Sat. Oct 31st, 2020

Music: Jazz Fusion? | 1978-7

Miles Davis

Billy Cobham says Fusion will become American folk music. Lenny White says Fusion is really concert hall Jazz. Don Mizell says Fusion is music by any former Jazz artist. Stanley Clarke says Fusion is a fictitious musical category. Al DiMeola says Fusion is futuristic rock. Oscar Peterson says Fusion isn’t even music.

Thanksgiving 1969. The music that filled the air was not ordinary dinner music, An electric guitar played a haunting melody. Spacey arpeggios flowed from an electric piano. Suddenly the guitar faded into the background and a soprano sax ambled in to replace it. Underneath it all a bass fiddle droned hypnotically.

The electric piano’s surging vibrato propelled us into the outer limits, with the sax leading the way. Somewhere in space a trumpet chimed in with the sax.

Suddenly, and for no reason, an argument flared between the trumpet and the sax. A pulsating organ tried to mediate but the battle raged until a truce was reached. The trumpet and the sax then joined forces and rhapsodized their way into oblivion. And underneath it all the fiddle still droned hypnotically.

The music was from a provocative and innovative album entitled In A Silent Way, by legendary Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. A few months later, he released his acclaimed Bitches Brew (subtitled New Directions in Music By Miles Davis) About that album, an enthusiastic Ralph Gleason wrote,”It (music) will never be the same again now, after In a Silent Way after Bitches Brew. Listen to this. How can it ever be the same? This is new and right now, it has the edge of newness and that snapping fire you sense when you go out there from the spaceship where nobody has ever been before,”

But what kind of music was Miles playing? Progressive Jazz, contemporary Jazz, Jazz-rock, contemporary rock, space rock and head-music were just a few of the names used to describe Miles’ new music. Miles humbly says that all he did was fuse “cliche-free” Jazz with progressive rock. For lack of a better word the music was ultimately called Fusion and Miles Davis, The Father of Fusion.

Personal problems prevented Miles from developing this revolutionary new music as perhaps only he could have. However, the most recognized Fusion artists and bands to emerge since those initial Fusion albums played with Miles on those first albums are: Drummer Tony Williams formed the Tony Williams Lifetime. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Joe Zawinul teamed up to form Weather Report, which spawned the solo careers of bassists Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorius. Drummer Lenny White and pianist Chick Corea later played together in the heralded Return To Forever, which, in turn, introduced bassist Stanley Clarke and guitarist Al DiMeola. Woodwind virtuoso Bennie Maupin became a mainstay with Herbie Hancock’s Sextet and Headhunters. And guitarist Mahavishnu’s John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which boosted the career of drummer Billy Cobham, pianist Jan Hammer and violinist Jean Luc Ponty.

Fusion in Limbo

Yes to Jazz Fusion

Lenny White
Lenny White
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke

The above  artists worked hard to develop fusion music but, despite their technical Wizardry, fusion was in a state of limbo, Rock artists didn’t have the musical savvy to play it and Jazz artists didn’t want to play it.

So-called “pure” Jazz artists regarded fusion as sell-out music. Because all Fusion artists had Jazz backgrounds, it was believed that they incorporated rock elements to make money at the risk of ruining Jazz. Although most of the Jazz world now admits that without the popularity acquired by Fusion artists, the current Jazz revival would not be happening. Several Jazz artists still listen to Fusion disdainfully.

In a recent airing of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson typified the lingering anti-fusion sentiments. Peterson couldn’t understand how Fusion artists could possibly be winners of Playboy’s Annual Music Poll. According to Peterson, Fusion is “invalid music” noteworthy of mention.

The question today, however, isn’t whether Fusion is a valid art form. Based on increasing record sales alone the answer to that question is rather obvious. The main question: What is Fusion?

Fusion once defined the music played by Jazz-oriented musicians who elected to combine the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of Jazz with the raw energy of rock. One album changed that definition.

