The Birth of Jazz Fusion: Miles Davis

Introduction

Jazz is not just music; it is a way of life, a way of thinking, and the way of being. Initially associated with African-American communities, providing an outlet for their thoughts, feelings, and artistic expression, Jazz became a worldwide phenomenon as one of the most fast-growing and popularized musical genres in the world.1 It was a beautiful flower born of the harsh conditions of black American reality. At the same time, the lack of structure and framework in its creation led to a variety of techniques and philosophies of performance. It is said that a jazz song is never played the same way twice, as it relies on improvisation and self-expression of the performer.2 The structure, choices of instruments, accompaniment, and tempo was deeply connected with the cultural and racial roots of the musicians as well as their personalities and the availability of tools. Such a great amount of variety made jazz very hard to structure based on the conventional frameworks of music.

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Jazz fusion followed the traditions of classical jazz music in terms of creativity but greatly expanded the variety of techniques and instruments incorporated into it. The creation of fusion is associated with the name of Miles Davis and The Tony Williams Lifetime band.3 His music incorporated the instruments and approaches of other genres, such as groove, smooth jazz, jazz-rock, and many others. The usage of synthesizers, electric guitars, and other instruments not associated with jazz was what set it apart and made it famous. While some critics initially claimed jazz fusion to be a parody of what true jazz stood for, Miles Davis proved to be the closest to the heart and soul of jazz, as he was not afraid to dare and experiment. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the differences between fusion and other types of jazz in relation to Miles Davis and his work.

Short Biography of Miles Davis

Miles Davis was born in Illinois in 1926. Having received a relatively good education by the standards of his time, Davis was sent to study at the Juilliard School in New York City.4 However, from a relatively young age, the young man knew his life was meant to be connected to music. For four years, between 1944 and 1948, he worked with Charlie Parker as a part of his quintet. Ever an innovator, the man was instrumental to the development of cool jazz, hard bop, and, later, fusion. His most significant albums, chronologically, are as follows:5

  • Round About Midnight (1957);
  • Milestones (1958);
  • Kind of Blue (1959);
  • Sketches of Spain (1960);
  • ESP (1965);
  • Miles Smiles (1967);
  • Bitches Brew (1970).

Bitches Brew signified the beginning of Davis’ experiments with jazz, which lead to the formation of an entirely new style in jazz called fusion, which emphasized creativity and a lack of boundaries. Other albums instrumental to the subject will be further discussed in the paper. In 1975, Miles Davis had to take a 5-year break in his career due to poor health. His return to the stage in the 1980s with albums titled “The Man with the Horn” and “Tutu” earned the musician much criticism despite being a commercial success.6 The star of Miles Davis ended in 1991 when he succumbed to pneumonia.

Definitions of Jazz

Before talking about jazz fusion, it is necessary to identify what constitutes conventional jazz. As it was already said, due to numerous varieties and an emphasis on improvisation, musical science has a hard time distilling the core concept of “classic jazz.” 7 Although several definitions were provided by different sources, the collective identification of the musical genre highlights the following traits:8

  • The presence of swing and blue notes, which are characterized by a changing pattern in the rhythm of the musical framework, as well as notes played at a different pitch from the rest of the sounds in a line;
  • Call-and-response techniques, which include rhetorical questions and lines that the singer immediately supplies a response to;
  • Polyrhythms – a changing pattern of rhythms that seem similar but are slightly different from one another;
  • Standard instruments: Saxophones, pianos, trumpets, guitars, and vocals. Other instruments may include the trombone, clarinet, and keyboards.
  • Heavy emphasis on improvisation.

Due to the historical influences behind the development of jazz, the musical style was not fit for being played on the large stage.9 The people who have first discovered jazz were black Americans with no classic or traditional musical education, which is the main reason behind improvisation at the core of the style – most did not know how to write notes.10 Thus, the main idea behind jazz was to demonstrate the thoughts of the feelings of the musician in the heat of the moment, focusing on whatever story he or she wanted to tell right now. Fusion jazz borrowed the aspect of creativity from classic jazz, as outlined above. This applied specifically to Miles Davis’ music – it was said that his songs were never like the others and that he could come up with unique combinations in a matter of moments and make it work somehow.

Predecessors of Fusion Music: Smooth Jazz

Smooth jazz is considered one of the predecessors and a source of major inspiration for Miles Davis in his creation and development of fusion. However, this relationship between the styles is a controversial one. Smooth jazz was the first commercialized style of jazz to hit the radio.11 As such, it was restricted in several important ways. The contract between the radio stations and the musicians relied on predicting customer preferences and ensuring that listeners got what they wanted. In addition, the limitations of the 1970s radio broadcasting technology placed its own limitations on the scope of swing available to be achieved by the musicians.12 While classic jazz made it well into vinyl due to the capacity of private record players, the same level of sound quality was unachievable by smaller car radios. Smooth jazz featured a softer and more melodious tune, which was easier to transmit and replicate. At the same time, it limited creativity and placed the performers into certain borders, which were considered unacceptable for some classic and even fusion jazz performers.

