The Assassination of Jazz Rock
Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1973
By Gary Gomes (January 2003)All music is a process of synthesis of previous musical styles. Rock is perhaps the best example of this integration of styles. In this light, it has always been a bit of a mystery as to the almost rabid sense that rock fans and (to a greater sense) critics have faced any attempt at increasing the sophistication of this musical form. Hence the attempts of rock critics to formulate a true rock and roll spirit that really has more to do with formula than with "rock 'n' roll" attitude.
Actually, this attitude has been prevalent in almost every musical form in the West. It has gone through this expansion and purge cycle in which expansion, freedom and artistic complexity have given way to a "return to the roots based upon nostalgia." CPE Bach, for instance, helped generate a reaction against improvisation in classical music that was based upon his distaste for what improvisers were doing to his grandfather's music. Earlier reactions against musical freedom and improvisation were noted in the 1500's when the plague generated a reaction against the "extremes" of the 14th century- those interested in the evolution of musical experimentation would be well advised to acquire a musical set called "The Art of Courtly Love" by the Munroe Consort. This record set gives an extremely eye-opening expose of some of the odd musical forms that were generated in that time. Likewise, the extreme experimentation that the younger Bach found so objectionable was actually pioneered by Johan Sebastian Bach himself, with his extended improvisational technique and harmonic sophistication.
Most great classical composers before Bach through to Olivier Messiaen included improvisation as a staple element in music. Beethoven, Mozart, Lizst and Paganini among others were phenomenal improvisers. They also developed pieces of music renowned for their complexity of form and detail. Yet their immediate contemporaries and those who followed right after them settled into predictable formula or slow progress- perhaps because that was all they could do. In the early twentieth century, there was a veritable explosion of experimentation pioneered by the likes of Stravinsky, Antheil, Bartok, Cowell, Varese, Schoenberg, the Italian futurists, and others (the early works of Shostakovich are even quite experimental). The extent to which these changes were welcomed are indicated by the excitement surrounding the premiere of Antheil's "Ballet Mechanique" in Paris. The lack of critical understanding is best illustrated by the suppression of the works of Dutch critic Mathijs Vermuelen until the 1980's; for those who have not yet heard his music, it is a soaring multi-tonal explosion of harmolodic ideas all striving for release (those who have not heard his releases should investigate a couple of CD's devoted to his complete output on the Dutch Donemus label). Yet he made the mistake of making an enemy of the powerful conductor Willem Mengelberg (a distant relation to famed "free jazz" pianist Misja Mengelberg). The reaction to this was neo-classicism, a false memory imposed on 20th century music that was a blatant repackaging of traditional elements with twentieth century rhythmic punch- think New Waves repackaging of late '50's and early '60's rock ideas into a '70's suit.
Jazz, having a harmonic base similar to Western classical, naturally went through an apparent parallel development to that of Western classical music. And, despite the ideological objections of composers like Cage and Messiaen (who both more or less agreed that jazz improvisation was based upon manipulation of clichés), jazz went through its harmonic changes much more rapidly than Western classical music, partially because of modern media, but more directly because jazz is an improvisational music. Most of the radical innovations that were discussed earlier in this article were developed by improvising classical musicians. And now, jazz is in its neo-classical era, championed by people like Wynton Marsalis starting in the 1980's. Although innovators continue to promote their work, opportunities in the U.S. for jazz harmonic and media innovators have declined. One can look at the 1970's, when Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor played at the White House (to an excited reaction by President Carter) and Taylor's music was being supported by National Endowment for the Arts grants. Compare that to the current time, when most of Taylor's recorded output is from Germany, and I have seen national magazines openly criticizing Taylor's approach, something that has not happened since the early 1960's. Viewers of the Ken Burn's documentary Jazz must have noticed that fifty years of jazz evolution (including free jazz and jazz rock) was confined to one show and that Dexter Gordon's return to New York was the only "significant" jazz event of the 1970's (ignoring New York's loft scene, West Coast experimentalism, the AACM, the Black Artists Group, the developments in European improvised music, and all of jazz rock for that matter). Miles Davis was indicated there as being the only important jazz-rock innovator, which is essentially untrue.
