Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock Fusion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Miles Davis’s jazz-rock fusion album Bitches Brew shook jazz out of its commercial doldrums and spawned a style that characterized much of the jazz produced during the 1970’s.

Summary of Event

The integration of jazz and rock—long awaited and often prematurely announced during the 1960’s—was fully achieved for the first time on Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew in 1969. Making frequent use of electronic instruments and sophisticated studio techniques, the resulting “fusion” jazz style was based on a synthesis of modern jazz with elements of rock, pop, and soul music of the 1960’s. Jazz-rock fusion[Jazz rock fusion] Music;jazz-rock fusion[jazz rock fusion] Bitches Brew (Davis) [kw]Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock Fusion (Aug., 1969)[Davis Introduces Jazz Rock Fusion] [kw]Jazz-Rock Fusion, Davis Introduces (Aug., 1969)[Jazz Rock Fusion, Davis Introduces] [kw]Rock Fusion, Davis Introduces Jazz- (Aug., 1969) [kw]Fusion, Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock (Aug., 1969) Jazz-rock fusion[Jazz rock fusion] Music;jazz-rock fusion[jazz rock fusion] Bitches Brew (Davis) [g]North America;Aug., 1969: Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock Fusion[10380] [g]United States;Aug., 1969: Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock Fusion[10380] [c]Music;Aug., 1969: Davis Introduces Jazz-Rock Fusion[10380] Davis, Miles Corea, Chick McLaughlin, John Shorter, Wayne Zawinul, Joe

A trumpeter known for his influential tone and distinctive improvisations, Davis had been a dominant force in jazz since the late 1940’s, changing jazz perhaps more deeply and in more varied ways than anyone else. Though fusion jazz had forerunners prior to the appearance of Bitches Brew—for example, the music of Soft Machine and the Gary Burton Quarter—Davis was influenced very little, if at all, by those artists. His work had always demonstrated his compulsion to explore new musical territory on his own terms.

By the time he recorded Bitches Brew in August, 1969, he had played in the classic bebop style with Charlie Parker, broken new ground with the cool style of his Capitol band in the late 1940’s, played first hard bop and then a pioneering modal style during the 1950’s, and then had experimented in the 1960’s with a style that was based on modal concepts but was more open in its harmonic structure and was played with sharper accents.

By the late 1960’s, Davis’s creativity was by no means exhausted. He was listening to many rock and rhythm-and-blues artists, especially James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly and the Family Stone. Electronic instruments caught his ear as early as 1967. By 1968, Davis was incorporating electronic instruments and rock rhythms into his music. The effect varied—sometimes the new approach produced a collage of sound, at other times a danceable ostinato, or “ground,” beat with garish harmonies and exotic melodies floating above it.

Although Davis’s In a Silent Way In a Silent Way (Davis) (1969), with its multiple percussionists and electric piano players, came first, his Bitches Brew, which was recorded six months later, represents the full flowering of the jazz fusion style. Breaking radically with tradition, this two-disc album captures a collage of jam sessions characterized by impressionistic soloing over shifting, rock-influenced rhythms and a continuous interplay of electronic keyboards, guitar, and percussion instruments. Bitches Brew pulled out all the stops, as Davis superimposed the sophisticated, modally based harmonies and more flexible phrasings of jazz on rock’s intensity. Furthermore, Davis produced new, brilliantly colored sound surfaces through his combination of sonorities, as in “Spanish Key,” "Spanish Key" (McLaughlin)[Spanish Key] which features a soprano saxophone over a bluesy electric piano and guitar with a rich bass clarinet droning underneath.

The working principles of the Bitches Brew band—like those of all the previous Davis groups—were spontaneity and Davis’s uncanny ability to capitalize on every idea, no matter how small, which he encountered. Davis was as much influenced by his sidemen as they were by him, but for Davis, such influence meant that he used creatively everything he heard. There were virtually no rehearsals for the Bitches Brew sessions, and the resulting music reflects the unpredictability and boldness of its methodology.

The most tightly organized track on the album is “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" (Davis)[Miles Runs the Voodoo Down] It is perhaps the track most likely to appeal to fans of Davis’s earlier styles. His melodic trumpet lines dovetail well with the rock-like beat underneath (a characteristic not to be found in the looser structure of the twenty-minute-long “Pharoah’s Dance”). Davis’s solo on “Voodoo” varies effectively quick phrases and long tones, a recognizable element in his straight-ahead jazz playing. The track is punctuated heavily with the sounds of South American and African percussive instruments (percussion would blossom throughout the 1970’s).

By contrast, “Bitches Brew” is an impressionistic and expansive twenty-seven-minute vamp-plus-improvisation. Davis’s open trumpet sound reverberates through an electronic Echoplex unit, surrounded by chord splashes from a guitar and an electric piano. On top of an ostinato bass, Davis’s trumpet pierces and unites the various elements of a Charlie Mingus-like instrumental conversation. Sustained energy and sensitivity characterize Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary,” which elicits one of Davis’s longest solos. “Spanish Key,” by John McLaughlin, features straight-out rock rhythm with numerous stop-time breaks that became a formula for the fusion style in later years.

