March 2002 By Stanley Crouch
Four-Letter Words: Rap & Fusion
We should not care if some rapper claims to be influenced by jazz. We should laugh at those who make artistic claims for fusion.
Rap is finally being recognized as the minstrel update that it is. Threatening Sambo. Cursing Sambo. Whorish tramps who get cases of the wiggles any time money is mentioned. Its popularity among white suburban kids has nothing to do with “hip-hop culture”; it has to do with what I have called “audio safaris.” One can get to the urban jungle and be among the savages merely by going to Tower Records. One can always be sure, deep down, that one is far superior to those jungle bunnies hip-hopping along. For at least a hundred years, there have always been whites willing to pay Negroes top dollar if they dedicated their careers to proving the inferiority of black to white.
What rap most importantly proves is that Negro American youth culture—just like every other youth culture suffering from the pop entertainment pressure to shock, to outrage, to scandalize—is as vulnerable to decadence and hollow materialism as anything else.
The hollowness of fusion is another story. The musical things that jazz-fusioners tried to conquer, or even to incorporate, were too insubstantial and never provided even the faintest aesthetic outlines for deep creation. What jazz musicians had always done was bring other materials into the world of swing, no matter the source. As Billy Hart said of the late Billy Higgins, what made him a great master was his ability to play rhythms from other cultures with so much swinging charisma that the drummers in those other cultures started playing their own rhythms the way he did.
What could jazz musicians do with the music of the rock world? Were they going to take rock melodies and remake them or build upon them as so many jazz musicians had with Tin Pan Alley songs? Hardly. Were jazz musicians going to learn new rhythms or new harmonies or new melodic styles? Be serious.
Beyond Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and a few other recordings here and there, the elements of rock always brought jazz musicians down to where rock was, but in an inferior version: the jazz was diluted, yes, but so was the rock, which became shallower due to the crossover’s ineffectiveness. Yet there was seemingly no other choice if those who chose to play fusion were to become successful.
Success also meant imitating the immature emotions of rock, not projecting the adult feeling that had been given to jazz through the blues. Jazz musicians had to emotionally dumb down the passion of an art that had always gone beyond adolescent thoughts and desires, no matter the color or the class of its players. Even the least vital and most stiltedly urbane version of the music was focused on something other than the sweat, discomfort, insecurity and resentment of adolescence. Jazz spoke of the world in which grown men and women lived, struggled, loved, lost, dreamed and remembered.
That very quality, that maturity, had always separated jazz from the boyish and girlish inclinations of American popular culture. One went to jazz wishing to learn how to become an adult, not seeking justification for one’s teenage limitations. One’s models were men and women, and one was awed by the way those people made adult life seem like much, much more than a loss of connection to the fires of living.
The feeling of much rock, then and now, at its most aggressive is the feeling of a pyromaniac, while so much jazz feels like the work of very, very soulful fire-eaters. Living could be hot as fire on a stick, the music says, but you can learn how to handle it, how to feel the heat but avoid being burned. Or, if you were burned, you might learn something about the nature of the human soul and what it takes to rise up from the burn unit of the blues. You might sing a true song of collective importance, a universal sense of the great sadness that awaits us all and arrives when it will.
The stiff rhythms of rock, the yowling guitars, the impersonal keyboards, the unswingng bass guitars and the adolescent tendencies to self-pity were not, and still are not, compatible with jazz.
But who knows? I have in my possession a letter from J.J. Johnson in which he recounts going to see “the electric” Miles Davis for some career advice. Davis told him to get two or three white boys with long hair and electric guitars and have them play loud as a mother. Then he could do whatever he wanted to do and make a pile of money. Davis had learned. Had he lived, he might have become a rapper:
Blue Chip Q-Tip.
Originally published in March 2002