Jazz fusion was a genre that appeared in the late 1960’s, resulting from the blending of rhythm and blues and funk rhythms, along with the addition of electronic effects to rock music and complicated time signatures that came from music, made outside the North America and Europe. The music that appeared was generally instrumental and quite long; taking a jazz approach with group wide improvs that blended brass and wind instruments, focusing on the superior technique. Another term for “jazz fusion” is “jazz rock.” Primarily popular during the 1970’s, the genre became increasingly experimental and improvisatory during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and became increasingly eclectic, as time went by. Contributions that Miles Davis made as a pioneer in the field turned it into a crucial genre that is one of the signature elements of the decade of the seventies.
It is necessary to remember that, before jazz fusion began in 1967, the musical realms of rock and jazz had been fully distinct from one another (“Fusion”). This hybridization took place in different ways on the two sides of the Atlantic, as electric R & B was the opposite of modern jazz on the African-American blues spectrum in the United States, and then the two started to slide together; in Great Britain, the rhythm and blues and skiffle that came from such gifted jazz musicians as Chris Barber blended into a different fusion from what appeared in the United States.
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Miles Davis’ alum Miles in the Sky was the first of several albums that demonstrated the promise of jazz fusion. Featuring Ron Carter on bass and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, this album was his first that included electric instruments. In his album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, he played the trumpet alongside the electric pianist Chick Corea, and bass guitarist Dave Holland. His first true fusion album came out in 1969, In a Silent Way. Rather than a collection of tracks, this album featured just two pieces, each of which took up a whole side of the record. His producer, Teo Macero, went back in and edited each piece considerably; the result was a record that would prove instrumental in the growth of ambient music.
One unique feature of this album was the use of the sonata form in recordings, hearkening back to techniques of classical music. On each side, track features as exposition, a development and a recapitulation, and the last six minutes of each side are the same as the first six minutes, giving a bit more time (and a bit more structure) to each track. This album is considered the start of Davis’ “electric period” (Southall). Moving again to new instrumentalists, Davis brought in John McLaughlin on bass guitar, who had just finished his own debut record (Extrapolation) a month earlier. After working with Davis, McLaughlin would go on to lead the Mahavishnu Orchestra, famed for its fusion music.
At the time when it came out, as well as in retrospect, In a Silent Way has been seen as one of main transitional albums that emerged in the late 1960’s, as it opened many doors for jazz fusion music. In his review, Chip O’Brien, of PopMatters, wrote that the album was one of the first to “embrace the marriage of music and technology” in a way that “transcends labels.” In O’Brien’s view, the album was “neither jazz nor rock…it is something altogether different, something universal. There is a beautiful resignation in the sounds of this album, as if Davis has willingly let go of what has come before, of his early years with Charlie Parker, with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, of his early ‘60s work and is embracing the future, not only of jazz, but of music itself” (O’Brien).
Nick Southall, with Stylus Magazine, would write that the “fresh modes of constructing music that [In a Silent Way] presented revolutionized the jazz community, and the shifting, ethereal beauty of the actual music contained within has remained beautiful and wonderful, its echoes heard through the last 30 years, touching dance music, electronic, rock, pop, all music” (Southall).
To traditional adherents of both jazz and rock, though, the reception of In a Silent Way was somewhat mixed. Veterans of both types of music thought that it sounded like rock, which was a source of joy to rock enthusiasts, but less than pleasing to jazz critics. As Phil Freeman wrote,
“It didn’t swing, the solos weren't even a little bit heroic, and it had electric guitars... But though In a Silent Way wasn't exactly jazz, it certainly wasn't rock. It was the sound of Miles Davis and Teo Macero feeling their way down an unlit hall at three in the morning. It was the soundtrack to all the whispered conversations every creative artist has, all the time, with that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head, the one asking all the unanswerable questions” (Freeman, p. 26-27).
Though, the question as to where the fusion falls in the jazz movement is problematic. After all, giving jazz a formal definition is difficult, at best. If one considers musical techniques or characteristics, such as swing or improv, traditionalists within jazz look at the boundaries in which the music has consistently been situated. When it comes to jazz, one of those structures has long been ethnicity. The African-American culture is deeply connected with the jazz tradition, not only because instrumental techniques stem from folk traditions that go back centuries in the African-American culture, but also that jazz expresses modern experiences of blacks in America. This raises a number of questions when choosing the proper place for fusion in the jazz classification. First of all, the question remains of how should be considered work of white musicians. Besides, no one can say where is the line between jazz and other traditionally black genres of music, such as gospel, R & B, and blues, to be drawn.