Rock evolved along similar lines to jazz, but its evolution took place much quicker. We went from Jerry Lee Lewis to Keith Emerson and Mike Ratledge in less than ten years; from "Louie Louie" to "King Kong" and "Sister Ray" in less time; from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck in the same spread; from the Beatles to Can and Soft Machine in less than five years! The most radical change (and the one rock would most often be recognized for) was rock's technological innovations, but it went through a similar improvement in harmonic sophistication and form within a ridiculously short period of time. Pianist-composer Paul Bley once made the comment (in Coda magazine I believe) that the 1960's essentially collapsed about thirty years of tonal development into ten years. Ornette's innovation should have taken about ten years to absorb; Albert Ayler's another ten; and electronics another ten years also. Bley himself was uniquely qualified to make this assessment, since he had actually played with Ornette, had sidemen who had played with Ayler (Gary Peacock) and had one of the first (purloined, by his own account) Moog synthesizers in production as a touring instrument.
Rock has always been an eclectic music- it has borrowed from other technologies and traditions boldly and shamelessly. The three-chord structure as a rock staple is essentially blues changes. The rhythm that is supposed to be rock and roll is rhythm and blues or boogie, combined with a little country and western. The guitar licks that are supposed to define rock and roll are almost accidental by-products of the amplification process and the manipulation of guitar licks from early blues pioneers. This has never been a "pure" music. All musics, regardless of their origins, take from their environment, whether it is cultural, environmental, or technological. Certain traditional musics that remain "pure" (East Indian, Flamenco, and Australian aboriginal) allow some variation in form or interpretation. Only Western classical seems to insist on rigid interpretation. And this has changed as well. Since the late 1960's, Western music interpretation has modified and allowed more emotional expressiveness. Yet rock has, since the mid-1970's, stressed the need for a three-four minute song form; the regular (usually 4/4) beat. Why/how did this happen?
Two factors, commerce and criticism, worked together here. Basically, rock started introducing critics in the 1960's. Most of these critics (such as Paul Williams) had very definite ideas of what rock should sound like. They harkened back to simpler chord structures and working class values (ignoring, for the most part, that things like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida or later Jethro Tull's Passion Play, sold largely to the unwashed proletariat that they were advocating for). I can clearly recall the critical push for several groups in the 1970's. The supported groups were The Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, and the Stooges. I used to read Rolling Stone and New Musical Express; the Village Voice and Melody Maker (I also carried around a copy of Downbeat to show that I was hip). Critical hatred for jazz-rock and progressive rock was palpable in these journals, and it had nothing to do with the music that was being played. It was an IDEOLOGICAL position being taken by rock critics that: 1) this music had lost touch with the masses and 2) that rock music had to have songs, simple structures, and speak about every day concerns to be meaningful or deserving of popularity. The groundswell for the lionization of these three critic-favorite groups was appalling. Yet all of the hype didn't connect to these groups until the mid-1970's, when Springsteen finally hit big with Born to Run after mediocre responses to his first two LP's and a massive PR and critical campaign; after Lou Reed's success as a singer/songwriter (although he did show enormous daring, but almost ruined his career, with Metal Machine Music) and Iggy Pop only showed commercial success after David Bowie took an interest in him. These were essentially, manipulated successes, not successes that grew organically, and are perhaps the best examples of the success of critics in promoting style (to be fair, there have been numerous failures, including deserving groups like NRBQ).
The point of this diatribe is to illustrate that there is much music that is created and marketed, not developed by musicians and artists with independent creative control. Yet the last time that I can recall this happening on a large scale was during the jazz-rock and free jazz movement of the 1960's and (to a lesser extent) the progressive and psychedelic movements of roughly the same time. And there is some evidence that these movements, when promoted properly, had some potential for popularity. The problem that arises when viewing this period is the perception of overindulgence because of the length of compositions and the apparent complexity of the work involved. Yet, groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra (probably the best example of artistic and commercial success of the jazz rock peak) consistently sold out concert halls. John McLaughlin was a guitar hero of the caliber of Hendrix at the time and the band was quite admired.
