A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
See also the The History of Rock Music and the The History of Pop Music
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")


The mellow, bland, romantic music that came to be called "fusion jazz" in the following decade was largely the product (a very commercial product) of mediocre musicians such as Chuck Mangione and Al Jarreau, and of derivative bands such as Spyro Gyra and Yellowjackets.

Pittsburgh-born guitarist and vocalist George Benson, who cut his teeth in Jack McDuff's group (1962) with a style reminiscent of Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, became the epitome of commercial fusion jazz of the 1970s. The New Boss Guitar (may 1964), with McDuff on organ, presented Benson as a composer and performer of hard-bop at the border with soul (Shadow Dancers) and blues (I Don't Know). His lightning-speed technique matured via It's Uptown (1964) and Cookbook (october 1966), both enhanced with Lonnie Smith's organ, Giblet Gravy (february 1968) and Shape of Things to Come (october 1968), both enhanced with organ, Herbie Hancock's piano and pop arrangements. On his way to stardom, Benson was forced to use more covers and less originals, and to accent the groove of his soul-jazz for the dancehalls, but he still managed to deliver some noteworthy originals: Somewhere In The East on Beyond the Blue Horizon (february 1971), with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Ron Carter, the eleven-minute El Mar on White Rabbit (november 1971), with Hancock, percussionist Airto Moreira, bassist and Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham, the funky workouts Body Talk and Dance on Body Talk (july 1973), with the rhythm section of Carter and DeJohnette. The musical surgery of arranger Don Sebesky Bad Benson (may 1974), with the samba My Latin Brother and Sebelsky's funky 12-minute Serbian Blue, and of Claus Ogerman on Breezin' (january 1976), whose only song (an eight-minute cover of Leon Russell's This Masquerade) climbed the charts, succeeded in depressing Benson's guitar craft and turning him into a smooth crooner specializing in covers of slick, formulaic pop-soul ballads, peaking with the Quincy Jones-produced Give Me The Night (1980) TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

White flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione specialized in orchestral ballads that mixed the most atmospheric aspects of bebop music and the most melodic aspects of pop music. The double-LP Friends And Love (may 1970), with the anthemic Hill Where the Lord Hides and the 26-minute pop-folk-jazz-classical fantasia Friends And Love, and Land Of Make Believe (august 1973) for jazz quartet and orchestra, with the twelve-minute Land Of Make Believe and Legend of the One-Eyed Sailor, were live concerts that spanned a vast stylistic territory. Chase the Clouds Away (1975) and Bellavia (1975), instead, pioneered the "smooth" sound of fusion of the 1980s. Mangione achieved mass-market success when he, basically, replicated the lightweight orchestral sound with a jazz quintet of flugelhorn, reeds, guitar, bass and drums on Feels So Good (1977). The catchy Maui Waui and Theme From Side Street, the gentle Hide And Seek and Last Dance, the epic The Eleventh Commandment were summarized in the Feels So Good, one of the biggest hits of the era. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Widely considered one of the most uninspired jazz bands of all times, Spyro Gyra was also one of the most commercially successful, particularly among the non-jazz audience. They were therefore influential in evangelizing the white pop audience. Formed in 1974 by alto saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and electric pianist Jeremy Wall, the band's two main composers, and centering around the setting of a small chamber ensemble (notably keyboardist Tom Schuman), Spyro Gyra succeeded where others had failed because they shamelessly focused on the lightweight pop, soul and jazz fusion that the jazz establishment considered debasing. Instead, their hits, such as Shaker Song, from Spyro Gyra (1976), Morning Dance and Heliopolis, from Morning Dance (1979), Carnaval, from Carnaval (1980), Autumn Of Our Love and Catching The Sun, from Catching The Sun (1980), Freetime and Schuman's Pacific Sunrise, from Freetime (1981), Incognito, Harbor Nights and Old San Juan, from Incognito (1982) Shakedown from Alternating Currents (1985), Schuman's Conversations, Serpent In Paradise and Islands In The Sky, from City Kids (1983), that introduced vibraphonist/marimba player Dave Samuels, emphasized dance rhythms, catchy melodies, relaxed counterpoint and slick arrangements, a format that was the epitome of yuppy intellectual torpor. By the time of the electronic Breakout (1986), Spyro Gyra's sound had become pure routine, that any member of the band (not only Beckenstein and Wall) could compose. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Los Angeles-based vocalist Al Jarreau started out as a promising purveyor of improvised vocals on We Got By (march 1975), around themes entirely composed by him. That art mutated into elegant pop-jazz ballads such as Alonzo on This Time (may 1980), Roof Garden on Breakin' Away (1981), but his fame came as an interpreter of faceless soul ballads, such as Mornin' and Boogie Down on Jarreau (1983), later penned by his producers or professional songwriters. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Yellowjackets, fronted by alto saxophonist Marc Russo and keyboardist Russell Ferrante (the band's main composer), coined a sound halfway between Weather Report's melodic atmospheres (Ferrante's Zawinul-inspired synthesizer) and the instrumental equivalent of the pop-soul ballad. Pieces such as Daddy's Gonna Miss You, Homecoming and Samurai Samba, from Samurai Samba (november 1983), Claire's Song and Top Secret, from Mirage a Trois (november 1982), Sightseeing, from Four Corners (september 1986), Local Hero and Evening Dance, from Politics (february 1988), Geraldine and Storytellers from Spin (february 1989), represented the "jazzy" version of Spyro Gyra's fusion pop.
When saxophonist Bob Mintzer replaced Russo, the band rediscovered its funk-jazz roots, stretching out in the nine-minute Green House, on Green House (september 1990), My Old School, on Like A River (april 1992), and Wisdom, on Run For Your Life (january 1994).
Dreamland (february 1995), instead, marked a return to the melodic focus (Summer Song, with Bobby McFerrin on vocals, and The Chosen). But the group had grown, both in terms of musicianship and composition, and Blue Hats (november 1996) turned ballads such as Savanna and Angelina into intricate mini-sonatas. The double-CD Mint Jam (july 2001) was the crowning achievement of this craft thanks to longer elaborations such as Statue of Liberty and Motet. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

While not exactly fusion, a couple of innovative vocalists belonged to this generation and brought a lot more to the "fusion" concept, besides quite simply expanding the role of the human voice in an instrumental context.

Leon Thomas, who moved to New York in 1958, became a legend thanks to his vocal performances on Pharoah Sanders' Karma (1969) and Jewels Of Thought (1970). His intense and acrobatic vocabulary included scats, melismas, yodels, shrieks, growls, shouts. His own albums, particularly Spirits Known and Unknown (october 1969), featuring saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, flutist James Spaulding, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Roy Haynes, and containing his signature theme The Creator Has A Masterplan and the poignant hymn Malcom's Gone and Album (1970), with a revolving cast of instruments, mostly devoted to the side-long The Journey, artfully mixed jamming that borrowed from blues, soul-jazz and free-jazz with overtones derived from Eastern spirituality and agit-prop politics. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Gil Scott-Heron, a Chicago poet and novelist turned musician, predated rap music with his spoken-word pieces. Accompanied by keyboardist and flutist Brian Jackson, Scott-Heron made an album of his poems, Small Talk At 125th & Lenox Ave (1970), which included The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Whitey On The Moon. The duo's Miles Davis-inspired fusion of jazz, funk and rock, and Scott-Heron's agit-prop lyrics reached maturity on Pieces Of A Man (april 1971), that included Lady Day And John Coltrane and Home Is Where The Hatred Is. Winter In America (october 1973) was his most "musical" statement. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.