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Interviews

Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again

By Published: August 9, 2010
A Jazz-Rock Documentary Film

AAJ: You are doing a documentary film on the jazz-rock movement, late 1960s through the 1970s.

Return to Forever 2008, from left: Al Di Meola, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea

LW: Yeah, it starts around '67 and then I think it goes maybe [to] '81, '82. And then it started to change. The documentary that I'm trying to put together focuses on what I consider to be the six seminal groups of jazz/rock, which is Miles, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu, Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Tony Williams Lifetime. And of those six bands, there were at least one or two representatives on the Bitches Brew sessions. Every one of those bands had the seeds planted in those sessions. And those bands were—I think that Bitches Brew gave the movement a face. And a sound. And then, from that, these bands took that direction and made it, well, personalized it, because then people started to follow those particular bands. And the fan base grew because you had six options as opposed to one; because you had six sets of fans and it became, you know, a thing, for about ten years.

There was the sophistication harmonically, and somewhat rhythmically, of jazz music, the volume and power of what rock music was. I don't know whether it was egos that got in the way, but it was such a viable movement, and that was really one of the things—I mean, there were some absolutely virtuosic performances during that time period with some unbelievable artists, and nobody talks about it.

AAJ: That's why we have recordings. You can almost be there.

LW: But you know, you're talking about 1969 with Woodstock. That's 40 years ago now. And that was a real big thing, Woodstock. But it's the rock that's talked about, and this other movement was happening also, that nobody knows about. The other thing is that Woodstock basically was performances that were music with vocals. Santana wasn't. But most of the other performances were vocal. Jimi Hendrix did some things that were not vocal.

But just think about that. Everything else was vocal. At the same time this was happening, there was this other instrumental movement going on that has, to this point, taken a back seat and now is almost forgotten, and this was music in the second half of the 20th century, which... is jazz. When Ken Burns did Jazz [documentary television series], it stopped around 1960. And there was a great deal of music that happened after that, that was jazz music. It had the same sensibilities, the same creative process. That hasn't been talked about.

AAJ: There was a turning point for you and the Return to Forever band, a concert in Central Park in New York City.

LW: Well, that was a change. That was a big change. Central Park was a big change to me, because we had been playing, and we had been gathering a good following. We had opened for some pretty big rock bands, playing our music, and there was some aversion to that, to put it mildly. I remember playing with Return to Forever opposite either Mountain or Leslie West and the Wild West. And [while] we were playing our music, the kids in the front row were going [demonstrates by holding up both hands, middle digits defiantly extended.] But we continued to play what we played. With conviction. But when we played Central Park, the Wollman Rink held about 6,000 people. It was outdoors, and we started to play and the fences started to come down. It was like Woodstock, where you saw the people coming in, and they just said, "Okay, well, just let everybody in."

And I was like, "Wow! There's no singer, and we're playing this pretty heavy music with [a lot of] notes, going here and there, and it was pretty virtuosic. And people loved it. And I said, "Man, this is different. This is a different point right now. At this point what used to be isn't what it is." It's "Now, what is it going to be?" I'm putting that on my Facebook page today. "What used to be is not what it is. What is it going to be?"

You've got to understand; what I'm talking about is not fusion, it's jazz-rock. It's a totally different thing. And what's happened, it's morphed into this thing called fusion. And I don't particularly think that what it's morphed into is like it was. What is considered to be fusion today is not what we're doing.

But, the thing is, that I'm not vilifying it. But I got heavily questioned about a statement that I made on my website. I said that fusion [jazz-rock]—I was calling it fusion at that point—was dead. And I said that because, when we were doing the music, it was vibrant and it had a presence within the industry. If you don't have a presence in the industry, then the industry doesn't acknowledge that it's viable. I qualified it [my comment] by saying that there are people that are playing the music, and not only that, it is great. But it doesn't have the presence in the marketplace. In order for something to be credible, it has to have a presence, or else it's not acknowledged. Jazz gets acknowledged, because it's been here for a long period of time and it has a great legacy and it's a bona fide art form. But if you look at it in terms of relevance in the music industry, it's not relevant. But it's not the artists' fault.

So I was qualifying it from that standpoint. And what I said was that one of the seminal bands needs to get back together, and give some credibility towards a movement. So that's the way I was trying to qualify that, because I'm still asked about it.

