Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion

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Birds of Fire brings overdue critical attention to fusion, a musical idiom that emerged as young musicians blended elements of jazz, rock, and funk in the late 1960s and 1970s. At the time, fusion was disparaged by jazz writers and ignored by rock critics. In the years since, it has come to be seen as a commercially driven jazz substyle. Fusion never did coalesce into a genre. In Birds of Fire, Kevin Fellezs contends that hybridity was its reason for being. By mixing different musical and cultural traditions, ...

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Birds of Fire brings overdue critical attention to fusion, a musical idiom that emerged as young musicians blended elements of jazz, rock, and funk in the late 1960s and 1970s. At the time, fusion was disparaged by jazz writers and ignored by rock critics. In the years since, it has come to be seen as a commercially driven jazz substyle. Fusion never did coalesce into a genre. In Birds of Fire, Kevin Fellezs contends that hybridity was its reason for being. By mixing different musical and cultural traditions, fusion artists sought to disrupt generic boundaries, cultural hierarchies, and critical assumptions. Interpreting the work of four distinctive fusion artists—Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, and Herbie Hancock—Fellezs highlights the ways that they challenged convention in the 1960s and 1970s. He also considers the extent to which a musician can be taken seriously as an artist across divergent musical traditions. Birds of Fire concludes with a look at the current activities of McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Hancock; Williams’s final recordings; and the legacy of the fusion music made by these four pioneering artists.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Fellezs succeeds in being both academic and a fan. He succeeds in bringing these four artists in from the margins while recognising their cross-cultural capital lies in their non-belonging to any mainstream discourse.” - Andy Robson, Jazzwise

“Fellezs offers fascinating biographical detail and the kind of serious critical overview that the music has long deserved. His knowledge is impressive, his perspective thought-provoking, reflected in fascinating historical tidbits and observations. . . . [O]ne-of-a-kind, critical reading.” - Ken Micallef, Downbeat

“. . . Birds of Fire (named for the second album by the Mahavishnu Orchestra) is actually a relatively easy read that posits some fascinating theories about how and why fusion developed and why it was embraced by some, castigated by others.” - Andrey Henkin, New York City Jazz Record

"Kevin Fellezs's Birds of Fire gives a detailed history of the fusion movement of the 1960s and 1970s. . . . This is an excellent and engaging study of this under-represented musical idiom. . . . Birds of Fire will appeal to scholars and fans alike, with enough scholarly engagement for the former, and enough biographical and musical detail for the latter.” - Katherine Williams, Popular Music

“More than a study of one underexplored market niche, Birds of Fire brilliantly illuminates how the market both inhibits and enables creativity, as well as how creative musicians challenge the music industry’s narrowing and naturalizing of complicated, constructed, conflicted, and deeply contradictory social identities.”—George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place

“What a pleasure it is to read this insightful, exciting, and extremely well listened analysis of fusion music. Kevin Fellezs suggests new ways of understanding the four artists he profiles, develops a productive framework for rethinking fusion, and helps us to understand why artists and audiences were stimulated by this music even as it was dismissed by purists. Birds of Fire is a major contribution to rethinking the place of fusion within jazz studies, as well as broader questions of genre across disciplines.”—Sherrie Tucker, co-editor of Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822350477
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2011
  • Series: Refiguring American Music Series
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 1,441,926
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Fellezs is Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University.

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Read an Excerpt

Birds of Fire

Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion
By Kevin Fellezs

Duke university Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5047-7

Chapter One

Bitches Brew / considering genre

I don't like labels too much but they're a necessary convenience. I use [jazz/funk], or jazz/rock or fusion. I use all those labels.—Herbie Hancock

Jazz fusion is another idiom. It uses elements of jazz and elements of popular forms, but it established its own idiom.—Herbie Hancock

Since flying between and among genres is a central motif of this work, it is necessary to establish my conception of genre. One of my central assumptions is that genres represent more than the aesthetic tastes of collective groups of listeners and musicians or the interests of the music industry. As Fabian Holt demonstrates throughout Genre in Popular Music, a "genre can be viewed as a culture with the characteristics of a system or systemic functions," and "genres are identified not only with music, but also with certain cultural values, rituals, practices, territories, traditions, and groups of people." I also understand genre as a logic through which ideas about race, gender, and social class are created, debated, and performed through musical sound and discourse. Genre is the index against which musical value is determined by critics, musicians, and fans alike, despite almost universal disavowal for drawing rigid lines around musical practices. Indeed, like the category of race, genre continues to hold discursive sway despite widespread acknowledgment of its limits, elisions, and errors.