The connection between jazz and the economy is another fascinating element to consider when formalizing Miles Davis and jazz fusion’s place in the genre. Traditionally, jazz has fallen outside the modern pop music industry, and within jazz there has long been a stigma against making things too commercial, as business would corrupt or disrupt the inspiration behind the music. As Rudi Blesh put it in 1946, “Commercialism [is] a cheapening and deteriorative force, a species of murder perpetrated on wonderful music by whites and those misguided negroes who, for one or another reason, choose to be accomplices to the deed….Commercialism is a thing not only hostile, but fatal to [jazz].” (Blesh11-12)
Blesh was one of a group defending the tradition of New Orlean’s jazz and connected that genre with an idealization of folk culture. However, other traditionally black genres, such as bebop had proponents making similar comments: “Bebop is the music of revolt: revolt against big bands, arrangers…Tin Pan Alley – against commercialized music in general. It reasserts the individuality of the jazz musician” (Russell 202). When it comes to attitudes about fusion, jazz traditionalists find it to be the epitome of commercialization. By attacking fusion, purists propagate a notion of jazz as an art form free of limits of commercialism, sort of a “Robin Hood” genre constantly at odds with economic mores of America in the twentieth century. It is ironic, of course, for jazz purists to criticize fusion and other genres for relying too heavily on promises of commercialism. If one thinks about the New Orlean’s style of jazz, for example, the ongoing survival of the genre depends on an infusion of money from those buying in to a notion of the music as a priceless throwback to the storied past. Because those who still attack fusion do so with such strength, it is fairly clear that maintaining that opposition to fusion for economic reasons is difficult to keep up. It is true that some capitalist power structures had taken jazz musicians and exploited them, perhaps most egregiously in the days, when racism kept black musicians from receiving a fair competition in the pursuit of albums and other opportunities for exposure. However, as much as jazz musicians may claim to despise capitalism, there is no other way to survive. Ironically, such artists as Wynton Marsalis make a lot of money from their claims that they will never “sell out” to the economic machine, but it is that machine that has brought them their considerable commercial appeal (DeVeaux 530).
One might then wonder what the precise nature of the objection against the jazz fusion would be, if jazz musicians themselves were just as beholden to demands of economics. Indeed, one of the defining features of jazz is the fact that so many of its practitioners are proud that their genre defies definition. However, when definition provides people with the opportunity to exclude, particularly elements that they find distasteful, making those definitions suddenly become much easier. When pressed, jazz purists will decry fusion as “not jazz”, because it has taken on several musical characteristics. Specific objections include the use of modern techniques of production, electric instruments, and an aura that feels more like funk or rock, with regard to the rhythm, than the music floating out of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall (DeVeaux 528). Even if fusion can claim one of the same genetic ancestors as jazz, namely, modernistic touches of bebop in the 1940s – somehow it is no longer jazz, because it has taken on a stance that is too avant-garde, moving away from structure and form – even farther away than swing. However, if one considers the way that jazz has made music evolve, jumping off the printed page and into a live being that slithers and insinuates itself among us, the longer one listens, it is highly ironic for any practitioner to set up a purist stance and create a hard ending boundary for where jazz must stop. While no one would say that They Might Be Giants, is an example of jazz, the electric sensations that Miles Davis, and those who followed him, added to the genre, are difficult to eliminate from the notion of jazz.
If one had to choose a defining trait of music from the 1970s (not counting leisure suits, of course),it would be the addition of electric instruments to the overall mix. Sounds of keyboards, bass guitars powered by amps, and organs, took existing auras of virtually every genre and gave them a needed jolt, moving music farther away from the simple, acoustic feel and adding the vibe of the modern. While later trends would move back towards acoustic shows and “pure sound,” without this new technology, such movements as Miles Davis’ jazz fusion would never have arrived, and his desire to bring a classic genre forward into the light of the modern would never have been fulfilled.