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What smooth jazz brought into the fold that was later utilized by Miles Davis with great success was its use of electric instruments.13 With jazz has become a popular and recognizable form of musical expression, the performers were no longer restricted to classic instruments, thus seeing the addition of synthesizers and electric bass guitars. This not only expanded the variety of musical tunes available to the performers but also made it more replicable for radios and even large concerts – electric instruments could be amplified, something classical instruments could not achieve.

Predecessors of Fusion Music: Rock Jazz

If smooth jazz was one of the first jazz styles to use electric instruments, rock jazz was what took those instruments to their maximum potential. The terms are often used interchangeably with fusion because, at times, it is very hard to make a distinction. Rock jazz is characterized by energetic and wild use of the instruments to add the fire that smooth jazz, allegedly, did not have in it.14 While classic jazz was known for its complexity and creativity, rock provided the sheer force of the sound to the composition, thus creating something new and electrifying.

The relationship between rock jazz, fusion, and Miles Davis is complex. Some researchers argue that the creation of fusion should be attributed to Larry Coryell and The Free Spirits band, though arguably, Miles Davis was who gave the style more notoriety. Fusion borrowed the style of instrument use from rock jazz, sometimes fall into the style when performing. “Black Satin” and “Bitches Brew” are examples of Davis’s “electrical phase,” sharing a resemblance to psychedelic rock.15 The songs have an electrical feel to them provided by the use of guitars and synthesizers to create vibrations similar to those of an electrical current, sparking and crackling, mixed with hums of electrical appliances. The ancestry of fusion’s relation to rock jazz is visible in these examples.

Enter Miles Davis: The Game Changer

Miles Davis is possibly one of the most recognizable individuals in the history of jazz, as he and his group managed to almost singlehandedly define the boundaries of a style that officially had no boundaries to begin with. Jazz fusion is defined by the complete freedom of improvisation, so much so that it could be argued to be the next logical evolutionary step for the development of the musical style. The primary requirement for it, as defined by Davis’ life of creativity, was the capacity and willingness to experiment. As it is possible to see through the history of his musical exploration, the man was constantly influenced by other ideas, flows, and styles of performance.

Davis’ evolution of fusion jazz can be split into several stages. The first step of his transformation of jazz involves the development of his quintets.16 Namely, the second quintet had some of the greatest performers in the genre, who would later become stars in their own right. His views and visions for jazz were, at some point, shared by the likes of Herbie Hancock (master piano player) and Wayne Shorter, most famous for his performance with the saxophone. The culmination of his work during 1968-1969 happened with albums titled “Filles de Killamanjaro” and “In a Silent Way,” which set the stage for the future evolution of the style, as chord-based jazz was replaced with a modal approach and the use of electric guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers.

“Bitches Brew,” an album released in spring 1970, constituted Davis’ magnum opus, his greatest work that he is most commonly remembered for.17 It saw the shift from merely electrical jazz-rock style to something completely new, as jazz was fused in equal measure with psych-rock and rock-pop-funk direction, characterized by free-flowing grooves, modal improvisation, and lasting and impressive record jams. The composition titled “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” became a staple of fusion jazz style during that period.18

The third period, which was much longer in comparison to the other two, involved deep experimentation and venturing beyond the boundaries of the styles that initially formed fusion, such as smooth, groove, and rock jazz. The most famous examples of such include the 1970s “Tribute to Jack Johnson” as well as the 1974’s “Get up With It.”19 The former was colored by the amazing performance of Sonny Sharrock, which added the kinetic emphasis of solo performances and riffs to the funk-rock base of the jazz performance – a trend that was followed by “On the Corner,” released in 1972.20 The latter, however, was experimentation not only in terms of instruments used but was also a test of the listener’s endurance, as some compositions featured long solo performances, the culmination of which was “He Loved Him Madly,” featuring an organ performance that lasted over 30 minutes. “Rated X,” released in 1974, was revolutionary in its use of an atonal composition as well as the mix of electronic music with noise, which was innovative at the time.

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Finally, Davis’s work managed to overcome the primary limitation of classic jazz, which presented itself as music performed for a small audience. His most famous examples of live concerts included Live-Evil as well as the mournful composition titled “Little Church.”21 These examples demonstrated that large audiences could be held captive not just by the bombastic and powerful tunes of his funk-rock jazz music but also by the relatively quiet and emotional dirges dedicated to meaningful and traumatic events in one’s life.

