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Thirty Years of Our JazzTimes: The 1970s

For the 30th anniversary of JazzTimes, Chip Stern looks back at the music of the magazine's first decade

We can start the process of fishing for metaphors to explicate the 1970s by enunciating the dreaded, one-size-fits-all epithet that both categorizes an amorphous emerging style and misrepresents the decade’s achievements: fusion. Aaaaahhhh—there, I said it!

Looking back at the ’70s now, many politically correct mainstream commentators are far too quick to dismiss the decade’s successes and breakthroughs, lumping them all together with its most mundane aspects and egregious excesses. In a sense, the ’70s were a cultural petri dish for spores first planted in the ’60s, which came to term in an electric firestorm of new hybrid forms. Then, everything seemed possible. But looking back in mid-2000, it’s plain to this pilgrim that fusion, however clumsily, denoted an attitude as much as a style.

I differ in my view of the ’70s from those who define a less inclusive vision of the jazz mainstream, for whom Miles Davis “was like a great general who went over to the other side,” to cite the gifted and eternally condescending Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis’ music often engages me, but I’m invariably turned off by his fundamentalist vision. I think it’s hilarious to hear Marsalis and others putting down Bitches Brew as a rock/pop sellout. It indicates to me how little they know about rock, and how inconvenient it is for those who dismiss rock as an expression of hot-wired teenage libido to factor in the contributions of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. If Bitches Brew is pop, well, it’s the damnedest, most avant-garde pop ever foisted on the public.

Remember, a modal bass line and a backbeat doesn’t always equal rock and roll, not when the drummers are divining a broad canvas of polyrhythmic implications from said backbeats, as multiple keyboards comment upon the polyphony of the horns with an expansive antiphonal dissonance and electronic textures. New Orleans, anyone? Fusion, indeed.

Or to state it more plainly: I was walking around my Washington Heights neighborhood some years back on a sweltering summer day, Bitches Brew emanating from my ghetto blaster, when an adorable little 8-year-old Korean-American girl of my daughter’s acquaintance stopped to say hello. She furrowed her brow intently for a few seconds, listening, then smiling, looked up at me and stated unequivocally, “That’s jazz, isn’t it.” Thank you, my child—from the mouths of babes.

Let’s try to nurse that notion of fusion from another angle, by giving you a roundabout sense of what the ’70s’ premium on adventurous musical miscegenation hath wrought, and what sets apart jazz fans of my generation, ever so slightly, from our worthy and esteemed elders. Recently I saw Max Roach, 75, and pianist Cecil Taylor, 67, at an outdoor concert on the quadrangle at Columbia University. Roach and Taylor first performed at Columbia in 1979, an epic event, a cross-generational acoustic fusion of postmodern sensibilities that summed up the decade’s promise with a gigantic exclamation point. It was an evening of shamanistic transformations, polytonal explosions and polyrhythmic rejoinders that proved conclusively to me that styles don’t clash, only people.

Well, in revisiting that experience some 21 years later before 15,000 people, Max and Cecil truly played music beyond category. Many of the fundamental principles of jazz were there, incognito as it were: the Latin tinge and the blues; complex syncopations and a distinctly American style of melodic phrasing; call and response; elements of swing and a more personal brand of rhythmic interplay; complex harmonic cycles and elemental conversational cadences that seem to predate even the drums—all filtered through the sensibility of musicians for whom the letter of the law was less important than the spirit of personal expression and personal experience.

I experienced Max and Cecil as part of a continuum of creativity and expression that remains the liquid cherry center of jazz expressionism, and which allows it to draw upon elements from every type of music and every culture—from high art to pop effluvia, from spirituals and the blues to folk forms from around the globe—while still retaining its spiritual essence.

What got lost in the commercial hype of the ’70s is how deeply satisfying any style of music other than good ol’ four-to-the floor ting-ting-a-ding can be when the sensibility of an accomplished jazz composer/improviser is brought to bear on it. Jack DeJohnette and Pat Metheny were two of the ’70s’ most earnest and accomplished explorers: Both were able to properly assess the peaks and valleys of fusion against both the historical context of ’60s jazz, rock and R&B innovations and the faint but indomitable pulse of the jazz mainstream, itself soon to arise like an avenging phoenix from the rubble of ’70s experimentation.