March 1973. Confusion arose when trumpeter Donald Byrd released his Black Byrd album. Because of Byrd’s undeniable Jazz background, music critics made the inexcusable mistake of calling him a Fusion artist. But was his music really Fusion? Would it have been considered Fusion if Kool & The Gang or the Ohio Players had recorded it? Of course not.

No to Jazz Fusion


Donald Byrd
Donald Byrd
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Dee Dee Bridgewater
George Benson
George Benson

All Byrd did was put together a solid, well-timed R & B album. There was no law stating that a Jazz artist couldn’t record an R & B album, but the critics acted as if this was an impossibility. After Byrd’s album, any Jazz musician who wasn’t playing cool or bebop became a Fusion artist. Today everybody from Mahavishnu’s East Indian group Shakti to Roy Ayers disco group Ubiquity is called Fusion. The original Fusion artists resent the indiscriminate terminology so much that many of them no longer want their music lumped into the Fusion category.

April 1976. It was two days before Return To Forever’s sold out concert at Hofstra University [the group was on tour to promote their dynamic Romantic Warrior album]. Seated in a plush office in New York’s Warner Communications Building, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White tried to explain what their music was all about. At that time RTF was the premier Fusion group.

“First of all,” Clarke began, “I don’t usually think so much about classifying the music. I generally leave that up to writers to call it what they will. I would say it’s a combination of classical, funk, rock, Jazz, latin, Spanish…. But if I had to classify it, I kind of like the term contemporary music.”

“Yeah man, I’d classify it as contemporary music also,” Lenny White quickly agreed. “It’s hybrid music. Several different styles are implied within our music. Everybody in the band listens to all types of music and it comes out in what we do.”

February 1978. Billy Cobham’s group played to a full house at New York’s Bottom Line. The music was characterized by exotic melodies on guitar and clarinet and mellow open-chord harmonies on keyboards. It was all underscored by Cobham’s pulsating drumming. Even when every limb on Cobham’s body was engrossed in rapid fire rhythms, the prevailing atmosphere was like the calm after the storm.

Cobham was on tour promoting his latest album, Magic (his first on the Columbia label). Unlike others, Cobham didn’t mind being called a Fusion artist and spoke highly of the music.

Fusion: A Conglomeration

“Fusion is a conglomeration of everything that happened before and everything that’s happening in the present. It’s a bridge to a foundation of what will finally become American folk music. We may not live to see it happen because there’s so much involved.

“Fusion is a big melting pot of every ethnic group’s music. That’s really what it is. One day all these different elements are gonna fuse together to create one music.”

Magic is a splendid exhibition of Cobham’s producing, song-writing and playing skills. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the popularity of many Fusion artists who came after him, so despite being one of the most consistent acts, his albums don’t get as much air play. No air play, no sales. Would he do better if he were not labeled a Fusion artist?

“I don’t think so,” he said, obviously annoyed by his predicament.  After all, Fusion is just an overall general label for the combination of all of what’s happening in the western hemisphere. The change has to come in the heads of the radio programmers. Calling the music something else won’t change the music. It’ll still be the same.

“For example, I don’t mind the term Fusion but that’s not what I call it. I end up calling my music Black contemporary music because I’m Black and I’m here now and this is what I’m playing.”

March 1978. After the unexpected disbanding of Return To Forever in 1977, Lenny White put his own band together, and the Lenny White Group became the first act to sign with Elektra’s new Jazz/Fusion Division.

Throughout the group’s New York debut at the Bottom Line, it was obvious that Lenny White’s brand of Fusion had little in common with Cobham’s. White’s music was louder, more forceful and it borrowed a lot more from rock. Cobham’s music soothed the senses; White’s energized them. Both were equally mesmerizing. But were they both playing Fusion?

“Yeah, what we’re playing now is Fusion,” White said the morning after his performance. “Our Fusion is a combination of rock, blues, latin, r & b, traditional jazz and classical. It’s a combination of all these things put together.

“People will tell me I’m not playing this kind of music or that kind of music. But you have to take into consideration that it can be an indirect influence in terms of the instruments you use or the equipment you use or the way you phrase something or the way you use harmonics. That’s what really makes an influence here.”