Herbie Hancock's comment about the creation of an entirely new idiom may point us in the right direction for naming Beck's "ain't jazz, ain't rock" music, but fusion, as a distinct term for a particular set of musical practices, has not gained much traction within musical discourse except as part of the conceptual mélange of words such as translocal, diasporic, and hybridized, which are used to describe contemporary musical mergings across cultures and idioms. Steven Pond begins his insightful analysis of Head Hunters by introducing the term fusion jazz to keep from "restricting research to a genre [in order] to concentrate on the ... various kinds of fusing activity" Hancock and his band enacted. Pond skillfully delineates an array of fusing activities located in the recording, detailing the intricate interweaving of sounds, discourse, and the music industry with a careful ear, lucidly grounding his analyses in the sonic text. I am likewise more interested in thinking through the possible meanings the "fusing activities" of these young musicians might have produced than in gainsaying debates regarding genre formation.

Following David Brackett, I view genre as the "point of articulation between music analysis—the formal or technical description of music—and the social meanings and functions of music" and thus a keyword in my exploration of fusion's musical meaning. In fact, Pond also spends some time grappling with the problem of genre and genre naming. The difficulty of slotting the "ain't jazz, ain't rock" music into its "correct" genre becomes apparent as soon as the attempts to define jazz, rock, or funk begin—a discursus appearing prior to any discussion of reasonably defining the "ain't jazz, ain't rock" music itself. Indeed, jazz, rock, and funk inhabit sets of "already impure" musical practices caught within fuzzy, contentious borders. However, it is not only that musicians and listeners recognize that genres sound out a putatively common set of central characteristics—enabling the distinguishing of a jazz from a rock composition, for instance—but that genres have also managed to instantiate a number of institutional, commercial, and discursive formations that inculcate a sense of "jazzness" or "funkness" in listeners and musicians that has been denied the "ain't jazz, ain't rock" music under study here. In fact, many genre names have become identified with radio formats as both have become inextricably linked in their use as vernacular shorthand among musicians, fans, and critics. It is important, however, to keep in mind at least one distinction: radio format names are usually more narrowly defined by market demographics (i.e., audience constitution), whereas genre names refer more often to musical practices, though both genre and radio format names tend to obscure the racialized and gendered underpinnings of their categories. Still, as Holt astutely notes, "Naming a music is a way of recognizing its existence and distinguishing it from other musics. The name becomes a point of reference and enables certain forms of communication, control, and specialization into markets, canons, and discourses." Although there are inevitable exclusions in any categorization, a term eventually emerges that typically attempts to capture a central salient characteristic of a given set of musical sounds and practices.

Therefore, while recognizing its ambiguity, I will use the simple term fusion, not only because it was used throughout the 1970s to differentiate the music discussed within these pages from other kinds of music but because it succinctly captures the eclectic aesthetic the young "ain't jazz, ain't rock" musicians enacted. For my purposes fusion will refer to a merging of jazz, rock, and funk music aesthetics and practices and the subsequent (or, better, the further) blurring of these large-scale genre boundaries in articulation with other musical traditions that each musician engaged in a more limited fashion. Fusion musicians articulated uneven and variable musical mergings that did not wholly displace the given genre terms (jazz, rock, funk) but allowed another term (fusion) to continually trouble, perplex, and contest those given categories—a broken middle through which the correspondences between musical genre and identity were transformed. Fusion, as a "not-quite-genre," points out the instability of all genre designations and highlights the fluidity of musical practices that genre names attempt to freeze in order to give discussions about music a meaningful starting point. In fact, while Holt frequently refers to the music as jazz-rock fusion in order to distinguish it from other styles of jazz, he states, "In retrospect, the term fusion more adequately represents the plurality and hybridity of the phenomenon," adding elsewhere that fusion "is not a hyphenated term and does more justice to the somewhat hybrid character of this field of jazz, which draws heavily not only on rock but also on soul and funk." As Holt suggests, whether jazz-rock, jazz-funk, or jazz-xyz, strings of hyphenated terms are often clumsy and fail to provide sufficient definitional clarity.