DeJohnette and Metheny are neighbors on a hillside near Woodstock, N.Y. They have collaborated on many recordings and performed together with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins. Both displayed prodigious command of their respective instruments at a precocious age, and served valuable apprenticeships with seasoned jazz musicians before launching into long, fruitful careers as leaders. Both came to greater public attention as members of seminal fusion ensembles: DeJohnette (along with Keith Jarrett) played in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, something more than mere jazz popularizers, who were to the classic ’60s Coltrane Quartet what Wynton and Branford’s early-’80s quintet was to the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the ’60s. Metheny was a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s mid-’70s quintet, perhaps the finest working band this fusion trailblazer ever fronted, along with Bobby Moses, Steve Swallow and Mick Goodrick, as featured on Dreams So Real and Ring, with bassist Eberhard Weber. Both DeJohnette and Metheny have continued to push the creative envelope some 25 years down the road, growing as musicians, deepening both their technical and emotional command of the “pure” jazz vocabulary, and exploring exceptional music with single-minded verve and conviction.

In so doing, they have kept alive the flame of creativity and exploration—the infinite sense of possibility—that distinguished the best music of the ’70s. DeJohnette’s New Rags, still out-of-print, and Bright Size Life, Metheny’s seminal collaboration with his musical soul mate, bass innovator and ’70s fusion icon Jaco Pastorius, are burning examples. Both are ECM recordings made under the auspices of producer Manfred Eicher, who himself continues to push the edge of his own personal vision some 25 years down the road. In Eicher’s brand of fusion, a generous sense of space and sonic liquidity helped convey his sense of Nordic isolation and mysticism, which paralleled the sonic breakthroughs of both Gil and Bill Evans, the more ruminative and experimental side of Miles Davis and his acolytes, the modality of George Russell and his Scandinavian disciples, and the best aspects of the emerging American fusion movement and its counterparts in the American and European avant-garde. In this sense, Eicher’s label was really emblematic of much of what was positive and enduring about the ’70s, and like the best music of the decade, none of it falls easily into any single bag, from Keith Jarrett’s improvised solo piano forays on The Köln Concert to Dave Holland’s postmodern summit session Conference of the Birds, featuring Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and Barry Altschul.

DeJohnette brought a spacious new style of phrasing to the drum kit, summing up in his own sprung rhythms the work of Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He was given to compositions that were like little histories of jazz, and in that sense New Rags is a perfect metaphor for the best of fusion and the ’70s.

The title track proceeds from a floating subject and a broken 4/4 groove under Alex Foster (the James Carter of his day, who never quite delivered on the limitless potential he displayed here and with Paul Jeffrey), then the band engages in some good-natured stop-time before alighting upon a more fervent 4/4 blast-off in the signature DeJohnette freebop mode. Guitarist John Abercrombie takes a thrilling, freely inflected solo that swings in an odd but effective confluence of Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix. Emerging from all of this, the band concludes with a spirited, high-stepping calypso dance that seems to alternate bars of eight and nine beats. The concluding “Steppin’ Thru” references Hendrix more directly, as the drummer starts where Mitch Mitchell once peaked, and blasts on through.

Metheny, too, references Jim Hall, as most young jazzmen not in the thrall of John McLaughlin did during the ’70s, but his other chief reference is Ornette Coleman, whose renegade blues vocabulary animates thrilling trio romps through “Broadway Blues” and Metheny’s hard-driving “Missouri Uncompromised.” The latter track swings like nobody’s business, thanks to bassist Pastorius’ uncommon ability to treat the 4/4 pulse as a fluid game of vamp and release—without ever losing the sense of groove—while engaging the guitarist in a daredevil game of contrapuntal tag. Still, more germane from the point of view of the popular Metheny—who emerged in 1978 on Pat Metheny Group, with arrangements such as “San Lorenzo” and “Phase Dancer”—are the folkish elements of country and Americana that emerge so poignantly through his 12-string playing and Jaco’s tolling bass on the spectral, big-sky majesty of “Midwestern Night Dreams.”