It is easy to forget that the roots of jazz-rock were being planted as far back as 1964. The Soft Machine had already been playing by that time, as was the Graham Bond Organization. Heading up to 1965-1966, I can recall groups like the Blues Project and the Doors incorporating jazz improvisations into their work. The following is a (partial) list of groups from the rock side that consciously attempted to incorporate jazz elements into their work-the Byrds ("Eight Miles High" was inspired by John Coltrane), Spirit (a jazz drummer in the band), the Jimi Hendrix Experience (former jazz drummer in the band, extensive improvisation, Miles Davis' influence to get into rock), Cream, John Mayall (at times), Colosseum, the Nice, the Mothers of Invention, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Tomorow, Yes, King Crimson, early Jethro Tull, early Ten Years After, NRBQ, Steppenwolf (yep!), Santana, Steely Dan, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Pacific, Gas and Electric, Savage Rose, Can, the Flock, Guru Guru, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow, Magma (very strong), National Health, Gilgamesh and many others. From the jazz side, this started with Brian Auger, Larry Coryell, Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, Sonny Sharrock, Sun Ra (check out his singles collection sometime) and, starting in 1967-1968,Don Ellis, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, the late Larry Young (Khalid Yasin), Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, Weather Report, Maynard Ferguson, Chuck Mangione, Herbie Hancock and leading the way into the current anemic state of fusion, bands like Spyrogyra, the Yellow Jackets, and of course, the ubiquitous Grover Washington and Kenny G and their offspring (as a side note, lest you think I am being unduly harsh on rock critics, the reader should realize that a great many jazz critics, especially in the previously mentioned Downbeat, were not overly thrilled with jazz rock either, finding that many rock players lacked the "depth" of jazz players).
Overall, most people familiar with this phase of music were under the impression that Miles Davis was its founder- he wasn't, although he played a major role in its attainment of legitimacy. Like the Beatles and Stones in rock, or like Dylan in folk, whenever Miles picked up on a trend, it was legitimized. So when Miles picked up bassist Dave Holland from England, or he picked up an electric piano, free music and rock were simultaneously embraced, first by musicians, then by critics. It didn't matter that folks like Jimi Hendrix, Al Kooper, Mike Ratledge, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton or Chico Hamilton had already been moving in this direction since the mid-1960's- Davis legitimized it by bringing it into his jazz ensemble. By the time the LP's In a Silent Way and ESP had been issued, the jazz press was ready for Bitches Brew, hailed at a revolutionary album (and it was, for its use of free jazz blowing with electronics) and, what I consider his two best albums ever, Jack Johnson and Live at the Fillmore East.
Obviously, I am not saying all of these artists are of equal merit. I tend to like rougher edged, more eccentric stuff. I am not, for example, a great fan of the late Jaco Pastorious, although I respect his instrumental ability. But Miles' bands were both a cipher for what was the best and the worst of the jazz rock musicians. We can essentially break all of jazz rock into three distinct schools or systems. The first one is the fusion groups that developed out of Miles Davis' bands- the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock's groups, the Tony Williams Lifetimes. Then there's the Canterbury and European progressives, with Soft Machine as the main inspirational center, but also including the members of Cream, Magma, Collosseum, King Crimson, the Nice, Gong, Yoch'ko Seffer, Zao, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, National Health, Brand X, and others. And then there's the oddballs who belong really to neither camp, such as Brian Auger, Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Sonny Sharrock, Focus, Kraan (you should really listen to Kraan-great group) and Can, and of course, Ornette Coleman and his harmolodic disciples. I include Auger and Coryell in this last batch because they were always more or less independent and stood apart from the standard jazz rock schools, although they did emulate certain elements of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Coryell did this blatantly in his group the Eleventh House but Coryell was working in an idiom that pre-dated McLaughlin's innovations. Coryell took his sound and got a tighter more aggressive drummer-Alphonze Mouzon instead of Harry Wilkinson and adopted McLaughlin's unison lines to a conception he had before McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu. Szabo was barely rock, and Sonny Sharrock actually was essentially the first extroverted free jazz electric guitarist- I lost count of the number of reviews of Sharrock that asserted that he couldn't play, yet he, along with Derek Bailey was one of the great guitar innovators of the 1960's and beyond. Also, Ornette's disciples had a far more complicated conception than Miles' followers did.
