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1970 Is Happening (Again)

Lee Mergner introduces September 2010 issue celebrating publication’s 40th anniversary

Forty years is a long time, and for a magazine it’s nearly an eternity. I know because I’ve been with the book for exactly half that time. I was a skinny single guy with long brown hair when I started with JazzTimes in 1990. Now, well, I am still a guy. Suffice it to say, the years have had their way with me.

Imagine how JT founder Ira Sabin must feel. He started the publication initially as a circular, a promotional vehicle for his record store, Sabin’s Discount Records, a jazz, blues and R&B shop originally located in the famous U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C., and then on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was never there, but his sons, Glenn and Jeff, who succeeded Ira in the ownership of the brand, told me enough stories that I feel I was a regular. Their favorites (and mine) revolved around the “Mind-Expanding Meditation Chamber,” which was simply a dark room with cushions, black-light posters and a stereo cranking out jazz and psychedelic tunes. The tall tales flowed accordingly.

Inspired in part by that Chamber, we decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the magazine with a focus on 1970, the year JT was founded. We had our reasons. For one, we felt that we’d recycled, revisited and rehashed the last four decades pretty thoroughly with our anniversary issues at 25, 30 and 35. Furthermore, the magazine was barely a publication during that first year and its coverage of the events of that time was, to be honest, pretty spotty. So it seemed like an intriguing idea to look at 1970 through the prism of the four decades that followed, and to specifically look at seminal albums that still resonate with subsequent generations of fans and musicians.

At the time rock and funk were, depending on your perspective, destroying or invigorating jazz. Bands such as Oregon, Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Max Roach’s M’Boom and Catalyst were formed or in the process of being formed. A young Lincoln University graduate and burgeoning poet named Gil Scott-Heron went into the studio and recorded a brilliantly abrasive call to arms entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Electronic instruments, concept albums, singers writing their own material, bands named for just about anything but the name of the lead singer: It was all happening, to borrow a phrase from the period. For some jazz musicians, it was time to get out of Dodge. Many hightailed it to Europe where they could play bebop in peace. Alternately, for those who didn’t view going electric as blasphemy, it became a time of creative exploration and regeneration.

Indeed, the three artists featured prominently here-Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard-embraced the changes going on around them and in the end created something wholly new. Guided by witnesses and experts from the past and present, our writers take an in-depth look at three distinct yet related albums-Miles’ Bitches Brew, Herbie’s Mwandishi and Freddie’s Red Clay-that formed the aesthetic for the following decade. But the music of 1970 wasn’t all about rock and funk rhythms. The avant-garde was in full bloom, bearing the fruits of labor from ’60s artists such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, and Shaun Brady has written a primer on the year’s notable creative work. And in one of the best Before & After performances ever, bassist Christian McBride-born two years after the publication launched-not only recognizes nearly every vintage 1970 cut played for him, but speaks with authority about the music of that unsung but invaluable era.

Finally, Nate Chinen uses his Gig column to argue in favor of intelligent, professional print journalism despite the myriad music-related sites and blogs online. “[T]he art of the scrupulously sourced long-form article remains a print phenomenon, by and large,” he writes, and the lengthy, painstakingly assembled pieces in this issue back his opinions beautifully. Now as then, we think jazz deserves nothing but the best.

Originally Published