be of any serious musical interest and these were not necessarily the nostalgic, ageing fans of his earlier work, they also include the young neo-classical Beboppers of the Eighties like Wynton Marsalis.

Yet Davis never looked back, he adopted an electric trumpet with a wah-wah device and performed in ever more thunderously amplified contexts until retiring from music in 1976 for a period of intense dissipation and near mental breakdown. After he returned in 1981 he continued to toy with Pop music and even Disco sounds.

His sidemen of the Sixties were quick to follow suit. Within a year or two all of them had formed their own fusion bands, Chick Corea formed 'Return To Forever' (a gloriously period name), Zawinul and Shorter, 'Weather Report', John McLaughlin, the 'Mahavishnu Orchestra', and Jack DeJohnette, the 'Special Edition'.

All were very successful, soon more or less everybody was doing it and Hard Bop trumpeters whose ambitions had previously barely extended to owning a sports car were now flying around the world in private planes. These were delirious times, the most lucrative days for jazz musicians since the heyday of Swing.

Jazz-Rock wasn’t the only variety of Fusion going on, soon just about any musical form you can mention was being fused with Jazz and anything else that came to mind. John McLaughlin went in for Indian music and Flamenco, Chick Corea added Latin flavouring while the Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira worked with Miles Davis and Weather Report amongst others. His wife, singer Flora Purim joined him in ‘Return To Forever’.

Latin Jazz-which had been an accepted hybrid since Dizzy Gillespie started experimenting with it in the Forties grew in popularity and continued to do so dramatically through the Eighties.

Keith Jarrett blended jazz with Classical music and Country and Western amongst other ingredients in his epic and very popular solo piano improvisations.

This wasn't the end of the blending that went on. The notion of mixing jazz with native elements introduced the possibility of jazz, or jazz-derived music that didn't imitate the American original.

The South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim bad been introducing African elements into jazz since the Sixties and in the Seventies and Eighties his music took on a more and more indigenous colouring. Others followed in the same path.

In Europe it was the Norwegian Jan Garbarek, after working with various permutations of Freedom and Fusion he began to explore the Folk music of Scandinavia and developed a bleak northern idiom which has little to do with Armstrong or Basie but still found a large audience.

This Euro-sound has appealed to other players like John Surtnan and saxophonist Tommy Smith in the United Kingdom, however how much of this was ‘good music’ is another question !  The first wave of Jazz Rock was often very slight stuff and Chick Corea's ‘Return To Forever’ is a perfect example of this. As the vogue wore on the Fusion bands got lighter and lighter weight.

Much of their music lacks the virtues of both Jazz and Rock. As for the other blends on the market, Garbarek and Jarrett for example, they too have very few of the traditional qualities of jazz but they have nevertheless found an audience.

Up to a point the question, ‘ Is it really jazz ? ’  is academic, the term ‘ Improvised Music ’  is often preferred for the more remote varieties of Freedom and Fusion, but the blurring of jazz identity in the Seventies undoubtedly led to its reassertion by the young neo-classicists of the Eighties.

The urge to Fuse is by no means dead, however Rock inflections and techniques colour the work of John Scofield and Bill Frisell for example, two guitarists who have been very prominent in the following years and in seam of a truly contemporary idiom the altoist Steve Coleman and band M-Base have attempted to fuse Post-Free Jazz with Hip-Hop.

As with so much Fusion the ‘ end product ‘ was sadly not as good as the ‘ ingredients ‘ which went into it.

Next Time in Part 9 - Neo Jazz

* Also see :- Louis Armstrong Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

Wes George (former Sony Jazz webmaster)
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