A Short Explanation of the Fusion Movement


I was weaned on early 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, that was the music that brought me to the tenor sax in the first place. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the doo-wop groups and of course any instrumentals that leaked through to the hit parade (Walkin’ With Mr. Lee; Topsy; Rebel Rouser; Tequila) made up my first musical interests, followed in my teenage years by the inredible experience of seeing the John Coltrane Quartet live many times in New York City, where I was brought up. So by the time I became a so-called jazz player and served my “apprenticeship” with drummer Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, rock, funk or whatever it was called, was a part of my life. I didn’t particularly want to play that music but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

When fusion became a style to be reckoned with by my generation(early 1970s), it appeared to be a way that we could leave our mark and take the music to a new place. At the beginning we didn’t think about commerciality or sales and the like. We just enjoyed playing rock based rhythms and rode that energy wave, interspersed with improvised lines which were actually quite chromatic in some cases pushing the boundaries of harmony. And of course, the advent of electric instruments and synthesizers, etc., just sweetened the pot. My first real steady gig was with “Ten Wheel Drive” which featured five horns, a great singer (Genya Ravan) and sophisticated arrangements that reflected Broadway and jazz as well as rock. And of course, Miles and his “students” (Mahavishnu, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea  and Wayne Shorter with Joe Zawinul ) forged new ways of thinking about music which was truly exciting.

Unfortunately, several things happened around the same time that thwarted the movement. First of all, the large record companies saw the chance to sell this more palatable music (as compared to late Coltrane or free jazz which were concurrently happening) and the industry, with the tacit or in some cases enthusiastic agreement of the musicians basically “poisoned the well.” Also, since the style itself was less intellectually demanding compared to be-bop or Coltrane’s style of playing, numbers of musicians who did not have the necessary discipline to play jazz or possibly the talent, could more easily learn the trappings of the fusion style. So the combination of trying to fit the music into a package that was attractive to the consumer along with a lowering of musical standards conspired to in fairly short order put an end to at least the main creative aspects of fusion. Soft or easy listening, “CD101” type music came along to suck up the trappings of fusion but with the energy and creative drive watered down and “slickified” of course. Putting rhythm and blues roots together with pentatonics and blues licks was irresistible, especially if encased in high class productions and so on.

End of story. Fusion exists now as a style with a few musicians exemplifying the best of the idiom, who will play that way till the day they die. The classic fusion period of the ‘70s will stand as a monument to musicians who were trying to break out of the box and extend jazz to other places.

Note: Even the word “fusion” is a misnomer, since all music is a fusion of at least a few if not more influences. I would prefer to call this period, the jazz-rock age, since the music borrowed certain precepts from each area. Of course, therein lies the danger: When you mix two strong elements together, there is the obvious necessity of having to sacrifice some of the principles of each in order to meld the two together. I am afraid that in the case of jazz-rock, something like this happened.