Genre, as Keith Negus rightly insists, translates dynamic musical practices into "codified rules, conventions and expectations, not only as melodies, timbres and rhythms but also in terms of audience expectations, market categories and habits of consumption." More to the point, genre discourses and constraints are not only concerns for musicians. A genre's culture, if you will, is not only exhibited through the creation and performance of music but is just as conspicuous through its consumption. Genre as a distillation of musical meaning can be seen in the clothing and heard in the language of its musicians, critics, and fans quite apart from the "music itself." Fans pay close attention to the way they dress, speak, even move, ordering their life around their consumption of a musical genre or tradition—in effect, performing culture and identity through music. Fans' decisions about clothes fashions, hair design, and bodily adornments, or lack thereof, the employment they seek, and the social networks they participate in can be affected by the music culture with which they identify.

For instance, consider the sartorial transformation of Miles Davis, who dressed in tailored Brooks Brothers suits throughout most of the 1960s, to become one of the era's representative icons of jazz as serious music. His cool, distanced onstage demeanor underscored the gravitas he believed that he and his music deserved. But his 1970 appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival found him in a bright orange leather jacket, bellbottom jeans customized with rhinestones, and a pair of gold platform shoes, all of which signaled his "electric turn" toward rock and funk. Davis was candid about the correlation: "[In the late 1960s] I was changing my attitude about a lot of things.... Everybody was into blackness, you know, the black consciousness movement, and so a lot of African and Indian fabrics were being worn.... I had moved away from the cool Brooks Brothers look and into this other thing, which for me was more happening with the times." Many of Davis's peers, however, remained committed to promoting mainstream jazz as a crucial accomplishment for black musicians and black culture writ large. Understandably, the more formal presentation he had partially defined remained a vital jazz practice for those musicians.

Davis further unsettled jazz practices by reversing the conventional master-apprentice relationship. He not only dressed like the younger musicians in his bands, but he also gleaned new musical ideas and approaches from them, creating an incredibly dense library of collaborative music with younger musicians throughout the early 1970s. Yet even with a musician of Davis's stature, the mixing of jazz, rock, and funk was not universally admired.

* * *

I am less inclined to view fusion as a style of jazz than to heed Hancock's description of fusion as a "new idiom." Whether one views fusion as a "new idiom" or merely another style of jazz is particularly significant given that, as Simon Frith admonishes, genre "labeling lies, in practice, at the heart of pop value judgments." As an example of how genre naming matters for the music at hand, let us consider Stuart Nicholson's argument for the term jazz-rock. Nicholson makes "a distinction between it and fusion (and its latter-day equivalents, variously described as smooth jazz, quiet storm, lite-jazz, hot tub jazz, or yuppie jazz)." Indeed, jazz-rock was as common a term for the music as fusion was at the time. Yet the implied privileging of jazz above rock is problematic given that musicians from either side of Beck's "ain't jazz, ain't rock" divide helped create the music.

The overreliance on rock to describe all nonjazz popular music is fundamentally troubling. More important, jazz-rock completely elides fusion musicians' artistic claims to other musical practices and aesthetics beyond jazz and rock, oversimplifying their eclecticism. The term jazz-rock implicitly ignores such creative efforts as the funk-based experimentalism of the Herbie Hancock "Mwandishi" Sextet, the bluegrass-inflected compositions and performance style of the Dixie Dregs, and the transcultural mergings of Shakti—all viewed as fusion bands by critics and audiences, even while they acknowledged the vast differences in approaches and repertoire among the bands.

Mark Gridley argues that much of the music that has been called jazz-rock fusion is better named jazz-funk. John Covach complicates matters further by noting the overlapping aesthetics of progressive rock and fusion, though he is careful to keep the distinctions between the two styles in mind. Covach's assertion that the overlap "balances between [the] two styles, refusing to be forced into a single category," is especially relevant here. The term jazz-rock also obscures the fusion music created during the 1970s by bands such as Soft Machine, Bruford, and Brand X formed by rock musicians with decidedly heterodox tastes and abilities, further problematizing any privileging of jazz over rock. Finally, a demotic example: Michael J. West cogently sums up the problem of genre naming in the case of fusion, writing, "One of the most confusing aspects of the fusion universe is that, although the whole point of the music was to break down the barriers between rock and jazz, the very act of fusing the two genres seems to have created new boundaries between them. As a case in point, ever notice how, if the music was made by people inside the jazz sphere, it's called fusion—but if it was made by people in the rock sphere, it's jazz-rock?" Writing in 2007, West's observation that fusion erected, rather than bridged, differences between the two idioms indicates how this particular mix of genres remains contentious and unsettled.

