Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music

Bill Siegel By

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How do I feel about jazz-rock? Boring! It bores me to tears; it just doesn —John McLaughlin
Julie Coryell
Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music
Hal Leonard
1979 Preface by Ramsey Lewis
2000 edition with new preface by Julie Coryell
Photographs by Laura Friedman

"Jazz-rock fusion . It's a tag, a label from the 1970s that can still provoke impassioned arguments from all sides — pro, con and every stop in between. Not to mention the way the debate was, for a long time, stoked by a mostly critic-enflamed controversy about how to define it in the first place. But one thing that (nearly) everybody could agree on was that, however you define it and regardless of what you might think of it, jazz-rock fusion was launched deep into the mainstream by Miles Davis, with his end-of-the-sixties In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew — two recordings that electrified both the jazz and the rock worlds. From there, the arguments tended to blossom into adulation of Miles' sheer prophetic genius and innovative redefinition of the genre (from jazz-rock fusion proponents), or vilification of his cynical sellout and lazy capitulation to an anti-music trend-du-jour that threatened to kill off jazz forever (from jazz-rock fusion detractors) — and veer away from any reasoned discourse about where the music came from in the first place.

For myself, the term was alternately meaningless or an exciting bridge between the hard-rock rhythms of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, and the bop iconoclasm of Bird, Mingus, Trane and, of course, Miles. It gave people like me — bred on rock-and-roll and its wicked offspring, rock — a way into the dense, complex, demanding hard bop and post-bop of these jazz pioneers. Just as there was no way to ignore Hendrix, or force-fit his music into an elevator's Muzak soundtrack, so too was there no way to relegate Bitches Brew or Coltrane's A Love Supreme to the background. You had to listen to Hendrix, you had to pay attention to what his music was saying; you couldn't listen to Santana without joining in, whether in dance or by turning the table into a room-sized percussion instrument. And you had to listen to Miles, Mingus, Trane and others with the same intensity, the same engagement, the same passion.

From my first exposure to In A Silent Way (I think I bought it within days of its release), it immediately became the #1 title on my list of indispensable desert-island recordings — sharing that #1 spot with A Love Supreme. To this day, more than a third of a century later, those two are still a dead tie for top of the list. I loved it that I could load up the turntable with Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love, Mingus's Pithecanthropus Erectus, A Love Supreme, In A Silent Way, and top it all off with Hendrix again, with Electric Ladyland. I could spend an entire 1969 afternoon in my dorm room, listening to this sumptuous feast, and never feel a jarring change of the pace or intensity from one record to the next. Call it whatever you want — but for me, even the label "rock was already essentially meaningless, as it was for many of us who matured during the era of psychedelic experimentation with various combinations of soul, pop, folk, blues, R&B, and you-name-it. And I knew, even at the fresh young age of 18, that the word "jazz hardly sufficed to comfortably encompass the likes of both "A Love Supreme and "Take the 'A' Train ; or Mingus's "The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady and anything by Louis Armstrong. No wonder Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch are still having apoplectic fits about it all.

[For those younger than 35 or 40, a turntable would be one of those pre-modern, gear-driven clunker machines that played scratchy, hissing, popping, skipping, unreasonable facsimiles of ancient music while we hauled our hand-woven woolen underwear down to the river to wash them on the rocks, keeping one eye alert to the threat of hungry saber-toothed tigers.]

So why is it, then, that when Mingus recorded and performed any of his many versions of "Better Git Hit in Yo' Soul , it wasn't branded "jazz-gospel fusion ? Why wasn't Monk labeled a "jazz-stride fusion artist? And why weren't any of Ellington's compositions termed "jazz-classical fusion ? For that matter, why is it only rock that had to be "fused ?

One possible answer that comes to mind is the word "fusion itself. It implies some kind of post-Atomic Age technology, and thus the whole label might just be an unavoidable product of its time; if it had happened just 10 years earlier, maybe it would have been called something else entirely. Another factor, also sociological, might be the rock business's near-total hegemony over the music world as the 1960s morphed into the '70s; the pinning of a rock-centric label on Miles Davis — a jazz giant — might be nothing less than rock's expression of its own cultural power at the time.


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