“The history of thought and culture is a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turned into suffocating straightjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new emancipating, and at the same time, enslaving conceptions.” – Isaiah Berlin
When Lenny White (Miles Davis’ drummer), during this year’s CMJ panel commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Bitches Brew, exclaimed that he hated the word “fusion,” not only did a unanimous revelation hit the room like a tidal wave, but the topic was repeatedly brought up again and again throughout the course of the talk. Miles himself reportedly expressed his disdain of the word, as did many of his supporters.
What is fusion? And why is it disliked by cats who are considered the seminal pioneers?
Though it is debated who originally coined the term “jazz fusion,” the implication of a “fusion” or fusing of ideas is at the core of this phenomenon. The word “fusion” in this context implies more than a musical genre. It speaks on the topics of the music industry, fringe cultures, and politics at large, and teeters on a delicate line between innovation and commercialization.
Today’s stereotyped view of jazz is that it is fixed and unchangeable, yet jazz has seen a number of massive shifts in form: big band, swing, bop amongst other subgenres. In the late 60s, jazz experienced another great break, as there became an increased intermingling of different types of music bleeding into one another. One of the greatest known artists of all time that crossed this bridge was Miles Davis, incorporating electric elements early on with Miles in the Sky, and thereafter with In a Silent Way (which marked his first “fusion” album, as defined by the electric rock and funk elements, uncharacteristic of earlier jazz), and finally with the iconic Bitches Brew.
“I think Bitches Brew was attributed to Betty, and it also came because of Lifetime. Lifetime was before Miles was even playing “fusion.” –Wallace Roney
Miles himself was no isolated mad scientist. One of Davis’ biggest influences was his then wife, Betty Davis (20 years his junior), who exposed him to 60s popular culture, including “I’m Black and I’m Proud” (James Brown 1968) funk music, and cats like Jimi Hendrix who were progressively changing rock. But Jazz did not exist in a vacuum. Tony Williams’ group Lifetime, with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, was one of the first groups of jazz musicians who dared to audaciously cross genre lines on either side. McLaughlin and Williams both played on In a Silent Way, and all of them played on Bitches Brew.
Lenny White recalls his first time seeing Tony Williams’ Lifetime, “This was an organ trio on steroids, because I have never heard anything that loud in a club. It just knocked you over. It was the power of rock and roll, but they were playing jazz, and that’s why that word “fusion” that I don’t like—jazz/rock was what it was. The attitude was this big bad attitude. They didn’t care. They did what they wanted to do, and they were capable of what they wanted to do musically. It changed my life when I saw it.”
White wasn’t the only one who was enthralled by this new sound. Many upcoming cats saw this as an opportunity to explore uncharted territories. Those following Lifetime and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew band—cats like Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock went on to lead their own ubiquitous yet amorphous bands—Weather Report and Headhunters respectively.
There were cats adamant about jazz staying within the realm of bop, who were grossly offended by jazz entangled in popular music, claiming that the electric rock elements that Miles Davis was channeling were abominations to jazz music, and corrupted the genre. Some were offended by the integration of cultural idioms for another reason. Rock music merged with jazz—or the incorporation of jazz music into rock—became very lucrative. There was an acute influx of bands like the Grateful Dead and Blood, Sweat and Tears—rock bands who began incorporating more of an improvisational element—deviating from conventional radio length songs. Though this benefited the re-popularization of jazz, it did so mostly within young white youth.
“Fusion” was once a sensibility for integrating music, culture, and politics, but for some, simultaneously became a succession into cultural appropriation, creative stagnation and commercialization.
Perhaps the soul purpose in which labels are instituted, and especially in this case with “fusion”, is to identify a particular sound or humor of musical elements working in tandem. Typically musical movements: the sound of a revolution, the trailblazers of a generation are not deemed so, until the moment has passed. The hatred of “fusion” as a term can be related to a similar disdain as Leonardo da Vinci might have felt if called a “painter” (he was a mathematician, an artist and philosopher).
Musician communities face this dilemma all the time. As we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Bitches Brew, the implication is that the influences of the so-called “fusion era” are still relevant today. The jazz connection with different cultural expressions is ongoing: jazz/funk, Afro-Latin jazz, jazz fused with other musics of the world. Fast forward to 2010, and you see a parallel dilemma in the issues surrounding jazz musicians now. The universality of hip-hop influences these young cats like rock and funk did in the 60s, therefore jazz with hip-hop is no alien concept.
For a young musician who identifies with hip-hop, trains in jazz, writes soul music, and then performs rap, they must make the decision to align his or herself to the most lucrative opportunity of the moment in order to find acceptance, and more importantly to sustain their livelihood.
Rarely (if ever) is there anything progressive about the type of extremism that may exclude the birth of new ideas. So-called “jazz purists” who at the time denounced Bitches Brew for borrowing from Jimi Hendrix and James Brown partook in a creatively deadening act that still gained little ground as jazz-rock/jazz fusion (in its various forms) have proven to be greatly revered and successful.
However, the popularization of “fusion” as a genre, the copycats who took elements to replicate the improvisational spirit of creations like Bitches Brew (which is not even really possible) no longer held the same meaning as when it was just a nameless expression. What is shows is that just throwing things in a pot does not make it inventive, nor does it make it necessarily good.
“I hate fusion,” which has fallen out of the mouths of our greatest idols is really a statement describing the struggle of the artist from the 19th century onward, where artists have been scrutinized for the act of breaking away from tradition and academia, to do anything outside of the lines.
“Bitches Brew was recorded 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix played the last note at Woodstock” – Lenny White
The advent of what is known as “fusion” are elements of the universe that synergized together at the right time and place to produce one of the most imaginative and compelling periods of American music, and the players (Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, etc) have been some of the most inventive. This period where once isolated music cultures coexisted with very little interaction, suddenly there was an opportunity to bridge the gap. The so-called “fusion” period has proven to still speak to the creative minds of people beyond cultural lines because it illuminates a period of a creative revolution in music. If Miles Davis were still alive now, he probably wouldn’t touch anything even remotely related to Bitches Brew with a ten-foot pole. Without a shadow of a doubt, he would be eons away, discovering some once unfathomable new sound, never before known to man, woman, or any other living being. And soon after there would be another name describing what he did that he would similarly hate.
Words by Boyuan Gao