AAJ: Well, that's not any different than anything you've ever said. I guess people who would have said it were just not listening very close, because—

LW: Well, people don't listen, period. That's always been a problem. People hear words, but don't listen to what they actually mean, you know? It's talking heads. You see it on the TV all the time.

One of the big problems that I have with how our music is perceived is that a band like U2, or an artist like Amy Winehouse, are, in their own right, great artists, and they affect people positively, but there's such a disparity between what they do and how it's talked about, and what we did and what I do, and how it's talked about. [The rationale is that] because I don't have anybody singing, what I do is not as relevant as what they do. Back in '75—when there was a band [Return to Forever] that was playing instrumental music and people tearing down the fences coming in to see this, and there was nobody singing—what I did was, I thought, pretty relevant. Plus, the people that were in the audience, who are now famous actors and politicians—who have shaped how people think and what people do—they were affected by what I did. So how come my music is not as relevant as any... as U2's music? I'm not saying that U2's music is not relevant.

But what I have a problem with is the disparity between what is deemed relevant and what is not. It's much more of a difficult task to move someone musically without the crutch of a lyric which explains the emotion. So you have to be very, very well-tuned and in tune with what it is you're doing so that you can communicate that to the audience. And if they get it, they really get it. They really get what it is that you're doing. They get the commitment. They get the positive energy that you are giving off. And that's a special thing. And I think that should be acknowledged and recognized.

That's why I kind of qualified what I was saying. As an artist, what I don't want to do—I'm not one to say "Your art is less relevant than my art." What I want to explain, is that I have a problem with the disparity. And it's not me saying that, it's the people who write about it, saying that. They say, "This band is the greatest band of all time. Blah blah blah blah blah." But how can you judge that? How can you say "This band is the greatest band of all time"? That band doesn't do everything better than every other band. So this thing about the "best" and the "greatest"—that's something that I really don't buy into.

Now what I do buy into is the fact that I personally have had artists and bands and music that have influenced me from a personal standpoint more than something else. But I can't say this is any more relevant than that. I can only say from a personal standpoint, "I like this more than I do that, and I think that's more relevant because it affected me this way." That's the only thing that I can say about that. But when you put this on a big, grand scale...

Musicians need to take the music back. Musicians never have control over the music industry, because it's an industry. And all industries manufacture products. But as musicians, we are a real, integral part of making this music. When you think about a song like "Rosanna" [a song written by David Paich for the band Toto, winner of the 1983 Grammy for Record of the Year], it is a great pop song, but it has all of these other elements around it that really qualify as great musicianship. You know, Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones

band/orchestra
,The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
vocalist
, Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
, Van Morrison
Van Morrison
Van Morrison
b.1945
vocalist
, Doors Wide Open
Doors Wide Open

band/orchestra
, whoever you want to say, when pop music was king like that, musicians were involved. There were solos on those records, and you could hear musicians playing.

Then it switched up. Tracks with singers became more prevalent than [recordings relying on] musicianship. So when you get a Britney Spears record, there might not be anybody playing music on it, playing any instruments on it. Might not. But that kind of music has taken over and is much more prevalent than musicians' music. The one time every year you can hear musicians is at the Grammys, because what you see is people playing live, most of the time. But you don't see any non-vocal music represented at all. So that's what I'm saying, that I would like to have musicians take back the fact of playing music being the main thing of the industry. I don't know if that's going to happen, but I would really love to see that happen.

Puff Daddy has a show on TV called The Making of a Band, and no one plays an instrument. It's kind of deep, man. Even the hip hop artists, if they studied their craft for ten years and they reached a particular level that's a real creative and positive level, and then punk music comes along, and nobody's adept as hip hop artists are, how would they feel? You know, they spend ten years developing their craft, and then something comes along where they're deemed no longer relevant. How would they feel? It's something to think about. As musicians, we create and play music. But music has become very disposable. And that's a big problem to me. It's used to sell things, as opposed to really being art and enjoyed. And I say this on a general level. I don't say anything that's an absolute. Nothing that I've said is absolute, because I don't want somebody to say, "Oh, man, he said that." Cancel. Forget that. I'm not talking in absolutes. I'm talking generally speaking. I'm talking about how I'm affected and how I see it affecting people. So from that standpoint, if anybody wants to have an argument with me about that, we can. But I am not saying what I say is for you, I'm saying it's for me.


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