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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, the KNKX and Jazz24 music teams illustrate the different styles that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to present, journey with us from Dixieland to modern jazz styles, big-band to hip-hop.

The beginning of fusion: Miles Davis drew on soul, funk and rock

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Chris Hakkens
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CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons
In 1980, Bobby Thomas Jr. on drums and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who played in Miles Davis' band, perform with Weather Report in Amsterdam. The "supergroup” defined the state of jazz rock for its 16-year run.

In 1969, Miles Davis pioneered the sound of jazz fusion, creating a ripple effect as members of his band went on to form their own iconic side groups. Steve Edwards captures the moment that defined the sound, instruments and key figures of jazz fusion.

Listen to the story above or read the script below:

Jazz fusion is a genre that developed in the late 1960s when jazz harmony and improvisation was combined with funk, rock and R&B, featuring the electric guitars, amps and keyboards that were in popular music.

As in other eras of jazz - Miles Davis pioneered.

In 1969, Miles put out two albums that marked the beginning of fusion, "In a Silent Way" and more importantly "Bitches Brew," on which, perhaps its most important innovation was rhythmic - with two bassists, two-to-three electric piano players, two drummers plus percussion who all drew on soul, rock and the electric guitar influence of Jimmy Hendrix.

Although "Bitches Brew" gave him a gold record, the electric instruments and rock beats, created consternation among jazz critics. In the first year, "Bitches Brew" sold 400,000 copies—four times the average for a Miles album.

From that pivotal album – the sidemen went on to form their own iconic fusion groups.

In 1969, drummer Tony Williams formed his power trio, Lifetime, with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young.

Their debut double album, released the year of Woodstock, called "Emergency," featured heavy rock influences. Today, it’s regarded as a fusion classic.

In 1971, guitarist John McLaughlin moved on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renowned for their dynamic live performances, Mahavishnu delivered technically virtuosic and complex music that fused electric jazz and rock with East Indian influences.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra featured McLaughlin’s playing, distinguished by fast solos and non-western musical scales, and included other key figures with keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jean Luc Ponty among other players of the day.

Keyboardist Chick Corea formed Return to Forever in 1972 with bassist Stanley Clarke.

Relying on strong themes with a more direct, rock-oriented approach with over-driven guitar, band members included vocalist Flora Purim, percussionist Airto Moreira and guitarist Al Di Meola.

Return to Forever’s final and bestselling album, "Romantic Warrior" was hailed by critics for the technically demanding style of its compositions and for the accomplished musicianship.

Two more former members of Miles Davis’ band, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, went on to form Weather Report in 1970. This "supergroup” defined the state of jazz-rock for its 16-year run.

When the innovative bassist Jaco Pastorius replaced Alphonso Johnson in 1976, Weather Report entered its most popular phase, with Pastorius becoming a flamboyant third lead voice.

Their best-selling album, "Heavy Weather," served up the hit "Birdland."

Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had pushed boundaries on his own albums, and within Miles Davis' bands, including his work on "In A Silent Way." With his group Headhunters, he devoted himself to the groove.

Drawing heavily from Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown, Hancock developed deep funky, even gritty, rhythms, bringing the synthesizer into the vanguard of jazz fusion.

Jazz purists denounced the experiments at the time, but "Headhunters" still sounds fresh and vital decades after its release, and proved vastly influential on not only jazz, but also in funk, soul, and hip-hop. The song “Chameleon” features Paul Jackson’s indelible bassline.

These iconic musicians and seminal albums in the world of jazz fusion paved the way for a whole new generation of contemporary bands that have emerged on the scene since, including The Pat Metheny Group, Yellowjackets, Steps Ahead, and beyond.

KNKX Celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month

Throughout the month of April, we will be illustrating different styles of jazz through time that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to 2022, we will journey from Dixieland to Modern Jazz styles, Big Band to Hip Hop.

Listen to installments weekdays at 9am and 7pm on 88.5 FM and KNKX.org. See all stories from the KNKX History of Jazz project.

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