In 1968, Davis had announced his intention of forming the best rock-and-roll band in the world. As far as jazz-rock was concerned, he succeeded in gathering the most original and prolific one. Musicians apply the term “bitch” only to the finest of improvisers. Given the Bitches Brew sessions’ improvisational nature and assembled talent, the album’s title proved quite appropriate. The album quickly sold 400,000 copies, four times the number sold for Davis’s previous best seller, Sketches of Spain, another fusion of sorts done with composer-arranger Gil Evans. So-called pure jazz had never fared so well commercially, especially since the rapid development of rock and its commercial domination of the music business.

Significance

Davis received equal amounts of praise and scorn for Bitches Brew. Some saw his fusion style as little more than inspired mercantilism. Yet objective critics, who judged the music on its merits rather than on Davis’s intentions, recognized it as coherent, highly improvisational, exciting, and evocative. Unquestionably, it jolted jazz out of its commercial doldrums and expanded jazz’s horizons. The ingredients of Bitches Brew—though Davis’s combination of them was unmatched—became the recipe for much of the jazz produced during the 1970’s. The success of the Bitches Brew band and of those that had preceded it during the 1960’s—many of whom became well known individually—serves as a barometer of Davis’s impact on yet another generation of jazz musicians.

The degree and consistency of the fusion synthesis is attributable in part to the unprecedented impact of rock and soul music on American listening habits. Jazz musicians have always absorbed the sounds around them, and the aesthetic development of rock and soul, along with the increased availability of electric pianos, guitars, and synthesizers, thus made the cross-fertilization that led to Bitches Brew inevitable. Fusion developed more purposefully than earlier jazz styles, with bands making significant use of electronic instruments and overdubbing and editing separately recorded tracks—factors that had played a minimal role in jazz prior to 1969. The advantages of electronic sound, noted enthusiasts, were multiple. It captured the tones, timbres, and energy of much rock and soul music; it became easier to play louder and faster, an asset in the cavernous halls needed to house fusion audiences; and, given programmable synthesizers, it offered new tone colors with which to work.

Some argued that electronic instruments, which abandoned the subtlety and nuances of the acoustic for volume and gadgetry, could not communicate the personality of the musician. Fusion musicians, however, having discovered the power of modern recording equipment to improve on what had been played in a studio or even to record music that was physically unplayable by a band performing live, insisted that the electronics were just as appropriate to fusion as acoustic instruments had been to modern jazz.

Fusion exploded on the music scene after the appearance of Bitches Brew. Davis continued to play fusion until ill health and an accident led to a seven-year retirement beginning in 1974 (after his return in 1981, he performed a pop-oriented type of jazz-rock). In 1973, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, a Davis alumnus (from the 1963-1968 bands), recorded jazz’s first gold album by combining funky and danceable rhythms with a modicum of jazz melodic and harmonic feeling. Fusion’s commercial peak was reached as early as 1976, when George Benson, Benson, George a superb improvising jazz guitarist of the 1960’s who had played briefly with Davis, was transformed into a semipop vocalist with the album Breezin’, Breezin’, (Benson)[Breezin] which went on to sell four million copies by 1980. The leaders of the major fusion bands of the 1970’s—Chick Corea of Return to Forever, John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter of Weather Report—all came from the ranks of the Bitches Brew group.

Fusion, the dominant strain of jazz during the 1970’s and 1980’s, has been both lucrative and controversial. Critics maintain that its profits and popularity have far exceeded its durability, aesthetic value, or contribution to the development of jazz. Defenders point out that, for all of fusion’s limitations, it helped overcome the uncommunicative and elitist image that jazz had projected in the 1960’s, thus gaining a much wider audience for jazz in the era of rock. Fusion is an eclectic rather than an innovative jazz style, and its coupling of repetitive rhythms with electronically amplified instruments led in time to the creation of a formulaic music characterized by a finely detailed yet passive musical fabric. Nevertheless, jazz fusion was responsible for some undeniably exciting music in its heyday during the 1970’s. Jazz-rock fusion[Jazz rock fusion] Music;jazz-rock fusion[jazz rock fusion] Bitches Brew (Davis)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berendt, Joachim E. The Jazz Book: From New Orleans to Jazz Rock and Beyond. Rev. ed. New York: Granada, 1983. Translated by Helmut and Barbara Bredigkeit with Dan Morgenstern. Fusion trends in the 1970’s—including the work of Miles Davis, Chick Corea, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report—are discussed in conjunction with other contemporary developments in jazz and rock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. 1982. Rev. ed. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1998. Highly recommended. Provides a detailed examination of Davis’s life and musical development. Sees Davis’s 1969-1974 work as unquestionably expanding jazz’s horizons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Bill. Miles Davis: A Musical Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1974. Cole’s negative view of Davis’s post-1968 work, including Bitches Brew, provides a good example of the lingering hostility to Davis’s jazz-rock, even among Davis scholars and aficionados. Cole finds Davis using technology for its own sake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. In his discussion of Bitches Brew, Davis recalls the president of Columbia Records urging him to reach out to the youth market.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Early, Gerald, ed. Miles Davis and American Culture. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001. A jazz history focused on Miles Davis and his contributions to the American musical genre. Includes an essay on Bitches Brew.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985. Chapters 19-20 contain excellent discussions of the workings of the Miles Davis bands of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and of the continuing importance of jazz-rock during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Also good material on Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001. A highly recommended biography of Miles Davis and his work, focusing on his later years and his move from conventional jazz to using electronic instruments during his music-making and in postproduction.

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