Eicher also put a big exclamation point on the ’70s with his 1979 ECM recording of Nice Guys by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose work was emblematic of another kind of fusion, a pantheistic overview of black music, generally acoustic, from the ancient to the future. These intrepid explorers launched the decade in 1970 with the classic Nessa recording Les Stances à Sophie, while scuffling their way through Europe in the wake of free jazz’s commercial bankruptcy stateside. The still out-of-print soundtrack contains one of the all-time great funk/free jazz arrangements, “Theme de Yoyo” (featuring a rousing vocal by Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass, then Mrs. Lester Bowie), as well as some brilliant Afrocentric miniatures, freebop and even a lovely “Variations on a Theme by Monteverdi.”

It’s worth fixing on the Art Ensemble and their cohorts in Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artist Group, because while ’70s fusion is generally remembered for those examples of recombinant genetics most in tune with the progressive rock and funk of that time—such as jazz-influenced electric blues improvisers like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience—the ’70s was largely about the final dissolution of 1960s’ free jazz.

Players such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor emerged from the ’60s struggling but undaunted, while many of the lesser lights wilted because of their lack of solid musical credentials or charisma. Even a talent as gifted as Archie Shepp (whose Mama Too Tight was a blueprint for the hard funk, hard blues, free jazz explorations of the ’70s) never quite sustained his early promise. But AACM and BAG groups, rooted as they were in a rich, regional blues, R&B and jazz heritage, brought considerably more imagination and discipline to the mix, and their hybrid forms and free-form explorations were equally rooted in the bedrock of late Coltrane, Ornette and the American folk tradition, as well as European avant-gardism. Groups that predated the Art Ensemble and the World Saxophone Quartet helped these avant-garde supergroups to nurture and sustain an audience for new music by intertwining their explorations directly with the communities in which they resided, creating multimedia blends of dance, painting and theater. And in such gripping early-’70s performances as “Dogon A.D.” and “The Hard Blues,” saxophonist-composer Julius Hemphill anticipated the hard blues/hard funk/punk rock/free jazz amalgams of harmolodic heroes such as guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, which would conclude the decade on a promising note.

And what remains to tell of this tumultuous decade? You already know what happened. I’m just here to explain why it still has meaning for some of us. Look at the work of Miles’ second great quintet (when he and Wayne were joined by Corea, DeJohnette and Holland) and you can see them extending the avant-garde breakthroughs of the ’60s even as they begin to incorporate the most progressive elements of R&B, rock, electric blues and new electronics into their vocabulary. The earliest days of so-called fusion were very edgy and avant-garde, and surely drummer Tony Williams and his Lifetime band were too far ahead of their time to profit from their electrifying innovations on Emergency! and Turn It Over—too far out for rockers, and too loud for jazzers. If Williams could have trademarked some of his innovations and gotten other drummers to pay him royalties he would have been a wealthy mandarin of rhythm, so pervasive was his influence on all drummers of the last 35 years.

Miles’ electric bands with DeJohnette, Herbie’s Mwandishi, the original Weather Report with Miroslav Vitous, and Chick Corea’s Circle with Braxton and Holland represented a fruition of the avant-garde. Yet even as Miles followed up In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew with one extraordinary album after another, and as John McLaughlin crafted a remarkable body of work in a modern jazz and progressive fusion vein as a sideman and leader, the writing was already on the wall.

My first jazz concert was Alice Coltrane with Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison at Slugs’ in the East Village back in the summer of 1970. It was a packed house and I was the only white person in the club, standing on a table in the back. The next year, when I went back to see Elvin Jones on a weeknight, I was the only person in the club. Mainstream jazzmen were scuffling, and even the big names were having a rough go of it, although I recall packed houses and exciting shows deep into the decade by Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band at Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard, where time seemed to stand still and the crowds still came.

