The Funk Transition

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The foot that does not start tapping to Stanley Turrentine's music, is a foot paralysed
My Journey Into Jazz – Part X: Straight-ahead Jazz to Funk



Some time back a student of music, Chris, wrote to me an email, asking a very interesting question: "Why is it that some jazz musicians preferred to adopt funk instead of jazz-rock when the transition took place.” There were more sub-queries, but this itself is a calls for a thesis, just as he was writing one.



I am writing this article broadly based on my reply to him, and though he never acknowledged it [perhaps it didn’t reach him], it has given me a new insight into that particular period when geniuses of the class of Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson were poised on the precipice as it were.

To Chris, I wrote back, during that heady period, when musicians had drawn out all they could from bebop and traditional styles, and when rock and roll, soul and blues were influencing the minds of the youngsters quite a lot, the funky style of playing an instrument was a foregone conclusion. For one thing, some jazzmen who thought that switching over from straight-ahead jazz [or other traditional styles]to jazz-rock would be construed as a sacrilege, a stab-in-the-back to jazz or even sedition to the nation of jazz, well they must have felt content with changeover to funk. Perhaps, all this is guesswork I know, but most likely that’s what went through the throbbing mind of those jazzmen, I suspect.

Secondly, the commercial angle whether we all like it or not, has been playing an important role in the choice of music a jazzman plays or sings or performs. Even in the eventual stereotyping of his style as years go by. A supreme example would be the crossover that Herbie Hancock affected. He had bordered on the funky style for years, and when jazz-rock came into existence, all at once he changed his style to suit the tastes of the dancing crowds, the youngsters, the record buying public, whatever you choose to call those fickle minds. It is a sad chapter in jazz that Hancock ultimately diluted his presentation style so much that most of his music started sounding startling like elevator music, the unobtrusive, mindlessly ephemeral background music one hears at all good restaurants, or what the jazzman disdainfully calls commercial music. To add insult to injury, he introduced fluffy vocals in his eminently forgettable compositions, and jazz leaked out of his repertoire faster than gasoline can from an open can.

Quincy Jones did that, and to some extent George Benson did it too –some of the powerful Soul and R&B groups who excelled in instrumental brilliance, diluted their style with useless vocals and commercial trappings –now through hindsight we discover it was the record company executives who were pulling the strings that passed through the nostrils of the jazzmen who needed the cash badly. Who doesn’t. But some of them had the drug habit, so the liner notes tell us about jazz geniuses of the class of Grant Green for instance, who could have turned jazz over its head by recording strictly jazz tunes –but the marketing executive had other ideas. How far the recording companies affected the choice of material, the maddeningly increasing use of strings and synthesized orchestral or choral sounds, making the music more syrupy than a country ballad intentionally packaged that way, and causing progress of jazz to be stifled is a topic we must tackle later on, as a separate issue altogether.

Well when looking at the mindblowing Funk phenomenon which surely lent a brand new sheen to jazz when there were at least three or four different styles in vogue i.e. cool jazz, straight-ahead jazz, bebop and /or hard bop and the pre-jazz/rock funkiness of Miles Davis school, is to my mind a landmark. Not to forget, there was avant-garde, questioning unabashedly the basics of jazz: melody, harmony, rhythm and then bordering brashly on the amusical toneless near-cacophony. Experts in human behavior have rightly mentioned that the opposites happen. When the fashion scene is saturated with long floor-kissing hems, what should suddenly catch the popular fancy than the good ole miniskirt? Baggies give way to tights –just the opposite happens, and is quickly accepted globally as the ‘happening’ thing.

Horace Silver to still sounds like one of the funkiest pianists ever, though one gets almost the same impatience-stuffed ‘gimme-more’ feeling when listening to the likes of Wynton Kelly, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and the good old Oscar Peterson. The list is pretty long.


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