The first developments of jazz rock can be assessed to have begun in 1964 with groups like the Free Spirits (with Coryell) and Jeremy and the Satyrs in the United States and folks like Soft Machine, Brian Auger and Graham Bond in the United Kingdom. Essentially, these groups were not so much fusion at that time, but rock with jazz overtones or vice versa. But the gradual acceptance of jazz as a rock influence was on the horizon: Dino Danelli in the Rascals, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream, Jack Casady in the Jefferson Airplane, Ed Cassidy in Spirit, Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith in Graham Bond's groups and Collosseum, and countless others were jazz musicians who ended up playing in rock bands. At that time, jazz players consistently downplayed the instrumental ability of their brethren in the rock world and with few exceptions, they were right at that stage. But by the latter half of the sixties, rock music had become quite sophisticated to the point that well-known jazz musicians like Elvin Jones were heaping praise on Keith Moon (while heaping scorn on Ginger Baker). So, the artistic level of rock was rising.
However, there were also several pocketbook issues hitting at the time. In the 1960's, jazz was at a commercial low point, and some players saw this commercial low point as being a criticism of the state of jazz, that it had lost its ability to communicate to the masses. Paul Bley had another assessment and having been an early free jazz player, he was in a unique position to assess the reason for rock's success. To paraphrase, here was a hip music with electronic sustain; the audience was geared to novelty in the 1960's and most rock music was upbeat, happy and easy to understand. Although jazz could be happy, in the 1960's, it was getting strongly linked with black power and angry aggressive challenging musical structure. Rock was popular and in the late 1960's at least, it demonstrated at least a superficial openness to experiment that attracted jazz players.
Out of this milieu came Miles and his recruits. As linkages became more stable between the two communities and as critical success started to occur, more mergers became possible, so when the Tony Williams' Lifetime formed and played to great reviews (and even added a rock link by hiring Jack Bruce on bass), there was a feeling that music fusion was a practical possibility, and not a pipe dream. After Lifetime, when John McLaughlin founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he melded the right ingredients for the time. The personnel included a former rock musician (violinist Jerry Goldsmith of the Flock), a keyboard player with a jazz background (Jan Hammer, to gain international fame from his work on Miami Vice); a bass player with both jazz and rock backgrounds (Rick Laird, who had played with Auger and many other in England), and a drummer whose style would serve to both define, but ultimately also limit, jazz rock (Billy Cobham). McLaughlin's involvement as a disciple of Indian Guru Sri Chinmoy, also fit in perfectly with the times- Coryell, Santana and Auger had all had Chinmoy as a guru, and Chinmoy played dozens of instruments, a perfect musicians' guru! The Chinmoy association also managed to inspire the group's name, its album titles, and even the all white attire that the front line of the band presented in concert. The compositions, unlike Lifetime, were ecstatic and tightly executed (sometimes superhumanly so) and groups like Soft Machine had an intellectual bent, which were not exactly user friendly. But McLaughlin's work rounded off the rough edge of the improvisations, and the pieces were perfectly executed, like their non-improvised progressive rock counterparts of groups like Genesis and Yes. The intensity matched 1973-1974 King Crimson, but without Crimson's oddness. It was a perfect and intense match for the time. Concert halls were packed.
