Birds of Fire: Talking Fusion with Kevin Fellezs.
By Karl Hagstrom Miller
In his new book Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion (Duke 2011), Kevin Fellezs achieves what some might consider an impossible task. He makes seventies-era fusion cool again. That uneasy amalgam of electric instruments, complex harmonies, odd time signatures and lightening licks in the music of groups like Weather Report, Lifetime, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra was controversial at the time of its creation. Some jazz fans found it too loud and too far afield from their beloved tradition. Rock and funk patrons, when they heard fusion at all, could feel alienated by the music’s refusal to conform to their expectations about standard pop songs. By the eighties, fusion had become a bad word and backwater. When it was not completely ignored or blamed for birthing smooth jazz, fusion was derided for being alternately commercial or self-indulgent, simplistic or self-consciously baroque.
Rather than attempting to reinsert fusion into the pop music genres that rejected it, Kevin finds that fusion’s lack of a generic home—its very liminality and in-betweenness—is instructive and revealing. Through close attention to the music of Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell, Birds of Fire charts the creation and development of this music that resided in what Kevin calls the “broken middle” of American popular music. Listening to it we can hear what it meant for people to improvise music—and everyday life—in the uneasy and shifting spaces in between genres, racialized identities, social categories, or marketing plans. I asked Kevin, via email, about the project.
[Mahavishnu Orchestra, live 1972 concert, part 1]
Why did you decide to write about the emergence of jazz-rock fusion during the late 1960s and early 1970s?
I had been thinking about fusion for some time. As someone who had been performing in both prog-metal rock and acoustic hard bop bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had been caught up in the debates surrounding Wynton Marsalis and the Young Lions of the so-called neocon movement in jazz. While I was performing straightahead jazz piano to help subsidize my education, I had continued listening to Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Eleventh House records. I had even tried forming fusion bands at various times but with little chance of gigging (jazz clubs didn’t want us and rock clubs wondered what had happened to our vocalist), the band members all inevitably moved on.
When did you first start listening to fusion?
A chance discovery riding home on the bus led me to fusion. I was about thirteen years old and found an LP on an empty bus seat. Growing up in a working class family, it was rare that I could afford an LP myself, so I didn’t really care what kind of music it might be – I liked the sound of the name, Return to Forever, and the title, Where Have I Known You Before, was intriguing. As the son of an old-school jazz fan who argued with his buddies about which JohnnyHodges or Charlie Parker solo was better or which recorded version of a given arrangement was superior, I had grown up loving acoustic jazz.
But at thirteen, I was feeling a bit the way Gary Burton described when he confessed that jazz could no longer contain all of his musical interests. I had gotten into rock by this time and was into hard rock, particularly heavy metal, and was a huge fan of European space/prog rock, as well. So I had this unarticulated desire to hear something that rocked out but was virtuosic and more advanced technically than, well, Motorhead or Metallica (dig both bands, btw). So when I put Where on the turntable once I got home, I had found my music. It was an incredible rush at the time and I spent the next few hours playing and replaying that record. I hadn’t heard Miles’s Bitches Brew or Mahavishnu or any of the other fusion bands so it was really a blast of fresh air for me.
What was it about the music that snagged you?
This was music that I found both virtuosic and visceral – a marriage of technique and expression that I found compelling and exhilarating. And I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to feel this way. Fusion wasn’t even being talked about in jazz circles and Stuart Nicholson’s Jazz-Rock book was more than a decade away. When I first started this project, it really felt like a personal crusade.
Unlike my buddies who were hip hop, punk, metal or experimental jazz collectors, when I went crate digging for fusion LPs, I got no cred for rescuing obscure fusion recordings. Fusion recordings were so ignored at the time (well, they still are in the jazz collecting world, for the most part) that I picked up things like Fourth Way’s The Sun and Moon Have Come Together or the Crusaders’ Southern Knights for a less than a buck apiece. You can still find copies today of Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame at your local Goodwill for a couple of bucks or less.
But unlike my punk friends, I couldn’t point to explicit progressive political stances as any justification for digging it. I mean, fusion was suspect from the get-go. There were plenty of arguments with my punk friends, in particular, about the connections between virtuosity and bourgeois, even reactionary, ideology that, they argued, tarnished any progressive value for a musical idiom as besotted with virtuosity as fusion. It’s probably one reason why I spend some time in the book thinking through the connections between virtuosity and the ways in which it was connected to, for example, spirituality by John McLaughlin or Chick Corea at the time. In fact, I hope to recuperate virtuosity as a potentially progressive aesthetic value.
