Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion

Kevin Fellezs By

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This article appears in Chapter 3 of Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion by Kevin Fellezs (Duke University Press, 2011).

Vital Transformation: Fusion's Discontents

Ironically, fusion was, on the one hand, largely a concern for jazz participants and observers even though they largely denied its value or any valid connection to "real jazz." On the other hand, despite rock and funk critics and musicians' interest in augmenting commercial success with the high cultural cachet jazz might bestow, the largely instrumental output of fusion bands remained outside the tastes of rock's and funk's mass audiences, which overwhelmingly favored vocal music. With the notable exception of successful crossover recordings such as Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame, and Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters (with implications that will be considered more deeply below), rock and funk writers were far less interested in following this "ain't jazz, ain't rock" music, as their virtual silence during this period regarding Joni Mitchell attests. However, just to be clear, despite my spending considerable time in the text considering the relationship of these musicians to jazz discourse, their inclusion into a jazz history is not my primary concern. Indeed, as DeVeaux notes, "With the possible exception of those in the fusion camp (who are more often the targets of the debate than active participants in it), no one disputes the official version of the history. Its basic narrative shape and its value for a music that is routinely denied respect and institutional support are accepted virtually without question."

While it is arguable that no one except fusion musicians and listeners "disputes the official version" of jazz history, my interest continues to be in thinking through the way fusion music sounded out the broken middle, performing the endless possibilities of variation and mixture between genres and testing the limits of their artistic engagements against the assumptions and expectations of fans and critics. Though fusion is now seen as one of the more commercially driven of jazz's substyles, most of the early fusion groups remained unknown and largely unheard outside of private jam sessions and infrequent live performances. "Commercial success" was hardly a phrase one would use to describe early fusion bands from the mid-1960s until 1970, with the release of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. But partially because of the commercial success of Bitches Brew, the stigma of commercialism attached itself to fusion quickly and decisively. Indeed, Leonard Feather saw the arrival of fusion as the epitome of commercial interests dominating artistic ones at the time. "If the year 1970 is remembered in connection with any outstanding event in the history of jazz," wrote Feather, "musicologists may recall it as the Year of the Whores. Never before, no matter how grievous the economic woes of jazz musicians... at any prior point in jazz time, did so many do so little in an attempt to earn so much."

Even so, fusion was hardly mainstream popular music in the 1970s, and apart from a handful of bands, fusion musicians never achieved mass audience recognition, much less acceptance, and posted fairly modest material gains, for the most part, compared to other genres of popular music. While it is true that Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters (1973) was awarded platinum status (sales of a million units), Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976) each exceeded the two million unit mark, and, as Annette Carson asserts, "until Kenny G appeared on the scene, [Beck's recordings] represented the highest charting instrumental albums ever recorded." Yet because Beck is seen primarily as a rock guitarist, his work is often overlooked as fusion performances even though both recordings featured allinstrumental programs, including Stevie Wonder's paean to Thelonious Monk, titled simply "Thelonious," and Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."

Still, it is meaningful that musicians such as Hancock, Beck, Davis, and McLaughli—musicians who gained the most economically during this period through their association with fusion—were fairly singular in terms of achieving financial success and that their marketplace achievements were overshadowed by rock and pop music stars of the period. We should also remember that the more successful bands, such as Blood, Sweat, Drum + Bass or Chicago, featured vocals and, perhaps because of their success in the mainstream popular music market, would eventually be thought of more as rock bands than as jazz or fusion bands.


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