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Jazz Corner: The Transition of Jazz into The Electronic Phase In The Sixties

This change in direction makes for an interesting analysis; we shall attempt to try and understand what transpired during this period in jazz history

Sunil Sampat Oct 25, 2021

Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

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In the late 1960s, there was a sudden and abrupt change in the way jazz music sounded. From the mainstream sound of Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and others, there was a sudden, almost inexplicable veering into the new sound of Fusion. This change in direction makes for an interesting analysis; we shall attempt to try and understand what transpired during this period in jazz history. Jazz music has always been sensitive to the prevailing sociological conditions in the United States. In the 1930s during the great depression combined with prohibition, big band swing music kept American spirits up.

After the war (WW2), there was the exuberance of peacetime and a frenzy to rebuild. An equally upbeat music, Bebop created by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk and others was the new sound of jazz.

In the 1950s, perhaps the greatest period of American economic growth came, arguably the greatest period of growth in jazz. Melodic hardbop took the edge off bebop, the sounds of ‘cool’, laidback jazz from Miles, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck and others spread happy sounds to a large cross-section of Americans. Jazz became the rage across American universities.

The intensifying cold war with its suspicions and cloak and dagger activities coincided with the enigmatic sounds of avant-garde, third stream and experimental jazz. No one was sure where they were headed. Then came a decisive moment in modern American history; the Vietnam war. I lived in America through that period from 1962 to 72 and this is how I saw it:

The American people were confused by what was going on. What is this Vietnam? We don’t even know where it is…..was the reaction. The government could not explain this new threat that needed to be addressed. But the Americans understood that ‘communism’ was being fought in some faraway land. No, it was not a Hitler-type menace but somehow Russian communism had to be fought.

Panic broke in the student community as wide-ranging changes were brought to the draft rules. Young students suddenly started getting married to put them in a lower draft priority. Liberal Americans were in disarray.

Bob Dylan led the protest music movement, followed by many ‘folk music’ protesters. Simultaneously, the culture of drugs, though mainly marijuana sprung up. The theory was that drug addicts would not be drafted, although this was a misconception. Uncle Sam was desperate and cast a wide net. Americans were divided now between the long-haired ‘hippies’ and regular, crew cut types who didn’t care for the drug culture. Terms like “peaceniks” and “draft dodgers” further separated the two American streams. As always in America, the divide was aggressive and this reflected in the music of those times. Woodstock was a prime example of the times – the drugs, the music and the inherent rebellion.

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The beautiful modal jazz of the peaceful 1950s was inconsistent with the upheaval of the mid-60s. I believe, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was the last album of the peaceful era.

Miles Davis was still playing his melodic, non-electronic jazz with Herbie, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams but with reducing returns. He was no longer filling shows or auditoriums.

The rest of jazz-folk were suffering as well. Business was bad.

Around this time, 1963 to 64, the Beatles appeared on the scene from England and people took to the simplicity of their music. The American rock bands made their impact a couple of years later.

Music was in a state of flux, just as was American society.

About this very time in the mid-sixties, the Moog synthesizer came onto the scene. It was used in R&B and by a few bandleaders like Quincy Jones for movie-type background music. Jazz was still quite puritanical about ‘pure’ sounds. Ironically, Miles had criticized Dizzy Gillespie for using an ‘electric’ bass at a jazz festival! (Dizzy would always try a new sound as long as it was within the parameters of his sound).

Miles Davis was searching for a sound that would connect with this new generation of drug-taking, long-haired youth that was dominating the scene at that time — particularly on the West coast of the US. Protest music was losing its following, being more of the same….

Miles decided it was time to change his music yet again, in order to stay relevant. Electronic sounds were different enough to allow him to write a new chapter. He took to the new look and new sound wholesale and came up with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Ostensibly, Miles was fascinated by Rock, funk and soul. He brought in electric guitars, pianos and keyboards as well as experimental instruments like the claviolin and other variants. He hired several young musicians and marketed his new product brilliantly. Jazz listeners of that time did not take to this sound at all. In fact the ‘mainstream jazz’ club did not forgive him for this music hijack in the name of jazz, albeit of the ‘fusion’ variety. They called it a cop out and even a joke. The ever diplomatic Duke Ellington said, “There’s two kinds of music, good and bad and we each one of us have to decide which is which!.” The new jazz was not from the roots of the music. It was not ‘from the culture’.

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But the marketing genius in Miles created a whole new audience. At that time new discoverers of Miles felt he was America’s new music messiah!

(Yet, almost ironically, Miles played some selected concerts with his old acoustic sound. Soon after Bitches Brew was released, I heard him play a fabulous set at the Playboy club in Montreal, playing all his classic acoustic masterpieces. Was that the Gemini twin personality at work?)

Through this move to fusion, Miles’ jazz following was split; Ron Carter and Keith Jarrett (KJ after just 3 months of being with Miles) refused to go along on this bandwagon. However, this new movement made Miles a lot of money. Several musicians followed this trend. But this new sound had a limited shelf life and by the late 70s, led by musicians like Wynton Marsalis, a return to the ‘old’ sound of jazz took place.

Contemporary jazz in America seems to have returned to a much more ‘educated’ version of its old self. Jazz education and the proliferation of music training has resulted in this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, several countries in Europe, notably Germany and Sweden are home to the sound of electronic jazz.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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