Once all musical rules were broken, there was only one direction that jazz could go: back towards a more structured environment. Although the direction was singularly away from what some viewed as musical anarchy, the paths were several. By combining jazz with rock ‘n roll, classical, or world music, musicians in the ’60s and ’70s formed new hybrids of the jazz language.
At the same time that Ornette Coleman was pulling away from the traditional confines of accepted jazz and pop sounds, a new youth oriented stream of jazz creativity was emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of bop and cool. And unlike free jazz, it was finding acceptance from the masses.
Its leader was not a twenty year old newcomer from the streets of New York. He was almost forty and had been a veteran of numerous bands incorporating every style from swing to free jazz. His name was Miles Davis.
Davis noticed that the majority of the youth culture of America in the late ’60s was more interested in Hendrix and Sly Stone than in Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie. In an effort to find a jazz form that was close enough to contemporary music to be accessible to the Beatles/Stones generation, Davis and a few others began to shape an amalgam of sorts that included the funk of James Brown, the R & B of Ray Charles, and the solo elements of Charlie Parker and Hendrix into an instrumental package which resembled a fusion of the jump bands of the late ’40’s and the electronically enhanced sounds of ’60s rock.
At the same time, rock musicians of the late ’60s were expanding their own sonic palate to embrace instruments beyond the guitars and drums. Groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears used horn sections with the guitars and drums. Rock was courting jazz at the same time that jazz was courting rock. It was inevitable that the union would take place.
If the marriage of rock and jazz would be signified by one date and event, it would probably be the appearance of Miles Davis’s 1969 album, Bitches Brew. The album is considered by many as the first effort in the new jazz-rock style; combining the drive of rock ‘n roll with the solos and harmonies of jazz played by instruments fully representing both parties.
Many were reluctant to call it jazz, particularly some record producers who were afraid that it might be placed in the same record bin as Coltrane and Coleman. The term “fusion”, which avoided the word jazz at the same time as giving definition to the sound, was the solution.
Within a year, several of Davis’s former players formed their own fusion ensembles: saxophonist Wayne Shorter helped form Weather Report, keyboardists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock each left Davis to start their own version of the fusion sound. Davis himself continued to expand the fusion palette when he electrified his trumpet, sending it through fuzz tone and distortion pedals in the same way that Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin had been doing with his guitar. The result hinted at an additional later movement called “acid jazz.”
One of the important instrumental developments of the fusion era was the experimentation that took place with electronic keyboards. At first, the electronic piano such as the famous Fender Rhodes, was the only option. But as Robert Moog began to create experimental electronic keyboards small enough to be portable and inexpensive enough to be marketable to fusion keyboardists, a new electronic sound was born: the synthesizer.
At first the synthesizer was only capable of creating wild distortions of the tonal envelope of sound. But with technological advancements like the computer microchip, synthesizers and their cousins, samplers, opened whole new worlds of possibilities to musicians in every field.
Another interesting development of the fusion era took place when the jazz stand-up bass player shifted to a bass guitar. This brought about a change in the way the bass guitar was being used in the ensemble. No longer was it an instrument primarily used to create additional vertical emphasis to the beat of the drums, but through the genius of players like Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius, the bass took on a horizontal, quasi-melodic nature. At times it sounded like Bird coming through the bass.
For the first time since big band, a type of jazz was gaining a measure of public acceptance. Fusion was that combination of rock energy, dance-able beat, identifiable melody, and solo improvisation that reminded one of both Charlie Parker and James Brown with a little of the Rolling Stones thrown in as well. It was accepted by both critics and public, with several of the albums going gold.
The fusion/funk/rock mix of the ’70s brought recognition to several bands: Earth, Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, and others; they enjoyed public acceptance presenting a form of jazz with a hard-edged beat.
The visionary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was at the edge of most of the jazz developments from the 1950s until his death in 1991. He had employed almost every one of the young jazz players of the ’50s and ’60s including pianists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Joe Zawinul; saxophonists John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderly, and Wayne Shorter; guitarist John McLaughlin; and drummers Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. Davis was present for the invention of bop in the 1940s, was instrumental in the development of cool in the ’50s, and fusion jazz in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of his death he was working on a collaborative album with Prince.
As with every style in music, evolution was necessary to maintain relevance with the immediate. Eventually, the fusion machine would need to evolve into other forms, but the interest in jazz created by fusion helped spark renewed activity in jazz in high school and college music programs. From the classroom came a new group of virtuosi, interested in their roots as jazz musicians, eager to discover and perform classic charts from big band to cool.