A fundamental problem with defining fusion is the large variety of soundings that can be understood as part of this particular set of musical "fusing activities." Negus neatly captures the situation fusion musicians confronted: "The desire for free combination and a fluid crossing of boundaries confronts the very way in which such genre practices are constrained and how 'musicians, producers, and consumers are already ensnared in a web of genre expectations.'" Accordingly, the musical blends of Williams, McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Hancock reshaped the dialectical tensions within jazz, rock, and funk between such perpetually unresolved antagonisms as those found between innovation and tradition or commercial success and aesthetic value. These tensions initiated often thorny discussions between these musicians and their audiences, including critics and other music industry professionals, and the exchanges among them reveal much. As their interviews at the time made abundantly clear, these musicians were keenly aware of the ways in which external relationships among various musical genres were articulated through hegemonic cultural hierarchies. Moreover, they recognized that these hierarchies reflected elite cultural values that simultaneously helped to create broader cultural meanings while effectively extending the particularist claims of elite culture into universal and transcendent "truths" that spoke to everyone, regardless of social positioning or cultural orientation. This, in turn, affected the way musical acts were evaluated and categorized.

Pierre Bourdieu described this cultural dilemma: "the paradox of the imposition of legitimacy is that it makes it impossible ever to determine whether the dominant feature appears as distinguished or noble because it is dominant ... or whether it is only because it is dominant that it appears as endowed with these qualities and [as] uniquely entitled to define them." In musical terms, if concert music audiences were not educated to believe Wagnerian opera being performed uptown was inherently superior culturally, spiritually, or intellectually to the evening of punk music offered downtown, the vast network of foundational subsidies, governmental aid, and public interest that support Wagnerian opera might take their financial, as well as other, less material, support elsewhere. The corporate and elite patrons who invest their capital and efforts into sustaining high culture may be doing so in some measure for the social capital that accrues—a social value that manifests itself materially in the high salaries of symphonic and other arts workers; the subsidization of the complex of buildings that house the ballet, opera, and symphony companies; and the satellite facilities of nearby conservatories and private teachers. Those cultural forms that invigorate the broader culture but lack this institutional patronage must make it on their own, that is, in the marketplace or through private subsidizing efforts. Symphonies, for all their social cachet, could not survive on ticket sales alone.

But neither could jazz, particularly if one looks at jazz after 1945. Paul Lopes begins his incisive study of the ways in which jazz music troubled the high/low cultural divide by highlighting the racialized dynamics caught within the marking of the two cultural spheres in a chapter titled "The Quest for Cultural Legitimacy": "The greatest challenge in the evolution of jazz music in the twentieth century was in disturbing the racial hierarchy in American culture. From the beginning, the defining of American high art and American popular art always included the question of race with institutions carefully policing the segregation of African American culture." Bebop and free jazz have been accused of intellectualization, but, by and large, the move to authorize them as legitimate jazz styles has been sanctioned by jazz critics and musicians because of the historical situation Lopes describes. As jazz was transformed into a recognizably high art form by these two styles in particular, it not only attenuated racialized condescension and denigration, but it also vindicated jazz critics and musicians who had been arguing for jazz's "proper" place in the cultural hierarchy.

Yet even when genre categories are mobilized with an awareness of their textual or factual shortcomings, they guide musicians' and audiences' participation in the precise rituals that the "proper" consumption of a particular musical act demands, as well as the terms through which the rules for participation are often inscribed. As we will see, the music industry's initial bewilderment with fusion recordings would chafe against these musicians' desires to build new audiences for their music rather than relying on already-formed demographic groups or markets. Indeed, genre formation is a dynamic process as fans' and the music industry's ever-shifting interests perform substantial roles in shaping genre categories—that, in other words, the categories are not "natural" or static. Yet, for example, an unreflexive racialized logic maintained its hold in popular music discourse, helping to restrict certain genres to primary if not exclusive participation by particular racialized groups.


Excerpted from Birds of Fire by Kevin Fellezs Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke university Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

one Bitches Brew / considering genre 15

2 Where Have I Known You Before? / fusion's foundations 33

3 Vital Transformation /fusion's discontents 65

4 Emergency! Tony Williams 91

5 Meeting of the Spirits I John McLaughlin 123

6 Don Juan's Reckless Daughter Joni Mitchell 148

7 Chameleon Herbie Hancock 183

Conclusion 222

Notes 229

Bibliography 265

Index 283

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