Virtuosity has been part of the jazz conversation for a long time in a way that often severs the link with fusion. It still holds bop or Coltrane as the models.
At the risk of being overly reductive, I’ll describe the conversation in jazz circles at that time as being polarized along a mainstream/neocon and experimental/progressive continuum. But fusion faced across-the-board derision from swing fans, beboppers and experimental types alike. Anecdotally, whenever I mentioned this project to baby boomer jazz fans, many would sheepishly confess that fusion was their “gateway music” to “real jazz.” While acknowledging fusion’s legitimacy, many of them still felt somewhat embarrassed to admit to their fusion pasts and most denied listening to it anymore.
So my original motivation was simply to think about why fusion had come to be characterized the way it had by jazz musicians, writers and fans. And why didn’t rock musicians, writers or fans seem to care? I mean, for one thing, there is a sizeable overlap between jazz and rock listeners – particularly those who are into guitar music – who dig flashy displays of technical skills. Most of the fans of Allan Holdsworth, Joe Satriani, and/or Tony Macalpine also listen to McLaughlin, DiMeola and artists like Joe Pass or Pat Martino and, usually, artists like Michael Hedges or Paco de Lucia as well. I remember catching the occasional fusion band opening for metal acts during the ‘80s SF thrash metal scene. Or seeing McLaughlin’s ‘80s version of Mahavishnu at the Stone, a major SF rock venue at the time. There should be more study of that kind of overlapping taste formation. Maybe genre would be less useful a lens from that angle and we’d have to think about other ways for making pop musical sense.
[Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, “Chameleon”]
Yeah, it is interesting to note how a lot of that overlap involves fans who are also players. There is a celebration of technique that can transcend genre borders. At the same time you have an interesting take on the ways in which race continues to define—and sometimes trouble—genres historically.
As you point out in Segregating Sounds, genre formation has often served to racialize music and these young fusioneers’ at-the-time daring mixtures of jazz, rock and funk highlighted the racialist concerns behind the construction of genre broadly, not just the three genres I tangle with here. I think it’s important to recognize the ways in which genre categories act as surrogates for cultures, ethnicities and forms of collective and individual identity and that genre derives some of its discursive power by obscuring, for example, the ways in which a social category such as race affects the ways we recognize and evaluate artistic worth. As the continuing nervousness around fusion in jazz circles indicates, the failure of fusion to coalesce into a recognizable genre speaks to the ideological strength that those hidden social meanings assume as they become codified in genre formation. And, yes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the ways in which genre and commodification also liberated musicians and musical sound from parochial conditions of possibilities.
And that, implicitly at least, suggests a certain relationship between fusion and politics.
To go back to what the four musicians repeatedly said at the time, they disavowed the various identity politics of the day – age/generation, feminism, political and social formations around racial and ethnic identification, gay liberation, etc. – because despite often sharing the same laudable aims as those struggles, these musicians were more about blurring lines than affirming them. They seemed to suss out a lurking essentialism within many of those identitarian struggles and constantly pointed out that because genre was racialized in particular ways, when they performed their generic mergings, it highlighted the arbitrariness of not only the genre categories themselves, but the closed notions of identity and processes of identification that had become embedded in the generic formation of jazz, rock and funk, as well.
In terms of the aesthetic debates of the day, though, fusion musicians were pretty upfront about the way they saw things. They basically said, “Hey, you jazz musicians aren’t the hip cats anymore. No one buys your music, rock and pop fans think you’re all snobs and the classical folks still look down their noses at you despite all your efforts to claim common ground.”