It was in the summer of 1971 that John McLaughlin launched his Mahavishnu Orchestra on a two-year roller coaster ride, on which it played to the large-scale gestures of Hendrix-cum-Coltrane-cum-Eastern music. The response was immense, and in short order Weather Report, Return to Forever, the Eleventh House and Headhunters followed suit with a thrilling two- to three-year period of intense creativity, followed by a swift and precipitous decline in which the music became as overripe and portentous as the worst hair bands and corporate rock.

As thrilling as Mahavishnu always was, in the back of my mind I used to think, “Hey, all these odd meters are cool, but how about some 4/4 swing, guys?” Never happened, and while these bands gradually built a broad but shallow marketplace for jazz, by degrees much of the excitement and fervor I felt for this new music dissipated, even as kindred spirits from rock such as Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa did wonderful things with the genre. Return to Forever got really prissy and bloated. Weather Report turned into a desultory R&B band for a while, until Jaco steadied and rescued it with his new energy and provocative fretless bass sound, even as he proclaimed his own sonic and compositional innovations with a self-titled Epic debut. McLaughlin’s second Mahavishnu was ham-handed and mechanical, but he junked it for a fabulous second wind with Shakti, which, like Ralph Towner’s Oregon and some of Don Cherry’s free-floating groups, mixed jazz with all manner of world music and ethnic sources. Sadly, with the dissolution of Shakti, McLaughlin tried to bottle lightning, only to discover that you can’t go home again. And in a more ominous development, the lively jazz-Latin-R&B of Creed Taylor’s CTI label, the edgy psychedelic funk of P-Funk, the smooth, jazzy, Afro-funk of Earth, Wind & Fire, the rich urban blues of Marvin Gaye and the nasty Texan funk of the Crusaders were diluted by incursions from disco and quiet storm: In a few years the Crusaders went from Southern Comfort to Street Life.

Much as punk rock represented a grassroots rebellion against the excesses of corporate rock, the loft jazz scene in New York, as epitomized by entrepreneur and musical innovator Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, provided a bastion of creativity for native New York musicians and recent conscripts from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles, when work had all but dried up in the clubs. As witnessed by the Wildflowers compilation, these bands were mining a similar vein of funk, blues, modern jazz and free-form as epitomized by the early work of Miles and his children, though without the most overt reflections of heavy guitar/electric keyboard bands. Later, writer Stanley Crouch began adventurous bookings at the Tin Palace on the Bowery, where adventurous bands led by Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill began attracting regular and enthusiastic crowds. Meanwhile, Ornette Coleman showed up one day with a new band called Prime Time that sounded for all the world like the freely inflected electric blues-rock of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, circa Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and by decade’s end, Ornette veteran Blood Ulmer was creating a buzz at the Tin Palace, drawing record company attention and opening for John “Johny Rotten” Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. at the Palladium. What seemed plausible and exciting in the early ’70s now seemed ready to break free, but it turned out to be stillborn.

Meanwhile, in a classic example of you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need, expatriate Dexter Gordon made a triumphant return to the Village Vanguard in 1976 to standing-room-only crowds, with Louis Hayes, Stafford James, Ronnie Matthews and (often) Woody Shaw. In an era of wall-to-wall Coltrane clones, disco/quiet storm mind-rot and played-out fusion clichés, here was a macho tenor in the classic bebop mode. Soon, Johnny Griffin made his triumphant return, and in short order bebop became a viable, exciting commodity again, thanks to this infusion of veteran star power. Then, around 1979, a buzz began making its way around town like wildfire, about how Art Blakey was featuring this incredible young trumpet player from New Orleans named Wynton Marsalis: You had to hear this cat! As the decade came to a close, Marsalis’ arrival heralded the coming of the Young Lions, and in short order Wynton, Branford and Harry Connick Jr., among others, would strap the mainstream to their backs and reassert the dominion of bebop and swing in the acoustic tradition.

Ah! But that’s another story. Originally Published