Evaluation of Miles Davis’ Concept of Fusion

Davis reaffirms the main idea of jazz being music with no borders. Subverting the expectations of musical critics, the audience, the producers, and even his own was the primary selling point behind all of his compositions.22 Anything that was considered a canon in other genres was willfully disregarded in favor of artistic expression and the demands of the composition. Based on the descriptions of the stages of Davis’s evolution of work, several important distinctions must be made that becomes the framework of fusion as a style:23

  • Duration of composition: Arbitrary. As illustrated by “He Loved Him Madly,” there is no set timeframe for any one individual piece. It can be as long or as short as the performer wants it to be. Such an approach contradicts the tenets of smooth and rock jazz music, which typically fell under 7 minutes in duration, in order to accommodate the switching preferences of radio listeners.
  • Choice of instruments: Arbitrary. While Davis did not specifically deny the classic instruments used in conventional jazz (the trumpet being his favorite), he did not shun other tools, should they suit his purpose. This is demonstrated by the use of electric guitars, the organ, and even white noise as a means of creating a compelling composition.
  • Construction of the composition. Whereas classic jazz, smooth, and rock were defined by either one or several modalities, fusion is not hard-pressed to follow any of them. “Bitches Brew” was a classic example of psychedelic-influenced jazz, whereas “Little Church” was very close to conventional jazz, while “He Loved Him Madly,” both in the duration and the choice of instruments, borrowed from the traditions of the church and classical music.
  • Emphasis on creativity. Fusion possessed something that smooth did not have, and that is the emphasis on self-expression and creativity matched only by jazz at its grassroots but much greater in scope and purpose. Davis never felt the need to be constricted by the conventions of the market. Subversion of expectations was key, as many fans and critics characterized Davis as an unpredictable artist, with no one tune being the same as the other.

Based on these observations, an important conclusion could be made: classifying as a mere substyle of jazz would oversimplify both the scope and the impact of what Miles Davis managed to create. Not only did he directly influence the evolution of music, but he also allowed jazz to transcend its initial limitations. From a codified musical style, fusion and jazz and generally became a musical tradition or an approach to generating music.24 It became a framework and a philosophy for a number of great musicians that came after. Whereas nearly all other musical style sought to find a balance between artistic self-expression and a specific codified way of generating music that would fall into the matrix of social and artistic expectations, Davis demonstrated the true meaning behind the music, that being a means of pure, unadulterated self-expression, which cannot fit into anyone or even several modalities existing in human history.

This is the reason why the majority of jazz researchers had such a hard time classifying fusion as a style of its own. Due to the multimodality of expression used in its conception and the blatant disregard for any borders, every song can stand on its own as an example of its own sub-genre, so to speak. Instead, they can be united under the larger framework of a musical tradition or a musical approach. This would allow evaluating Miles Davis’ performance in terms of its scope and intent rather than quantitative measurements.

Conclusions

The relationship between fusion and jazz is much more complex than that of a core style and a simple subset. Instead, fusion grew to be its own tradition, incorporating not just specific bits and pieces of different practices within itself, but nurturing its own philosophy of controlled chaos, giving the practitioner unlimited freedom of expression. Revolutionary both in the musical and socio-political ways, fusion was not restricted to any particular idea, rhythm, modality, or instrument. Neither was it affected by the background of the performer, like jazz, in general, moved from being a traditional and cultural heritage of African Americans and pushed past the stereotypes, with men and women of different colors becoming able to express themselves through fusion.

Miles Davis was the one whose genius and talent made such a notion happen. He showed the world that it was possible to amalgamate nearly any instrument and any style with jazz and create beautiful masterpieces on the fly without being constrained by the concerns of audience expectations, budgets, and adaptations to the radio. His golden years, which lasted from 1968 to 1975, were rich with numerous compositions, each standing as unique examples in their own right. Unfortunately, the light that was Miles Davis to the world of jazz burned bright, but brief, like depression and drug abuse, forced him to put aside the trumpet and led to his death in 1991. Nevertheless, he would be forever remembered as the father of fusion and the progenitor of evolution in jazz.

Bibliography

Davis, Miles, and Quincy Troupe. Miles. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Early, Gerald Lyn. Miles Davis and American culture. St. Louis, MO: Missouri History Museum, 2001.

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Fellezs, Kevin. Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the creation of Fusion. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Gabbard, Krin. Jazz among the Discourses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Martin, Henry, and Keith Waters. Jazz: The first 100 years. New York, NY: Cengage Learning, 2011.

West, Aaron J. Caught between jazz and pop: The contested origins, criticism, erformance practice, and reception of smooth jazz. Denton, TX: University of North Texas, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Gerald Lyn Early, Miles Davis and American culture (St. Louis, MO: Missouri History Museum, 2001), 21-25.
  2. Henry Martin and Keith Waters, Jazz: The first 100 years, (New York, NY: Cengage Learning, 2011), 41-45.
  3. Martin and Waters, 48.
  4. Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 40-73.
  5. Miles and Troupe, 40-73
  6. Miles and Troupe, 40-73
  7. Krin Gabbard, Jazz among the Discourses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 33-60.
  8. Gabbard, 54.
  9. Aaron J. West, Caught between jazz and pop: The contested origins, criticism, performance practice, and reception of smooth jazz (Denton, TX: University of North Texas, 2008), 41.
  10. West, 112-123.
  11. West, 112-123.
  12. West, 112-123.
  13. Kevin Fellezs, Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the creation of Fusion, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011) 55-88.
  14. Fellezs, 94.
  15. Fellezs, 101.
  16. Early, 34-122.
  17. Early, 34-122.
  18. Early, 34-122.
  19. Early, 34-122.
  20. Early, 34-122.
  21. Early, 34-122.
  22. Fellezs, 151.
  23. Fellezs, 130-150.
  24. Fellezs, 153.
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