And that challenged jazz musicians and critics in a number of ways. Suddenly, jazz folks had to defend their aspirations to climb the arts hierarchy. It was no longer a given “good” that jazz was finally being accepted as a legitimate art form. And that didn’t sit well with a lot of jazz writers or musicians, many of whom had spent their careers fighting the good fight by arguing for jazz’s rightful place within legitimate or high culture. IIRC, Martin Williams fought to have jazz studies recognized and taught for a time out of his apartment. I believe his efforts are the roots of the jazz studies program at Rutgers, which boasts an extensive jazz archive and library. So, his intentions were well and good. I mean, that’s love, right? Teaching out of your apartment – that’s serious love. And his work and the discursive world in which it circulated were working to see jazz accepted as a legitimate art form. And so they needed to emphasize that jazz had its own set of aesthetic criteria every bit as rigorous as the European concert tradition. But in doing so, they created this gap between jazz and other types of popular music and they kept the racial implications obscured. And black critics didn’t much countenance the loss of cultural legitimacy that fusion courted with its open embrace of pop music aesthetics.
You make a fascinating argument about the liminality of fusion as a genre during this period. It wasn’t jazz. It wasn’t rock. It floated somewhere in between, occupying what you call the “broken middle.” What do you mean by this term and how can it help us understand the music you discuss?
I found Isobel Armstrong’s notion of the broken middle extremely productive. (Shout out for her Radical Aesthetics.) Armstrong describes the broken middle as that moment prior to synthesis within the dialectic, a moment of instability in which anything can happen. The moment is especially fraught because the terms of the dialectic are being dissembled but haven’t yet coalesced into a new term. It helped me think through the “problem” of fusion, in particular in terms of it as a musical formation with no central aesthetic but whose practices brought jazz, rock and funk discourses together.
Fusion had somehow remained stuck in this precarious but potentially productive moment of becoming and I began to think of liminality as a verb, as a way to re-focus and re-prioritize attention toward its “logic of breakdown,” as Armstrong puts it, a cycle of “constant be-coming.” This always-generative-yet-never-coalescing moment aptly captured how fusion’s genre mixtures were these active, intercultural hybridizing processes. Fusion threatened the growing stability of the terms jazz, rock and funk.
But the most arguable yet personally important of my assertions that came about through my contemplation of the broken middle is that the anxieties around generic purity could be seen as a proxy war for the identity politics that begin during the ‘70s and that are still with us in many ways. So, I began to see fusion as an example of the kinds of attachments people who see themselves as hybrid in some way – hapa, mixed race, multicultural, what have you – often find themselves in. All those contingent, provisional loyalties “people of colors” (emphasis on the plural, colors, to denote the racial, ethnic and/or cultural plurality of persons with mixed races, rather than simply “mixed race,” heritage[s]) have to a number of different ideological and cultural formations that don’t necessarily line up neatly with conventional ideas of ethnic or cultural alignments.
In other words, I’m arguing that fusion’s trans- and intra-generic mixtures are an instantiation – a sounding out – of the sense of both belonging and not-belonging by individuals who self-identify as “multi-racial/ethnic” to the very groups with which they “should” be aligned. It is also a means to think through the desires of individuals to actively participate in cultures to which they have no racial or ethnic ties – the kinds of “legitimate” connections that can easily be used to justify exclusion. So what are these non-belongers’ obligations, responsibilities, entitlements? Williams et al. knew that part of the discomfort with their music was that it challenged the conventional links between sounds and bodies that were part of the construction of genres. And the concept of the broken middle allowed me to think about what it means to remain permanently vacillating between belonging and non-belonging to genres, to remain in a state of constant becoming that can seem somewhat dodgy or disingenuous, even duplicitous, to those whose alignments adhere more closely to sanctioned boundaries and groupings. What does the denial of settling into a collective identity mean? What are one’s rights or responsibilities then?
Thanks, Kevin. Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Sure – tons! However, I’ve probably answered more than enough here. For instance, I’d love to talk about fusion aesthetics and how I see it as a corollary to sampling. We can start with the way Miles or perhaps more correctly, Teo Macero, produced Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Or how fusion or fusion-ing has become a central aesthetic in pop music that you see everywhere: in sampling, in the mashup, in the rise of karaoke, the proliferation of cover bands. Anyway, I think I may have spoken more than you wanted/needed, so we can leave some of these concerns to another day. I want to thank you for the chance to talk about fusion music. It’s been great to be able to talk about this stuff informally and I hope we can do so again.
Me too. Thanks.
[Shakti, “Joy,” part 1]
[Shakti, “Joy,” part 2]
Kevin Fellezs is a assistant professor of music at Columbia University.
Karl Hagstrom Miller is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.