White has been following the music’s development since recording with Miles on Bitches Brew when he was only nineteen years old. “The development of Fusion from Jazz was an evolutionary process. When the music was taken out of the clubs and put into the concert halls, drummers had to play louder, keyboard players got electric instruments, the guitar changed from hollow-body to solid-body, they got amplifiers into feedback … you see, it evolved.”

White admitted to growing skepticism about the future of Fusion. “What I’m afraid is gonna happen is that they’re gonna start thinking of stuff like what George Benson is doing as being Fusion music. And what George is doing ain’t Fusion at all.

“They’ll say that George, Gato Barbieri, John Klemmer and all those cats are Fusion. But that ain’t Fusion music to me. Because if you look back to what started it all — Miles’ Bitches Brew, early Weather Report, early Mahavishnu, early Return To Forever it’s nothing like George Benson.”

Fusion Gains Popularity

Later that day, Don Mizell, General Manager of Elektra’s Jazz/Fusion Division, offered his opinion. Mizell has been a jazz fanatic for years (his cousins are Larry and Fonce Mizell, the composers/producers who gave Donald Byrd and Bobbie Humphrey their second wind) and he can’t understand why it took record companies so long to realize the commercial potential of Fusion. “I really don’t know what they were waiting for. I’ve been into Fusion ten years. I got in with Miles. Then Donald Byrd came in with his r & b type of Fusion while Miles and all the other great musicians on those albums continued with their spacey, progressive rock sort of thing. Quite frankly, I’ve always felt it was time. I figured it was everyone else?

“Why Fusion is popular now,” continued Mizell, ” is really hard to say. I guess people’s heads are changing and it’s getting attention on the street level. Once that happens the jocks will pick up on it and finally the record companies. I guess all the right forces are finally converging at the same time.”

Elektra Records has been applauded for being the first major label to boast a Jazz/Fusion Division. Yet Mizell has been constantly criticized. The first three albums released by Mizell were Lenny White’s Adventures of Astral Pirates, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Just Family and Ubiquity’s Starbooty. The only one of the three that can seriously be considered Fusion is Astral Pirates. Just Family is a beautiful album that leans toward Mor, and Starbooty, at best, is a mediocre disco album.

One popular fusion artist believes, “Don Mizell may be doing Fusion more harm than good. He’s going after people like Donald Byrd and Grover Washington, Jr. Those guys aren’t playing Fusion and Mizell should know that. I think he’s just rounding up all his personal favorites and trying to sign them regardless of what they’re playing.”

Stanley Clarke, producer of Just Family, admitted that he didn’t understand why Dee Dee Bridgewater was being classified as Jazz/Fusion. “I guess it’s because she sang with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis and because I produced her album. It’s a great album but, according to my understanding of fusion, that album has very little Fusion on it.”

Mizell simply shrugs off the criticism. “What I’m trying to do,” he explains, “is put out music that exhibits the range of Fusion, Jazz-rock, Jazz-funk, folk Jazz and fusions of Indian and overall impact is to raise the consciousness of the public as a whole about Jazz in general. People ask me what is Fusion and they expect me to have a definitive answer. But I don’t.”

What then does a record company executive look for when he is considering signing a Fusion act? How does he know if the artist is indeed playing Fusion? “Well, the first thing I like to know,” Mizell explained, “is the background of the artist. If they’re a Jazz artist who is now moving into another thing but still incorporating elements of their past … to me, that’s a Fusion artist.

“But in the case of a new or relatively unknown artist,” Mizell continued, “there are certain questions I ask myself about the music. Are they artists who allow improvisational space in their music? Can they adequately handle their improvisations? Do they incorporate elements of Jazz? Are they masters of their instruments? Can they play Jazz straight ahead if necessary?

“It’s really a loose definition, but when you consider that Jazz itself is a cultural fusion you realize that the term Jazz/Fusion is redundant. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to confuse people by saying that what Lenny is doing, for example, is just Jazz. That would be a misrepresentation that would ultimately do him harm. He has incorporated his strong Jazz roots into his music but he is not playing Jazz.”

