Monsters of Jazz-Influenced Rock
“ Rock 'n' Roll went from being disposable teenage pap to becoming a legitimate art form, if you can call thinly-veiled drug references set to fake sitars art ”
And the winner of the "Guess the Clip" contest was Shawn M., who correctly identified 32 of the 34 participants from 1978's classic Dogpile on Delilah. No one was able to identify John McLaughlin's "Friendship."
Now, on to new business.
One of the most frequent requests I receive here in the Infotainment Division, besides queries related to my encyclopedic knowledge of movies where Toshiro Mifune scowls and scratches himself a lot, is for a critical analysis of the influence of jazz in rock music. I have long planned on just such a thing, and was going to get around to it after my three-part series on the evolution of Miles Davis' hair (Part I: The Jheri Curl Sessions). But when my research bogged down, mainly because those bastards at the Library of Congress refused to man up and go get The Illustrated History of the Afro back from Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.), I decided to go ahead with the rock thing.
Rock 'n' Roll music was invented in the relatively peaceful and prosperous 1950's to give everyone over the age of thirty something to complain about. It was the perfect music for teenagers; loud, kinetic, simplistic, and filled with overwrought emotions. Ostensibly an amalgam of blues, folk, country (!), and rhythm and blues, it represented that uniquely American ability to take a variety of disparate influences and cobble them together into a unique product that may be sold back to the masses for two prices.
From the very beginning, Rock 'n' Roll shared some very important characteristics with jazz. Both relied heavily upon saxophones as lead instruments, both rose from the outskirts of society to become an integral part of the American musical canon, and both went through more ganja than Willie Nelson hanging out at Snoop Dogg's playing Guitar Hero with the ghost of Bob Marley.
As Rock 'n' Roll evolved (if you can call it that), it began to differentiate itself from its influences. The guitar moved to the forefront as the lead instrument, a slight which saxophone players have still never fully forgiven as they've been relegated to permanent wing-man status and even the bassist is getting more leg.
Such as that is.
Throughout the 1960's, Rock 'n' Roll went from being disposable teenage pap to becoming a legitimate art form, if you can call thinly-veiled drug references set to fake sitars art. Crowded between the mass marketed top-forty fluff and pretentious psychadelia, a few players were venturing beyond the sacred three-chord trinity and developing some serious chops. The Zombies' keyboardist Rod Argent incorporated credibly jazz-inspired licks to his solo on 1964's classic "She's Not There," and Jimi Hendrix took elements of blues and free jazz and melded them together into a blistering style that still sells Fender Stratocasters to middle-class stoners.
Rock (it dropped the "'n' Roll" after losing a copyright infringement lawsuit to Wok 'n' Roll, a chain of incredibly forward-thinking drive-thru Chinese restaurants) began borrowing from jazz more liberally. Some credit John Coltrane's extended improvisations on his unlikely top-forty hit version of "My Favorite Things" with inspiring not only long-form rock hits like The Doors' seven-minute "Light My Fire" and CCR's eleven-minute "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," but later jam bands from The Grateful Dead to Phish. Coltrane would be posthumously acquitted of this charge in 1977, when the U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals determined that there's just no accounting for some white folks.
Perhaps the breakthrough moment for Rock-Jazz relations came when Miles Davis, working with chemists from Dow and the guy who coined the term "crunchocolatey," developed a Jazz/Rock hybrid called Fusion. Integrating the electric instrumentation of Rock with the advanced harmonic and melodic innovations of Jazz, Davis' seminal Bitches Brew set the stage for a completely separate piece on the influence of rock on jazz because, as interconnected as the two topics may seem, I've got 12 damned columns to write this year and what do you people think I'm made ofnew material?
The 1970's funneled an unusual amount of liberal arts undergraduates into pretentious bands of every ilk. Most progressed no further than the standard issue uniform of corduroy pants and Earth shoes, a couple of gigs at a local college and a few arty black-and-white pictures of everyone holding their instruments and looking very serious. A few, however, managed to transcend mere douchebaggery and make a legitimate contribution to society.
At tiny Bard College, in even tinier Annandale-on-Hudson, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to form a band because what the hell else was there to do in Wherever-on-Whatsit? They named the band Steely Dan, after an animated sexual appliance. The pair would later become known as a couple of sexual appliances for their notoriously difficult personalities and demanding studio perfectionism. Steeped in jazz and too many English lit courses, Becker and Fagen soon began producing their own unique brand of rock that was smart enough to make you occasionally have to crack a book in order to figure out what the hell they were going on about, but not so clever-clever that it made you want to poke them in the eye.
Beginning with 1972's Can't Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan established a signature sound that would be a mainstay of both the burgeoning FM radio format and inexplicably popular 1970's fondue parties. Complex rhythms, unusual chords, and distinct harmonies set Fagan, Becker & Co. apart from the rest of the post-hippie detritus that collected in record store bins at the dawn of the Me Decade.
Rock was experimenting with all sorts of different combinations throughout the Seventies. Overeducated Brits mixed in classical influences (King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, and Genesis before Phil Collins turned them into a random pop hit generator), while slackers in California were adding in country (Little Feat, The Eagles, et al). Steely Dan remained true to their jazz ethic, venturing even farther with 1975's Katy Lied with the inclusion of Phil Woods and Larry Carlton.
By the end of the decade, Steely Dan had gone from a band to mostly a collection of studio musicians. Ultimately imploding in 1980 after the release of Gaucho, Becker and Fagen went on to moderately uninteresting solo careers before reforming in the Nineties if for no other reason than to give me a decent stopping point for the first part of this piece.
Next month (or as soon as I get around to it), the influence of Our Music in Rock moves boldly into the Eighties with the Police, Danny Wilson, and a completely unrelated interlude where I spend three paragraphs traipsing down memory lane to no one's eventual benefit.
Till then, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.