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

2 Comments

  • Sep 14, 2009 at 02:54PM Joel Kumar

    Great article !

  • Oct 20, 2015 at 06:52PM Brian Lockett

    "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."

    Oh? Is that way soooo many Jazz musicians, particularly women, had such tragic personal lives? Is that why so many Jazz musicians likewise used the media as a vehicle for emotions, including many songs which you can qualify as "self-pity"?

    What about songs like Billie Holiday's "Fine & Mellow," in where a woman's coupled with a terrible man, but with almost seeming masochism and sheer denial, doesn't leave him, because, like some immature school girl, he makes her feel "fine and mellow"? How about the myriad of such tunes which our highest-elevated singers sang? How about how the number of Jazz musicians who drown their sorrows in a bottle? How did they handle life any more "adult" than the number of rockers who did likewise?

    To a good degree, I do agree with Stanley's analysis of Jazz fusion, in that, yes, many times, it tends to be a compromise of both jazz and the other element (commonly rock) which are meld together. But you overgeneralize, Stanley.

    And what's more, you seem to place your view on it as if it's something quantifiable beyond personal taste. It seems you have no taste for rock music much at all, which, in turn, will sour your view on rock-jazz fusion in general. In other words, if you don't already like rock (which seems evident), your mind's already made up about rock variants of Jazz fusion. You also seem to insult a great number of outstanding musicians who themselves like to explore their bounds and seek new styles of music. You quoted Billy Hart, who ventured in jazz fusion. You praised Miles Davis, but seem to let his exception serve as just about the only valid example of "good" jazz fusion. So, you saw what Jazz fusion CAN be, but instead, just insult the act of reaching for such a fusing with jazz, just to boast ego about your own superior taste in music.

    If only music lovers were as open and honest as musicians themselves. One thing about a musician is that, generally, they tend not to stay in strict lanes in music, as the people who listen to them. They don't so readily organize in these closed, secluded groups. They like to see what else out there can inspire them, and what else they can shape. Sure, as Jazz became more of a product, it saw a lot of lifeless imitations and sterilized attempts at fusion, but it wasn't all so unsuccessful, and hasn't ever stopped musicians from seeking to expand their range with experimentation. The thing about experiments is, they don't always prove successful, but you don't let it stop your interest.

    Heck, even Jazz grew later genres from such expanding and experimentation itself. Do you remember how many purists rejected free jazz? Or how many older swing musicians weren't fond of the newer ventures in jazz? The music you praise today saw very much the kind of criticism you're giving Jazz fusion.

    Finally, and perhaps most ironically, you seem to forget that JAZZ ITSELF is a product of fusion. So much so, that early generations of black parents called jazz as "devil music," because it incorporated elements of Gospel music with the swingin' vibes of jump music, often time perceived as laced with sexual implicated. Even the name "Jazz" attested to such seeming innuendo. Jazz was the result of old black music meeting new black music, of the younger generations taking their older generation of music, and reaching out to new boundaries.

    In other words, your own parents' generation once regarded Jazz very much the way you view Jazz Fusion. I concur with you on their being a distinction between Jazz and Jazz fusion, but I think you could do with less elitism on the matter. Have your personal taste, and note the distinctions of heritage and essence, but don't place your own word on the matter like it's some inextricable law about music. I prefer "pure" jazz myself, but I'm not so closed to the idea of fusion that I so readily mock and dismiss it. Scoffing serves us nothing but errant pride.

    Oh, and I generally agree with the general notion you have here about rap. Largely, it has become a self-deprecating display of young black culture, and a mockery of our roots as the flavor of American music. Esp. nowadays, where much of it has made shallow pop music even worse, as nearly everyone tries to incorporate some cheap form of "borrowing black" in entertainment today. Even über-white-bread Taylor Swift's featured some of it, with her flaccid attempts at twerking and mediocre hint of "hip-hop-ism" in her hit video, Shake It Off.

    And ironically, rap (the most "black" of all black music) has become the biggest medium for white Americans to undergo "musical gentrification," where white people start to appropriate the art form, make their own neighborhood out of borrowing blackness, and wanting credit as white pioneers of black creation. Today, we see Mackelmore, Iggy Azalea, Amber Rose, and Justin Beiber. Kids from white (often affluent) neighborhoods who discover they can imitate their favorite black audiences but see a huge fan base of white kids, so much to the point that "hip-hop" is now covered as inclusive and open to interpretation--even though, like Jazz, rap was born from the lives of black people, which systematically sees their fingerprints removed.

    Though, even here, I think you've again done some over-generalization. I look at people like Black Star, Common, The Roots and such, and I think you've missed over the better examples of rap. Such poets and musicians are strong enough examples to not simply dismiss the whole genre as something of no redeemable quality.

    Rap is very much like the grandson of Jazz, and like many Jazz musicians who used it as a medium of expressing the situations of their day, so have some rap musicians, to brilliant effect. You can't let the commercialization, exploitation and bastardization of rap music nowadays serve as your only view on rap as a medium. Just as with ANY art medium in existence, excellence is the minority and its essence is something fleeting. Note the excellence, not the obvious riffraff. Let's not be like our parents (well, my great-grandparents) of old, who simply dismiss anything that's not their usual cup of tea in music.

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