Fusion Artists

April 1978. Two days before he was to appear at New York’s Palladium Theater, an exhausted Stanley Clarke sat high above the city streets in the office of Nemperor Records. Clarke became one of the most popular of all Fusion artists when he teamed up with pianist Chick Corea to form Return To Forever in the early seventies. Clarke’s nimble bass playing has thrilled audiences around the world, and with his own group, School Days, he is currently a favorite on the  U.S. college circuit.

Al DiMeola
Al DiMeola

His new album, Modern Man, has enough vocal tracks to suggest that Clarke is seeking a much larger audience. Several of his peers have said Clarke is opting for the big bucks of commercialism.

“Commercialism,” the jovial father-to-be chuckled, “what’s that? Let’s face it, any time an artist puts his music on wax and into the record stores his music is commercial. He’s trying to make money with his music.

“As far as Modern Man is concerned, I’d have to say yes, I definitely had the intention of reaching more people. That was a very awake and aware decision on my part.”

Clarke knew that after listening to Modern Man many of his Fusion-oriented fans would say he was no longer playing Fusion music. He even hinted that he no longer wants to be categorized as a Fusion artist.

“What I’m doing now is playing music that I grew up with and not music I had to play at gigs. When I came to New York I had to play with Art Blakey. I had to play his music but that wasn’t my music. I didn’t grow up listening to Art Blakey or Horace Silver. I grew up listening to cats like Sly, Jimi Hendrix, the Temptations and Muddy Waters.

“But it’s that age-old thing about categorizing,” Clarke went on. “If guys would just be careful about what they call something … . Fusion: what kind of category is that? If we must have these categories then at least categorize correctly. If it’s r & b, it’s r & b. If it’s Jazz-funk, it’s Jazz-funk. If it’s disco, it’s disco.”

“Modern Man is more like rock and progressive r & b, but because I’ve been labeled a Fusion artist people are gonna always expect me to play music similar to what I was doing with Return To Forever. But RTF was basically Chick Corea’s thing. Now I’m doing mine.”

May 1978. With his sold-out Palladium concert just a few hours away, Al DiMeola relaxed comfortably in one of the many plush offices of Bandana Enterprises, Ltd. The office was adorned with gold and platinum albums. DiMeola hoped his third and most recent effort, Casino (an exciting array of Mediterranean-influenced melodies and rhythms) would soon be added to the collection.

Noted for his guitar wizardry with Return To Forever, as well as his solo works, DiMeola has become respected as the No. 1 Fusion guitarist. Yet he, like Stanley Clarke, no longer likes the term Fusion. Based on the music’s history, DiMeola has come up with a term he feels more adequately describes his music.

“In the 1960s, Jazz musicians weren’t making any money,” he began. “The big music then was rock. Rock really made it big in the sixties and it had an influence on the entire music world. Jazz musicians, no matter how close-minded many of them were, saw the effects of it and picked up on it.”

“Miles Davis was a giant in the Jazz vein but he was aware of what was going on. He’s the one who started fusing rock rhythms and funk with Jazz. He was using new instruments too. Miles got into some really heavy stuff.”

“It branched out from there,” DiMeola continued authoritatively, “those people playing with Miles — and he had some heavies — all were virtuosos and they expanded on his music. Since they were better composers than Miles, they explored the music’s commercial potential by fusing even more intricate rock elements. Therefore, I prefer to call my music “Rock of the 80s” because it really is what rock will someday become.”

There you have it. Billy Cobham says Fusion will become American folk music. Lenny White says Fusion is really concert hall Jazz music. Don Mizell says Fusion is music by any former Jazz artist. Stanley Clarke says Fusion is a fictitious musical category. Al DiMeola says Fusion is futuristic rock. And Oscar Peterson says Fusion isn’t even music.

Miles had grand visions when he recorded those first two for lack of a better word — Fusion albums. Today, however, almost a decade after the release of In A Silent Way, the term fusion has become controversial and the music nondescript.

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