Category Archives: Discussion

Final Week of New Material

Yesterday’s discussion on Neo-Classicism and the Young Lions was extremely fruitful for me and everyone in attendance. In the coming days, I’ll be posting in this post’s comments reactions to the material from those who were absent (names redacted).

In the meantime, here is the final set of MP3s for the course that highlight how remix aesthetics and experimentalism have influenced jazz over the last 10-15 years. As I noted yesterday, there is no reading assignment; thus, I expect you to pay extra attention to the listening and have some concrete things to say about each example on the syllabus. Feel free to look up some information about the artists or tracks that most interest you. The reduced weekly assignment should allow you considerably more time to focus on your final papers.

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Fusion and Silence

This week we are discussing fusion (a.k.a jazz-rock fusion), a controversial genre from the 1970s that featured groups with names that hailed afro-Futurism, such as Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Head Hunters. This is a trend in jazz that, due to its embrace of technology and prog-rock and funk aesthetics, sounds more “dated” than “classic” to our early 21st century ears. It should come as no surprise that there are only a handful of studies on the topic.

For a recent blog post for a website associated with the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US), Karl Hagstrom Miller (UT-Austin) interviewed Keving Fellezs, the author of Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion about his inspirations for the project. If you are curious about how a scholar goes on to study one of the most abject trends in jazz, Fellezs tells us that as a performer of both rock and jazz, he was caught up in the debates about jazz history during the 1980s (something we will be covering next week). He also tells us why the music appealed to him:

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.

As you listen to the recordings for this week, I want you to think about what it means to appreciate or enjoy music that no one else even deems worthy of mention. Is this something that you have experienced? What does that tell us about the power of discourse on the musical styles that we enjoy.

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Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Heroes of Jazz

In class today, I raised the question as to why Miles Davis and John Coltrane enjoy an especially privileged position in the history of jazz and among jazz critics. Here are few possibilities that might feed into their status in jazz history.

  • They were both visibly involved with more than one experimental, modern jazz style.
  • They both had a relationship with the civil rights movement.
  • They were photogenic and / or charismatic.
  • They pushed their instruments into new creative territory on more than occasion.
  • They somehow embodied the heroic ideal in music.
  • They often took risks in their playing, including making mistakes or using techniques that exposed their playing in new ways.

Coltrane and Davis are far from the first jazz musicians to get this kind of treatment as creative figures in the jazz press, but they are the only ones that get such extensive treatment in our text (and in others). Why do you think this is? Were their heroic efforts worth celebrating beyond those of other similar artists? For example, Bill Evans gets very little space even though he inspired a new school of playing the piano that is still largely influential to this day.

Could it have to do with the privileged place Coltrane holds among jazz educators? We talked extensively in class today about the ways that John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” holds a certain position in jazz pedagogy. Do you think that Miles Davis gets the same kind of attention? I mentioned in class that many trumpet players can play all of Davis’s solos from Kind of Blue. There is a fundamental difference between these two styles of playing, and yet they are both common in training and disciplining of young players. What can we learn from this?

Personally, I think much of the attention that these two figures receive has to do with a few factors, including the timing of their contributions just before the frenzy of the “New Thing” and Jazz-Rock fusion and the romanticism jazz audiences enjoy ascribing to risk takers. But I don’t think that is all that there is to it, and I would like to extend this discussion because I think there is much more to explore here.

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