It also sewed the seeds for the decline of jazz-rock. Even so, Mahavishnu set up a startling successful commercial example, emulated by groups like Coryell's Eleventh House (who were a bit more rough-edged), Chick Corea's electric Return to Forever, the English group Isotope, Brand X (Phil Collins' jazz-rock style was heavily indebted to Cobham's) and even Gong and Magma (check out Magma Live for Mahavishnu-like unison playing). Also, Weather Report's first two LP's were very unique eclectic documents- when Joe Zawinul starting getting more electronic keyboards, a definite Mahavishnu air started to settle in Weather Report.
But the other issue that arises is that whenever a musical style achieves a great deal of success, there is commercial and artistic stress to emulate those styles. So in the United States, any jazz-rock that didn't reflect a heavy Mahavishnu influence would be ignored. Or there would be more pressure for commercial conformity, either through "funky" rhythms (in my humble opinion the musical bane of the 1970's) or through extraordinarily clichéd use of synthesizers. For the latter two conditions, both Miles Davis (through his record On the Corner) and Joe Zawinul must assume some blame. Even Soft Machine, a pioneer and innovator in the field, lost credibility by the time that Soft Machine 7 came out, it was just a bunch of riffs with some amazing solos but the group had lapsed into Mahavishnu-like tightness, without the inspiration and energy level.
The big commercial weights in fusion were Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Weather Report, and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Again, most of these groups were offshoots of Miles' tradition, but Miles himself retired for about five years. When he re-emerged, he came through with a tepid band that managed to generate little excitement beyond those who had accepted Miles the Legend. The critical favorites were Weather Report (although I was always mystified by this). In Europe, groups like National Health, post Daevyd Allen Gong and the post-Canterbury groups generated a great deal of interest, as did Yoch'ko Seffer and Zao (post Magma). Can were also part of the jazz-rock fusion continuum, but they were so odd that they were off critical and popular radar in the United States at that time. The scene seemed to have died in the late 1970's with a bit of a stir caused by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time (who most people forget were actually musical guests on Saturday Night Live- I love the collective amnesia that the United States has about its avant garde artists).
With the advent of MTV, jazz was off the radar for a couple of years but by then, watered down careerists like the Yellowjackets and Spyro Gyra had arisen, using the funk arranging style perpetrated by Weather Report and Miles and enfeebling the experimental spirit. Ornette stayed active, but Ornette has been active since the 1950's- it will take more than a little commercial indifference to stop him.
Why did the more interesting bands die? First of all, they were ragged sounding and experimental. Listen to the Fourth Way's LP's from the late 1960's: this was a prototype Weather Report group with featuring violinist Michael White and pianist Mike Nock. These guys were harsh and gritty. Grab any of the English group Back Door's work- besides hearing one of the best bass players ever to record (Colin Hodgkinson), you'll hear a sprawling adventurous group with roots in Ornette's tradition of blues. But the only places that these bands were heard were on college radio shows, if at all. Most marketers, as a friend of mine mentioned to me a few years ago, know which beats will sell products and have adjusted their musicians accordingly.
It should also be remembered that jazz-rock had two, somewhat contradictory missions. Chick Corea stated that he switched to this music through a desire to communicate with the audience, which he felt he was not doing with his incredible avant-garde jazz group Circle. Others, coming from the rock dimension, wanted to expand the musical vocabulary, to innovate, which bumped up against the mid-1970's ethos of formula, mindlessness (think Disco) and philosophies that viewed technical proficiency as suspect (think Punk). But the godfathers of the movement also failed it, by reducing success to formula, and by losing the energy to innovate. The critics let it down by diminishing the relevance of the music to the lifestyles of people through an ideological purge that verged on totalitarianism. And the commerce of music let it down by trying to reduce everything to formula.
I have recently seen several journalists ascribe the lack of interest in complicated and lengthy musics like jazz-rock and progressive music to the decline in drug use but I would rather say that it came about through the ingestion of different kinds of drugs- downers in the early 1970's and cocaine a bit later on. Then the stronger forces of greed, ignorance and lack of tolerance took over- very potent drugs indeed!
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