Jazz fusion (also known as fusion) is a music genre that developed in the late 1960s when musicians combined jazz harmony and improvisation with rock music, funk, and rhythm and blues. Electric guitars, amplifiers, and keyboards that were popular in rock and roll started to be used by jazz musicians, particularly those who had grown up listening to rock and roll.
Jazz fusion arrangements vary in complexity. Some employ groove-based vamps fixed to a single key or a single chord with a simple, repeated melody. Others use elaborate chord progressions, unconventional time signatures, or melodies with counter-melodies. These arrangements, whether simple or complex, typically include improvised sections that can vary in length, much like in other forms of jazz.
As with jazz, jazz fusion employs brass and woodwind instruments such as trumpet and saxophone, but other instruments often substitute for these. A jazz fusion band is less likely to use piano and double bass, and more likely to use electric guitar, synthesizers and bass guitar.
The term “jazz rock” is sometimes used as a synonym for “jazz fusion” and for music performed by late 1960s and 1970s-era rock bands that added jazz elements to their music. After a decade of popularity during the 1970s, fusion expanded its improvisatory and experimental approaches through the 1980s in parallel with the development of a radio-friendly style called smooth jazz. Experimentation continued in the 1990s and 2000s. Fusion albums, even those that are made by the same group or artist, may include a variety of musical styles. Rather than being a codified musical style, fusion can be viewed as a musical tradition or approach.
Coryell and two worlds
When John Coltrane died in 1967, rock was the most popular music in America, and DownBeat magazine went so far to declare in a headline that: “Jazz as We Know It Is Dead”.
Guitarist Larry Coryell, sometimes called the godfather of fusion, referred to a generation of musicians who had grown up on rock and roll when he said, “We loved Miles but we also loved the Rolling Stones.” In 1966 he started the band the Free Spirits with Bob Moses on drums and recorded the band’s first album, Out of Sight and Sound, in 1967. That same year DownBeat began to report on rock music. After the Free Spirits, Coryell was part of a quartet led by vibraphonist Gary Burton, releasing the album Duster with its rock guitar influence. Burton produced the album Tomorrow Never Knows for Count’s Rock Band, which included Coryell, Mike Nock, and Steve Marcus, all of them former students at Berklee College in Boston.
The pioneers of fusion emphasized exploration, energy, electricity, intensity, virtuosity, and volume. Charles Lloyd played a combination of rock and jazz at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 with a quartet that included Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. Lloyd adopted the trappings of the California psychedelic rock scene by playing at the rock venue the Fillmore, wearing colorful clothes, and giving his albums titles like Dream Weaver and Forest Flower, which were bestselling jazz albums in 1967. Flautist Jeremy Steig experimented with jazz in his band Jeremy & the Satyrs with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri. The jazz label Verve released the first album (Freak Out) by rock guitarist Frank Zappa in 1966. Rahsaan Roland Kirk performed with Jimi Hendrix at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London.
AllMusic states that “until around 1967, the worlds of jazz and rock were nearly completely separate”
Miles Davis plugs in
As members of Miles Davis’s band, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock played electric piano on Filles de Kilimanjaro. Davis wrote in his autobiography that in 1968 he had been listening to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone. When Davis recorded Bitches Brew in 1969, he mostly abandoned the swing beat in favor of a rock and roll backbeat and bass guitar grooves. The album “mixed free jazz blowing by a large ensemble with electronic keyboards and guitar, plus a dense mix of percussion. Davis played his trumpet like an electric guitar—plugged in to electronic effects and pedals.
By the end of the first year, Bitches Brew sold 400,000 copies, four times the average for a Miles Davis album. Over the next two years the aloof Davis recorded more often, worked with many sideman, appeared on television, and performed at rock venues. Just as quickly, Davis tested the loyalty of rock fans by continuing to experiment. His producer, Teo Macero, inserted previously recorded material into the Jack Johnson soundtrack, Live-Evil, and On the Corner.
Although Bitches Brew gave him a gold record, the use of electric instruments and rock beats created consternation among some jazz critics, who accused Davis of betraying the essence of jazz. Music critic Kevin Fellezs commented that some members of the jazz community regarded rock music as less sophisticated and more commercial than jazz.
Davis’s 1969 album In a Silent Way is considered his first fusion album. Composed of two side-long improvised suites edited heavily by Teo Macero, the album was made by pioneers of jazz fusion: Corea, Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971) has been cited as “the purest electric jazz record ever made” and “one of the most remarkable jazz rock discs of the era”.
According to music journalist Zaid Mudhaffer, the term “jazz fusion” was coined in a review of Song of Innocence by David Axelrod when it was released in 1968. Axelrod said Davis had played the album before conceiving Bitches Brew. See for more.